Conversation with a Pair of Mentors

22 Jan 2024 2:00 PM | Lynette Pitt (Administrator)

By: Louis J. “Johny” Hallow, III

As a young attorney, I am blessed to work in a firm with several mentors. In this piece, I speak with two of my personal mentors, Phil Hornthal and Don Prentiss, about their advice for young attorneys. Phil and Don are both long-standing partners at Hornthal, Riley, Ellis & Maland, LLP, in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. Phil and Don have both practiced law for more than thirty years, and have been heavily involved with a number of North Carolina Bar organizations, including the North Carolina Association of Defense Attorneys. Both Phil and Don focus on insurance defense, mediation, and general civil litigation.

What was the best advice you were given as a young lawyer?

Hornthal: One of the best pieces of advice I received as a young lawyer came from Dan Hartzog: “Do it now.” Whether you have an email you need to respond to or a pleading you need to file, do it now. If you procrastinate, you have a much higher chance of forgetting your task and falling behind.

Prentiss: When I first started practicing law, a lawyer on the other side of a case I had asked for an extension of time. I wanted to give him a hard time about it, but the senior partner at the time, Dewey Wells, pulled me aside and told me: “The practice of law floats on a sea of accommodation.” That piece of advice has always stuck with me. It is important to always try to get along with other lawyers until they give you a reason not to.

What do you believe is the appropriate work-life balance for a young attorney?

Hornthal: I think this varies for all young attorneys, especially with the current generation of young attorneys. These days, there appears to be a trend that young attorneys are more interested in maintaining a work-life balance and spending time outside of the office as opposed to earning high salaries. But for all attorneys, especially young attorneys, it is important to maintain a work-life balance to avoid burn out. I think it is important for all attorneys to have some type of hobby that they can engage in to spend some time away from work.

Prentiss: That is an interesting question. If you had done this survey twenty-five years ago, you never would have heard that question. But, I think older lawyers are likely wrong about not giving work-life balance more attention. It is important to work hard early in your career to establish a reputation. It is important also to spend time with your family and friends and have a work-life balance. With that said, all attorneys need to work hard and put the necessary time in to become a good lawyer.

What advice do you have for a young attorney who is feeling overwhelmed with their caseload?

Hornthal: Seek help from a mentor. One of the worst things an overwhelmed young attorney can do is let the pressure build up and never seek help from a mentor. Having a good mentor—whether it is in the attorney’s own firm or another firm—is essential for a young attorney. When overwhelmed, a young attorney can seek advice from a more experienced attorney about how to sort through their various assignments and stay on track.

Prentiss: Talk with someone, whether it is a partner in your firm or a mentor. I believe mentoring is critical, especially for young lawyers. The willingness to ask for help is the most beneficial thing a young attorney can do when overwhelmed.

Do you think it is important for young attorneys to be involved in organizations outside of the legal profession, whether it is a kickball league or the board of a local nonprofit organization?

Hornthal: Absolutely. This point ties into the question regarding a work-life balance. If a young attorney is involved in local non-profit organizations and other activities outside of the practice of law, it gives the young attorney an opportunity to step away from the legal field and interact with people in their community. This not only leads to an improvement in mental health, but also helps with client development.

Prentiss: Absolutely. Whether it is a big firm or small firm, all attorneys need to give back to the community. I think young lawyers should get involved with different bar organizations and within their own communities. There are numerous opportunities for young lawyers to get involved in their communities, and that is something that can really help with developing a work-life balance.

We often hear the term jack of all trades, master of none. Do you think young attorneys are better served focusing on mastering a few select practice areas, or should young attorneys be willing to take on unfamiliar subject matters?

Hornthal: I think there are pros and cons to both. On one hand, some attorneys may feel more comfortable mastering a few select practice areas and staying within those bounds for their entire career. This is especially true in larger firms. On the other hand, I also think young attorneys should be willing to take on unfamiliar subject matters. In my view, stepping outside of your comfort zone is one of the best ways that a young attorney can develop and learn. Often times, if a young attorney takes on unfamiliar subject matters, he or she will learn things along the way that will help in familiar subject matters.

Prentiss: The latter. Too many people come out of law school and are too focused on a specific practice area. To develop as a lawyer, you need to have exposure to a variety of practice areas. This is especially true early in one’s career. If you are a litigation attorney, for example, you should be willing to go to small claims court, attend depositions, take on trials against pro se litigants, etc. Also, by engaging in a wide variety of matters, young attorneys will have a better idea of what practice areas they want to specialize in as their careers develop.

What is one thing you know now that you wish you knew when you first started practicing law?

Hornthal: A bad result in a case is not always a bad thing. Often times, a bad result comes from a good learning experience. There will be cases that present a number of problems; but as long as you can give the client the pros and cons of trying the case, and feel confident in giving that advice, it is worth trying the case, even if you are likely to have a bad result, as long as the client understands and accepts the risk.

Prentiss: There are several things here. But, if I had to narrow it down to one piece of advice, I would say that procrastination is your enemy. I have been practicing law for almost forty years, and I still struggle with procrastination. When you procrastinate, you often find yourself scrambling at the last minute and trying to put out a fire. I know this sounds like common sense, but it is something that you do not appreciate until you procrastinate and find yourself in a tough situation.

What trial tips do you have for young attorneys?

Hornthal: Overprepare. It is always better to be overprepared than underprepared. The last thing you want to do as a young attorney is walk into a courtroom feeling unprepared. If you are overprepared, you will be able to focus on the different elements of a trial and the potential problems in your case as opposed to the mere fact that you are underprepared.

Prentiss: You need to know your case inside and out. It is important to think about what can go wrong. If you know your case well enough, you will have a sense of what opposing counsel will try to accomplish at trial. You do not want to think about these things in the middle of the trial. On the contrary, you want to have thought about this before trial so that you can comfortably address any problems during the trial.

How should a young attorney prepare for their first trial?

Hornthal: Again, a young attorney should always overprepare for a trial. A young attorney should also seek advice from a more experienced attorney in preparing to try a case, regardless of whether the young lawyer is a solo practitioner or works in a law firm with several seasoned attorneys.

Prentiss: Pick a theme and pound it. You should focus on hitting the theme in jury selection, the opening statement, direct examination, cross examination, and the closing argument. You want to have a good theme that you can weave into all elements of your case.

What mediation tips do you have for young attorneys?

Hornthal: Be patient. I have handled several mediations both as the mediator, and as a party subject to the mediation. One thing I never realized until I served as a mediator is that you never know what is happening in the other room. So, if a mediation begins and the parties are on complete opposite ends of the spectrum, remember to be patient and let the mediator do his or her job. I also think it is important for a young lawyer to be overprepared for a mediation. Not too many cases are tried these days, and more often than not, the mediation is the place to resolve the lawsuit. Given that the mediation may be the final step in the process more often than not, a young lawyer needs to know the case inside and out and be fully prepared.

Prentiss: From the perspective of a defense lawyer, know that most lawyers on the other side of your case in the mediation do not want to try the case. You can often settle cases for a lower amount than you think because the lawyer on the other side does not want to try the case.

Is it helpful to start with a reasonable response to an opening demand in mediation, or should a young attorney start with a low offer?

Hornthal: I have always had more success starting with a reasonable response. In my experience, I have found that low offers often lead to a waste of time, and as a result, a waste of the client’s money. The purpose of the mediation is to resolve the case, so I see no reason why the parties shouldn’t come in with reasonable offers in attempt to reach a resolution. I know several attorneys that prefer to start with a low offer, and I understand why they do so to a certain extent, but I have always had more success starting with a reasonable offer.

Prentiss: As a lawyer and a mediator, it depends on the demand. It is frustrating when the other side does not know what the insurance limits are, or if the other side comes in with a demand that exceeds the limits. But if you get a reasonable demand, you want to respond with a reasonable offer. This will avoid wasting everyone’s time and money.

What deposition tips do you have for young attorneys?

Hornthal: Like with mediation, be patient. Additionally, I think it is important to really listen to the witness. While I believe it is beneficial for all lawyers, especially young lawyers, to prepare a list of questions for the witness, it is equally important to listen to the witness as you ask the questions. Often times, by listening to the witness, you will think of questions you did not consider before the deposition began and can force the witness to expand on important topics that you may not have thought of in advance.

Prentiss: Give the deponent a chance to talk. I find too often that the questioning lawyer spends too much time talking and asking closed ended questions. This often leads to a lack of information at the end of the deposition. I think attorneys should focus on asking open-ended questions and giving the deponent a chance to talk. I also suggest thinking about what documents you want to use in the deposition. If you have favorable documents, you may want to use those to force the witness to admit certain facts.

What is your strategy with introducing documents in depositions? Do you prefer using several documents as exhibits, or do you try to limit your use of documents?

Hornthal: I usually avoid the overuse of exhibits during depositions. This is partially because it is easier to actively listen to a witness speak without having to worry about introducing certain documents and keeping them organized. Of course, there are several instances where I use exhibits to force witnesses to admit certain facts that I will want to introduce at trial, such as the position and condition of an automobile in a negligence case. But unless there are specific reasons to introduce certain exhibits, I typically focus on making sure that I am listening to the witness’s testimony. When you are worrying about where your documents are and whether you have introduced them in the correct order, you often times are missing opportunities to hear what the witness is saying and see how they are physically responding when prompted by your questions.

Prentiss: I think this is something I deal with on a case-by-case basis. From my practice, which has been heavily personal injury defense oriented, I do not think you should be afraid to introduce documents, especially medial records. For example, if a deponent admits they told a doctor that they felt okay on a certain visit, the attorney can cross-examine the witness on that statement while at trial without having to deal with introducing the medical records from the visit.

What are the most common mistakes you see young attorneys make, and how can those mistakes be avoided?

Hornthal: The most common mistake I see young attorneys make these days is having a sense of entitlement. Some young lawyers these days feel that, because they went through law school, passed the bar exam, and became lawyers, they are entitled to certain things in life and in the practice of law. This sense of entitlement often leads to laziness, a lack of preparation, and poor treatment of clients and other lawyers. I think it is important for young lawyers to remember that they are, in fact, young lawyers; and that the practice of law is a privilege.

Prentiss: First, I see several young attorneys asking questions of their own questions in a deposition. Most of the time, this is counterproductive. It is okay to clarify the record; but too often I see lawyers asking questions of their own clients, which leads to additional information coming out of the witness that may be harmful to the case. This also gives the opposing attorney an opportunity to cross examine the witness a second time on the newly released information. The second common pitfall I see with young attorneys is failing to calendar their deadlines. I recommend that all attorneys create their own scheduling orders or deadlines, even if there are no formal orders or deadlines involved in the case.

What has impressed you the most about the young attorneys that you have come into contact with?

Hornthal: I am always impressed with a young attorney that has a strong work ethic. As mentioned earlier, there are several young lawyers that have a sense of entitlement and do not work as hard as they should. If a young lawyer has a strong work ethic, that work ethic will lead to better work product, more clients, and better case results.

Prentiss: Older lawyers tend to be more obsessed with the practice of law and it becomes their entire life. Younger lawyers seem to have a better feel for work-life balance and quality of life. The practice of law is your profession, not your life; and it should not dominate your life.

What tips do you have for young attorneys that want to continue to advance professionally?

Hornthal: Do not be afraid to try something new; and do not be afraid to reach out to a mentor about advancing professionally. That goes for both solo practitioners and young attorneys that work in firm settings. If a young attorney wants to advance professionally, there are several opportunities to do so. There are also several more seasoned attorneys that are willing to help develop young attorneys.

Prentiss: I suggest that young attorneys get involved with legal groups, such as the North Carolina Association for Defense Attorneys or the Advocates for Justice. This creates new opportunities for young lawyers and allows them to meet other attorneys that they would have never met otherwise. For small firms in small towns, this can be especially beneficial.

What advice do you have for a young attorney who finds themselves facing off against a more experienced attorney?

Hornthal: Again, it is better to be overprepared than underprepared. While every case has its own set of facts that may favor one side more than the other, you can never go wrong by overpreparing for a case and ensuring that you are not outworked by the more seasoned attorney.

Prentiss: Remember that the older attorney has the same insecurities as the young attorney. The best thing you can do with a more experienced lawyer on the other side is out work them. If you know your case inside and out, the fact that you are up against a more experienced lawyer should not make a difference.

Do you think experienced staff should play a role in guiding a young attorney?

Hornthal: Absolutely. As mentioned earlier, many young attorneys have that sense of entitlement that they do not need to listen to staff because staff are not lawyers. But that is not the case. Many staff members in law firms have been with the same law firm for decades, and can do almost everything an attorney can do, with the exception of signing pleadings and a few other things. With the significant amount of experience these staff members have, they can serve as a significant aid in helping a new attorney understand their duties and roles.

Prentiss: Obviously, staff cannot practice law. But, they can surely help you find the courthouse and tell you who to speak with at court houses in certain counties. Staff can help with several things that attorneys are not taught in law school. Also, having a good relationship with staff is an important part of being a good lawyer and good person in general.

What risks should a young attorney be willing to take?

Hornthal: Young attorneys should be comfortable in taking risks. As mentioned earlier, taking on cases that may not have the most favorable facts may help the young attorney develop significantly. Taking risks is always a good way to learn, if the risk is calculated, and the attorney feels comfortable taking it.

Prentiss: The first thing I’ll say is do not take any risks with ethics. If something does not feel right, you should not take the risk. On the other hand, you should be willing to take on a novel theory to a case, especially if the law and facts are not on your side. Having a novel theory to a case is often a way that lawyers can win cases that seem impossible.

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