In some ways, Joni Coffey’s career has come full circle. After she graduated from law school, she was hired as one of three female law clerks working for Judge Peter Fay of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the then-Fifth Circuit.
Now — as the Broward County attorney enters retirement effective Saturday — she is one of three women leading the county’s legal departments in South Florida.
Just like Miami-Dade County Attorney Abigail Price-Williams and Denise Nieman, the top lawyer for Palm Beach County, Coffey in her position oversaw all of the legal affairs of a public agency with billions of dollars in revenue and thousands of employees — from hospitals and public transit to zoning, land use, affordable housing and even drinking water.
“It’s sunrises and all-nighters and all the things that come with private practice,” Coffey said.
Yet the women agree their careers in public service have been dynamic, challenging and, most importantly, rewarding.
“I am thrilled,” Coffey said of her decision more than 25 years ago to pursue government work. “I cannot imagine a more satisfying career.”
Coffey, Nieman, who herself is enrolled in the Deferred Retirement Option Program and scheduled to retire in late 2021, and Price-Williams spoke with the Daily Business Review about their experiences as female legal leaders and offered some tips they’ve picked up along the way.
Don’t Be Afraid to Take Risks
When Nieman accepted a job as a Palm Beach County staff attorney right out of law school in 1986, she didn’t aspire to be the county’s top lawyer. But 10 years later when the opportunity presented itself — in the form of the County Commission asking her to put together a business plan — she jumped.
“You have to be open to change and learning,” she said.
To Coffey, taking calculated risks is one of the keys to success in this profession, particularly for women.
“You should be able to say, ‘Sure, I’ll take on that difficult task, I’ll negotiate that contract,’ ” she said. “ You’re not going to get a reward without risk. You’re not going to get rewarded without winning that case that couldn’t be won.”
In This Field, No Woman is an Island
Coffey said women should go to great lengths to cultivate relationships and resources that support their professional development. This can mean learning to delegate or maintaining a network of professional colleagues including fellow attorneys who are at the same stage of their lives and can understand the things that are needed for career advancement.
“Support other people, and it comes back to you in multiples,” Coffey said.
And this doesn’t apply only at the office. If you opt to have a family, a supportive partner or spouse is “essential,” Coffey said. As is overpaying the people you rely on to keep things running smoothly on the home front, she added.
“It is worth its weight in gold if your head is relieved of household worries,” Coffey said.
Nieman said one of the values she has tried to cultivate in young lawyers is women’s support for each other. Too often in this field, female lawyers experience “the catty stuff you saw as children that sometimes doesn’t change.”
Self-assuredness is needed to overcome this pitfall in the profession and thus a worthy aspiration for women starting their legal careers, she said.
“The more we can feel really comfortable in our own skin and have confidence in who we are, the less we’ll have to attack other women,” Nieman said.
Find a Mentor
Price-Williams said she often encourages young lawyers to seek out successful role models and mentors, citing as her personal example former Miami-Dade County Attorney Robert A. Cuevas, who appointed Price-Williams as the department’s first assistant county attorney under him and recommended her to the County Commission as his successor when he retired about two years ago.
“Find individuals who demonstrate excellence in their chosen professions and in areas [you] want to work in,” she said. “If [you] form good relationships with people who are doing what [you] want to do, they can show what it means to be an exceptional lawyer, like Mr. Cuevas did for me.”
But mentoring goes both ways, the women said. In her office of 72 lawyers, 47 percent of whom are women, Price-Williams said she has the daily opportunity to “set a good example and provide them with the type of guidance and advice that has been given to me.”
Find a Job You Love and Work Hard At It
To be successful in a long-term legal career, Coffey said attorneys must find work they are “totally invested in because you’re going to have to work really hard at it.”
Doing so will pay off, Nieman said. “Come to work with enthusiasm,” she said. “If you just keep on being your biggest fan and doing your best job, that’s the best way to go forward.”
Price-Williams added: “You have to love this job, so I tell young lawyers to find a job that you get such great satisfaction from, where you can work with, not only clients that you respect and admire, but also with colleagues that you respect and admire.
“I’m grateful that I have that. Notwithstanding the fact that it requires a lot of time and energy and there are a lot of sacrifices required of me and my family, I value the team that we have put together over the years. It makes it all worthwhile.”