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Editor’s note: On Sept. 19, Texas Lawyer assembled a panel to talk to a group of law students on topics including what distinguishes a good lawyer from a great lawyer, balancing work and family, and the importance of mentor-mentee relationships, among other things. The panelists — selected by the newspaper’s editorial department — were six lawyers included in Texas Lawyer ‘s “40 Under 40″ article, which profiled 40 up-and-coming Texas attorneys. The discussion, held at the University of Houston Law Center, was conducted by Texas Lawyer Editor in Chief Colleen B. McGushin. It appears below and has been edited for length and style. Colleen Bridget McGushin, editor in chief, Texas Lawyer: … I’d like each of you to tell us a little bit about yourselves, how you got into your specific practice areas, and how much did luck play into where you are today? Matt Yarbrough, Fish & Richardson, Dallas: … I head up the cyberlaw group of Fish & Richardson out of Dallas, and I think luck plays a large bit of what I do today, but some does go back to personal interest. Before going to law school, I thought I was going to be a history professor, and thought I was just going to go on and get a Ph.D. in history, but then decided to go off to law school. And in getting into law school, I just sort of started taking an interest in technology and started taking more and more classes that had to do with technology law or intellectual property. And then after leaving SMU law school, I went on to go to a law firm in Dallas known as McKool Smith. I was their commercial litigator specializing in sort of technology litigation, and then went on to the U.S. attorney’s office where, on the first day on the job, they said they had a new position known as cybercrimes prosecutor. Nobody really knew what that was back in 1995. I said, “Heck, I’ll do it.” And next thing I know, that’s really what sort of launched … my focus in the area of law that I really like to participate and really work on every day, and that’s … cybercrimes, intellectual property and laws that deal with the Internet or networks. I did that for about five years for the Department of Justice. I left DOJ and, again, like I said, I’m now at Fish & Richardson really specializing a lot in the area of cyberlaw and intellectual property litigation. Bob Talaska, Talaska Law Firm, Houston: When I went to law school, I started here at the University of Houston. I did not know what area I wanted to go in, and I didn’t know much about civil litigation versus criminal litigation. I was learning as I went along. I developed an interest in medical malpractice cases, taking some courses here and learning more about it, and [they] always seemed to interest me. I was very lucky and fortunate to get to clerk with a law firm, beginning in my second year of law school, that did only medical malpractice cases and did only birth injury, which is what I’m fortunate enough to continue to do. It was that interest in coming to a big city, whether it be Houston or Dallas, with the idea of going to law school and then hooking up with a law firm that needed a clerking position, hoping that would lead to a full-time attorney position, and that’s how it worked out. And I stayed with that firm, including clerking and as an attorney and then owner/partner of the firm for a number of years. I was a little different than a number of students here at U of H, for good or bad. I went right to law school after undergraduate. I graduated in 1984, so I’ve been practicing a long time as an under 40-year-old lawyer. Beth S. Sufian, Sufian & Passamano, Houston: … While preparing to go law school, my goal was to go into a field where I could help others. And once I got to University of Texas, I think I got caught up or brainwashed or something into believing that the only successful career was working at a large firm, and so I set my sights on that. I graduated. I went to work for a large firm for two years and was very fortunate in that I had a very good mentor at the firm, a woman, and she really taught me a lot of good litigation skills. When she left the firm, she went to work at a plaintiffs firm. I went with her. It was a plaintiffs firm that did a lot of tort litigation. And then one day I got a call from my doctor; he said that there was a child with cystic fibrosis who had a hearing for Social Security benefits coming up in Corpus Christi and that the parent could not find a lawyer to represent the child. So I agreed to represent the child, even though I had no idea what that entailed. So, I sort of brushed up on Social Security law and represented the child. And in that, I found that there were very few people representing children or adults with disabilities, not only in Houston but also across the country. So I decided to start my own firm focusing on representing people with disabilities. I’ve been doing that for about seven years. I guess that’s how I got into doing it. I myself have cystic fibrosis, which is a genetic respiratory disease. I’m very fortunate in that the life expectancy for people with cystic fibrosis is about 32 years old. So, I’m 36 and doing very well, knock on wood, but I do have a large percentage of my practice that is spent representing people with cystic fibrosis across the country in matters dealing with Social Security appeals and largely focusing on health insurance appeals and Medicaid appeals. Our firm is one of a handful of firms in the United States that represents children and adults with disabilities who have been denied coverage for medical treatment by Medicaid agencies. Right now, we have suits against four state Medicaid agencies for failing to provide lifesaving medical treatment to children with disabilities. Jim Marcus, Texas Defender Service, Austin: … We’re a private, nonprofit charity organization that represents people on death row. And when I went to law school, it’s certainly not what I had in mind. In fact, I don’t really recall thinking too much about the death penalty before I went to law school. After the summer of my first year, I decided that I was going to be an environmental lawyer. I was going to save trees, but I then got a look at all those huge statutes that you have to read and decided that wasn’t for me. So, I was lucky, I guess, also like some other folks have said. A professor here asked me to do some work with him over the summer on a death penalty case, and it was during that summer that I got exposed to our criminal justice system and how the death penalty is applied here in Texas. And at that point, I knew that that’s what I wanted to spend my life or my career, which is about the same, doing. From that point forward, while I was in law school, I volunteered at the Texas Resource Center, which was the agency doing death penalty work, and I went to work for them as soon as I got out of law school. And I think the only reason that I’m at the executive director spot at this point before I’m 40 is because it’s a profession with a pretty high burnout rate, and a lot of people don’t last too long, so I’m executive director by attrition, I think. … Jarvis V. Hollingsworth, Bracewell & Patterson, Houston: I’m in a trial group there. Much like many folks up here are coming to law school, I wasn’t absolutely sure what I wanted my practice to be. Leaving a career as a military officer for a number of years and deciding to come back, I had a number of opportunities to deal with judge advocate court lawyers while I was active duty, and that’s how I really got the idea to go to law school. Probably 70 percent of my practice is a commercial practice. The other 30 percent is IP litigation. It’s kind of been a path getting here. I started out actually as a tort defense lawyer at a large firm where I got quite a bit of experience handling small matters, small insured third-party cases, and migrated into a commercial practice after I’d been practicing for about five years, and since then have been focusing more on the IP side. … Sofia Adrogu�, Diamond McCarthy Taylor & Finley, Houston: … I clerked for a federal judge after law school and did as many clerkships as I could. If there were 15 weeks of the summer, I did 15, and I really tried to get as broad spectrum as possible. … Funny enough, I ended up going to Susman Godfrey, a place where I had only worked two weeks … and really I decided that litigation was my passion. I have stuck with litigation. I’ve made a couple of changes since Susman Godfrey. I was recruited by a firm that was going to really focus on commercial litigation and recruiting top candidates that happened to be minorities, a concept that I thought was fabulous. The commercial litigation section though, within a year, was no longer there. So … about a year ago I started with a spin-off from Hughes & Luce, and it’s been great. I do plaintiffs and defense commercial litigation. … [S]omewhat fortuitously … one day I got a call a couple years ago. … My father’s a doctor and a colleague of his … called and said, “I have a disruptive [conduct] proceeding coming … and I’d like for you to help me. I don’t think my lawyer’s been aggressive enough.” I said, “When’s your hearing?” He said, “Well, in nine days.” … The bottom line, I ended up thinking it was a fabulous opportunity to get into something that I didn’t have a clue about, but I knew I could be aggressive, and I knew I could work the procedural rules and ended up getting a really great result for this person. He was going to be kicked out of three hospitals, and he was able to stay in all three. … [T]he bottom line is that I started a niche. And now I probably spend 25 percent of my practice representing doctors in peer review proceedings. They tend to be pretty anxiety-provoking clients, but very smart, and the work is really pretty interesting. McGushin: Beth, you touched on mentors a little bit. I’d like to open it up to all of you. Who have your mentors been? How did you find them, and how have they affected your law practices? Talaska: In terms of mentors, when you go to work, whether it’s clerking for a firm or [when you] take your first associate position, you really do have to throw yourself into it. And now that I’ve hired lawyers and worked with lawyers through the years, one thing that you have to do is work very closely with them, get an understanding of them, because ultimately law is a people business in a lot of ways. There’s a lot of interpersonal relationships that are important, and you have to understand what is being asked of you and what their expectations are. I was very, very fortunate. In my career, there was a woman, Jacquelyn Gregan, who was the attorney who hired me who ultimately I became partners with. And but for her in my career, I don’t know where I would be today. Hopefully, she benefited from my hard work and what I brought to the table as much as I benefited from her. So I think in terms of mentors, mine was in the work situation. Probably other people have law professors or family members. But to engage with the person that you’re working with and really get an understanding and doing as much as you can in understanding that person can be very important. Yarbrough: For me, one of my mentors … is Tom Melsheimer. He’s a litigator at my firm. He just came out of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, an office that I worked in a couple years ago. I always remember he said to me, “Don’t ever let people tell you you’re too young to try something.” We hear that a bunch as lawyers. One of the other pieces of advice I got from a good mentor is my father, who was a lawyer, who always said, “Always be smart enough to know what you don’t know.” So, taking those two principles together, what I always did was get in there and try new things and learn new stuff. At the same time, pick a mentor in that area that can really give you good help, who wants to be a mentor, who wants to really be there for you when necessary. … Find someone who’s willing to sit down with you and talk strategy and talk about how to maybe do things and the way to present whatever that issue. Whether you’re general counsel, outside counsel, a litigator, a transaction lawyer, find those people. … I think I’m just absolutely lucky — getting back to luck — that I’ve had the mentors I’ve had. … I really give credit to them for the help they’ve given me. Adrogu�: I would say it’s funny. Those are some really good and kind of touchy-feely stories. For me, it’s interesting. I think some of my mentors weren’t people necessarily that I felt real comfortable from day one going for advice only because of just where they were in their profession. For me, starting out was Steve Susman, and then I had a chance to get to know Ruby Sondock at Weil, Gotshal [& Manges]. And those really weren’t these touchy-feely, lovey-dovey relationships, I don’t think, at the outset. But at least for me, it was just I watched them. I admired what they were doing, and I got a sense of what they were about. … I happen to seek out women that really had had a tremendous experience in their lives: … Alice Oliver-Parrot … and Vanessa Gilmore. … I did not know who they were, they had no clue who I was, but I heard them speak one day, and I was really impressed. And I thought it’s not going to hurt to go up and introduce. It’s been a fabulous story. Alice Oliver-Parrot, when I ended up running for office, she ended up being the chief of all of my finance. And this is someone who, but for me going up there kind of like a geek five years before, I’m not sure I would have ever met. And then I would say in terms of advice issues, most of those mentors have always told me, “Don’t forget to shake it up.” … Sufian: … What I would just say is don’t force somebody to be your mentor and also that not everybody is a good mentor. … I think there’s certain people that are really good at being mentors and others maybe are not as good. So, certainly try to find somebody who is interested in being your mentor. McGushin: Could you tell us what’s the single most interesting piece of legal work you have done to date, and what in law school prepared you for that experience? … Marcus: I feel pretty fortunate because I feel like just about every case that I have is pretty fascinating. The most recent case I had was a gentleman named William Kutzner who’s on death row. He’s got two separate death sentences for two separate crimes that are pretty close together, both geographically and in time, and he was facing execution this summer. He had already been through his appeals process, and with a lot of help from students and maybe some people here, we were able to get a stay of execution for him under the new DNA legislation. I’m about to brief the first case under our new DNA legislation to the court. … [W]hat our office does, by the way, is we do post-conviction work. We’re not doing trials. We’re doing sort of what comes after, so we get to go back and dissect what happens and see how these cases are being tried and see what’s going on. And, you know, there’s a tremendous number of problems with the system, prosecutory misconduct and ineffective lawyering and so forth. So, for me, it’s always fascinating to go back and take apart the case and try and see what really happened. … I think that what prepared me for the work that I do was my clerkships, was working with other lawyers doing death penalty work and doing clinical experiences. I think some of the courses I took in law school were pretty helpful. Obviously, I took a death penalty course and I learned a lot there. … So, I think that if you have an idea of where you’re going when you get out, sort of focusing in is not a bad thing, and I wouldn’t worry too much about taking bar classes and that sort of stuff. Adrogu�: For me, my most interesting piece of work was also the first work I ever got that was completely my own that brought in a good amount of money for a firm that was representing the CEO and CFO and eight members of management that were being sued by the founder of the company. And I remember that very well because I had to do a beauty contest. … [M]y first child was five days old, and I had gotten a phone call from my husband. He’s an investment banker and says he’s a recovering lawyer. … And he said, “Look, one of the MDs said that there’s one of our clients that needs some help. … [D]o you want to try to see if you can get the business?” … Bottom line, I ended up going, and I got the business. … And two years later when I ran and a group of people had an event for me, the person that was the CEO got up and said, “Look, when I first saw this woman, I thought this woman is the age of my granddaughter, and I’m thinking about hiring her?” … They said, “Look, the fact that five days after birth she was willing to give that much tenacity and interest, it may be worth giving her a shot.” … [I]t taught me a lot of lessons about going out there because you never know where the work’s going to come. Talaska: In terms of clients, I would say what Jim says. In representing families of children that have permanent injuries, each and every one has unbelievable challenges that they have every day. … I tell clients, “Obviously, I’m not going to be able to cure your child’s problem, but if we can be successful with a medical-malpractice case, hopefully you’ll get a substantial amount of money that will make a difference in your life.” … I know there’s a lot of other lawyers, but when you take on these complex cases that very good lawyers would see and turn down, and then you get it because you know about something, and you can find the hidden gem in the case, and you’re able to help these families, it’s unbelievably rewarding. And a lot of people have asked me, “Bob, isn’t that depressing dealing with families with children with these things?” And that’s just a reality of life, I tell them. But the ability to help them and, with that, be considered a friend, almost part of the family through the course of litigation, is absolutely rewarding. And it’s just a kick every time I’m able to help someone. … I think it’s harder when you’re representing IBM or some big company or maybe even management teams, but when you’re helping individuals and you are the light at the end of the tunnel for them, it’s extremely rewarding. I encourage you all to think about something like that as you go into your careers. Yarbrough: I kind of think the experience from law school that helped me in important cases was the fact that there was mock trial. Being in the mock trial program in SMU law school was great for me because — especially once you get out of law school — it’s very difficult to get real experience, especially if you’re a commercial litigator. … And so you’ve got to really force yourself to get out there. It kind of went back to stories. I took a pro bono case, and it made me realize that’s really important and how fulfilling it was to me that I got to meet an individual with a problem. And it also taught me how does the process work and the fact that you could really get up there in front of the judge and do it yourself. … [E]ven today in some trial, in the back of my mind, some evidentiary rule will shoot from the back of my head forward because I remembered it from a mock trial at SMU law school, and I’ll be able to spit out that rule of federal evidence. … [Y]ou just never know what it is you’re going to do in law school that’s really going to be a tremendous value down the road. Even that class you really didn’t like or you didn’t do that well in, some day that may be the area of practice you may really be in, even though you didn’t want to. I mean, I think out of all my grades, one of my worst grades was criminal law; that’s why I didn’t do anything in criminal law. You just never know. … [D]o what’s fun and interesting to you and expand your horizons because it will come back to really help you in the long run. Sufian: I would say something similar which is make sure you’re doing something that you like. This next month, I guess I will have been practicing for about 11 years, and there’s so many people that I went to law school with who tell me they just hate going to work, and they hate the law. And on the other hand, I love going to work. I wake up. I can’t wait to go to work because I like what I’m doing. So I think no matter what you do … find something that you like to do, and don’t worry about what others think. … McGushin: How do you all balance your personal lives with your professional careers? Adrogu�: Not easily. It’s a hard question. I don’t think there’s a real easy answer. … I have two kids, a 5-and-a-half-year-old and a 17-month-old. And in addition to my practice, the geek in me still compels me to write a tremendous amount because I wonder … if at some point I’ll try to teach. I also very much like to do nonprofit work. I’m on several boards. … You end up maybe getting up extra early on the weekends. And you have to have a passion for what you’re doing because, if not, it’s a lot of time and energy. And then if you’re fortunate and are interested in having a family, and if you accomplish that, then you live pretty tired. But I think you feel pretty blessed. Talaska: To balance it is extremely difficult, is the short answer. My joke is I’m chronically sleep-deprived because there’s only so many hours in the day. I have two little boys that I’d love to spend [more] time with, as well as my wife; we have to balance that with work. And you need to keep your home life in order because if the home life’s not in order, then the career becomes somewhat selfish if that’s all you’re going to do. … But it is a matter of being organized and working hard every day and knowing you’re doing the right thing, and hopefully your family or your spouse is going to support you in those endeavors. But, again, I think you need to really keep the family life at a very high priority because if that’s not right, I think the rest becomes somewhat meaningless. Yarbrough: Lately, I’ve been reading David McCullough’s book on John Adams. I don’t know if any of you all have read that book. It’s a phenomenal book. It made me really proud to be a lawyer, reading about John Adams and reading about all the stuff he did as a lawyer before the revolution and eventually becoming one of the presidents of the United States. And I’m very proud to be a lawyer and part of the profession, but one thing I often tell some people is that being a lawyer is my profession, it’s not my personality; therefore, I do not necessarily want to be a lawyer and debate my friends at night at dinner. And one thing that I think is having multiple friends around, people of different interests, and having things that you’re excited about, people that give to you other outlets. And that for me is, first and foremost, my wife and my daughter and then my friends, some of whom are lawyers and good people. But I think balancing in and of itself is work, as some of the people mentioned here. It takes a lot of work to balance it out, and you’ve got to have priorities and know what’s most important to your life and know to put those priorities first. … And I think this is a problem we see: Lots of lawyers have lawyer burnout. They have to work all the time, and we do have friends that are miserable who are lawyers, who aren’t doing what they really love to do and aren’t interested. … I’m sure every panelist member up here can give you 10 people right now that they know who have not seen balance in their lives as lawyers and have had some personal tragedies as a result of that. Talaska: If I could add one thing, in terms of law careers and things like that, if you’re going into law just to chase the almighty dollar, you’re going to get burned out. It’s going to get things out of balance. … It’s a job. It’s employment. Obviously, you’re doing it to make money. But if [your goal] is solely to make the most amount of money you can, to get a big bank account, I think that’s going to lead to problems. Marcus: One of my colleagues in our office always says, “It will always be there tomorrow morning.” … You’re not going to survive being a lawyer if you don’t set boundaries and take some time for yourself. And I think it’s taken me a while to do that. And I used to feel like, you know, is it OK for me to leave the office after only 10 or 12 hours in a day? Should I be working longer? You have to set some boundaries and do things that are for yourself or, you know, whatever it is that recharges you. And take good care of yourself physically, too, because it can be a very physically demanding existence. … It really can take a toll on you. And I think that in some ways it’s easier to sort of give in to that and to say, “OK. I’m going to work until 2 or 3 in the morning, and I’ll be ready to go,” but at some point, you’ve got to go. And you’ve got to exercise and sleep and do all those things. I’m actually the wrong person to answer that question. Sufian: I hope I didn’t give the impression that every lawyer I know is not happy practicing law. … I just meant that certainly find something you like doing. But I do think for women, there is this tendency to think that you have to be superwomen and that you have to do everything. You have to have the child and the work and the outside activities. And sometimes I think women might have an extra burden because a lot of times they are responsible for — more responsible for — child care. So, I guess it’s important to keep in mind that you don’t have to be superhuman, superwoman even. And I guess the way that I’ve dealt with that is I’ve realized a few years ago that I should only say “yes” to things that I really want to do, and that, I think, has really helped out. Now, I’m about to adopt a baby, so I’m not exactly sure how that is going to affect everything. And my friends who are lawyers tell me my whole world is going to be turned upside down, but I’m going to try to stick to my saying “no” to things that I really, really don’t want to do. I’ve found that that sort of has freed up a lot of time for me. Hollingsworth: I think it’s critical, I guess, first of all, as you’ve heard, to balance. I mean, you know, we’ve all talked about so many people who do not. I guess I’ll start with a caveat that my wife is actually here today … but you can go up to her and ask her how well I balance. But I think it’s absolutely critical. I’m someone who has been very involved, not only in my practice but in the bar, as well as nonprofits and in the community. I’ve learned to say “no.” My first couple of years out, I didn’t do a very good job of that, and I ended up serving on a number of boards … that were just taking up way too much of my time. My wife and I have three young children under 10, and I’m very happy with them, and that’s a priority that I’ve set for my life. Now, how do you balance a practice and that? It’s really something that you’ll have to look at in your individual practice. … So, when you have opportunities where the workload lessens or you have more time to do things, leave the office, go home, spend time with your family. Do the things, whatever they may be, that charge you so that you can come back the next morning for the job that you really enjoy and do a good job at it. Try to work as efficiently as possible. If you work for a law firm, there’s going to be pressure to bill hours. You can’t feel like every time you are away from the firm that you should be at the firm billing. If you’re feeling that way, then you’re on your way not to balancing very well. … McGushin: In all of your opinions, what distinguishes a good lawyer from a great lawyer? Talaska: Not having balance. … [And] what I’ve learned, putting it simply, is the people who are really great lawyers know the subject matter backward and forward. … Adrogu�: I think a great lawyer is relentless, but I think a lot [of success] is because of real passion. But I think intellect helps a certain amount, and charisma. … Marcus: … Thoroughness, I think, is the No. 1 thing. … [T]he great lawyers are … client-centered. The client is at the center of their representation. It’s … not going into the courtroom or to the appeals court and proving that you’re the better lawyer or so forth. It’s representing that person. … Audience Member: … Were all of you straight-A students when you were law students? … Talaska: No. … [B]ut you need to get the backbone and the building blocks from law school. … But looking at the, quote, unquote, successful lawyers that I went to law school with, it is not just the straight-A lawyers who do well. I think it’s people who have common sense and an ability to take on … things. But it’s not only law review people who succeed in the real world of law. Sufian: And just remember when you’re in court or you’re meeting with a client, no one is going to ask for your transcripts, so no one is going to have any idea what your grades were, where you went to school. It’s just going to be based on if you’re prepared for that case. Yarbrough: … [W]hat makes the difference between a good lawyer and a great lawyer is, I think, common sense problem-solving. And I think when you do go to law school, you will see that some people who are No. 1 from the No. 1 law school in the country may be wonderful briefers but may not be able to actually solve a problem, interact with the client. … Adrogu�: … I actually did happen to be a serious geek. … But I would parrot everything they say. I think it’s a combination of talents. And some people got it first through books and others got it first through advocacy or a clinic. Again, go back to whatever’s your passion. If you can do it through books, that’s one vehicle, but there’s various conduits available to you.

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