Lady Lawyer: Vernida R. Chaney (Part II)

By Patrica Donkor

Hello everyone!  Thanks for tuning into another installment of the Lady Lawyer!  I’m so excited warm weather is finally here!  One of my goals for the year is to participate in more speaking engagements.  So, I am excited to be speaking at the International Municipality Lawyers Association (IMLA) conference in a couple of weeks.  It will be my first time presenting a CLE.  There is something about the idea of speaking to a group of lawyers that makes me nervous.  Wish me luck!

If you tuned in last month, you will recall that I spoke with Vernida Chaney, criminal defense attorney extraordinaire.  There, she and I discussed her experiences as a Fairfax County Senior Public Defender (PD) and Capital Defender, and some of the self-care considerations that she grappled with in those roles.  This month, is a continuation of that discussion.  Vernida, who established her own law practice three years ago, and I will explore the decisions that preceded this venture, as well as tackle the decisions she continues to face as owner of Chaney Law Firm.

PD: Welcome back, Vernida!  Tell me, how did you know it was time to leave Fairfax County Public Defender’s Office (PD’s office) office and establish your own practice?

VC: I loved being a public defender; however, I always knew I wanted to either head up my own PD’s office or start my own law firm.  I decided it was time to step out on faith and chose the latter. Over the years, I had learned a lot but I was eager to explore other aspects of law, mainly federal law.  Therefore, by going into private practice, I am able to represent clients in both state and federal courts,  which offer a nice variety of cases.   

PD:  I see.  So, at that time, you felt that you had reached your full potential at the PD’s office?

VC:  Yes.  I had learned a lot and gained invaluable experience, but everyday is another opportunity to learn something new.  I wanted an opportunity to work in the federal system and explore different practice areas, like personal injury.  The Fairfax Public Defender’s Office only handled state criminal cases.

PD:  Was speaking to people important to you as you began to seriously think about starting your practice?

VC:  Absolutely!  Before I decided to start my own practice, I consulted with dozens of people, including former public defenders, about going into private practice.  Everyone I spoke with was very generous with their time and advice.  They gave me so many tips and resources, including things to avoid.  For example, one piece of invaulable advice was to keep my overhead expenses low for the first few months of starting a new law firm.

PD: Makes sense.  Okay, tell me about the planning process for starting your own practice.  What did that look like for you?

VC:  Before I left the PD’s office, I began to set things up.  First, I told my boss at the PD’s office that I was planning to leave about six or seven months prior.  Over my last four or five months there, I began to move things into place.   I took various training classes and Continued Legal Education (CLE) courses on the new areas I wanted to explore, such as federal criminal law, family law, and estate planning.

PD: Did you do anything else?

VC: I read a lot about starting a law practice.  I wanted to avoid many of pitfalls that attorneys experience when leaving the public sector for the private sector, so I took time to educate and prepare myself.  I also consulted the Professional Rules of Responsibility and Virginia State Bar to make sure my practice complied with the ethics rules.  Additionally, once I made the decision to start my own law firm, I began telling people, especially other lawyers.  Most of my first cases came as a referral from other lawyers.  To this day,  many of my clients still come from referrals from other attorneys, who have confidence in my work and skills.

PD:  How did you decide what you wanted to do about office space? In Virginia, you don’t actually have to have an office.  You could identify your home address or even a P.O. Box as an “office” for recordkeeping.  Considering you wanted to keep costs down, was having a physical office important to you?

VC: I spoke with a lot of attorneys about office options, too.  You’re correct; you are not required to have a physical office in Virginia.  I know many attorneys who do not have a private office but instead work from home and meet clients at the courthouse or other meeting locations.  Over the past few years, many attorneys have taken advatange of virtual offices which provides them the flexiblity to rent office and meeting space on an as-needed basis.  Both options are excellent for reducing overhead; however, I was used to working in a physical office and wanted to establish a permanent presence with my firm.  My office is located across the street from the Fairfax County Courthouse.  The cost for the space  is  a business expense I personally feel is necessary for me to have a place that is comfortable for myself and my clients.

PD:  Now that you have been out on your own for a couple of years and have seen a bit, can you think of any common, yet unnecessary, purchases by people opening their own practices that you strayed away from?

VC: Yes, office space. Office space can be the biggest monthly expenditure so people starting their own practice should fully consider all options before making that financial commitment.  Although, I considered other options, for me, it made the most sense to have a permanent physical office for my practice.  Besides having a nice office close to the courthouse, I also found that I needed a work space outside of my living space to handle complex trial litigation.  In the type of cases I handle, I often receive boxes of discovery from the government.  Having an office separate from my home provides me with a place to review and store a mass of files and documents. Additionally, I have work and conference rooms at my office that others can use to assist me.

PD:  Sounds like your decision to wait on the permanent office space was a form of self-preservation.  Are there any other wasteful expenses that you can think of that you consciously avoided?

VC:  Yes.  Other things that a lot of people spend money on right away, which may not be necessary, are websites, optimization, and branding.

PD: What is optimization?

VC: Hiring companies to increase your placement on search engines is an example of optimization.  There is definitely a benefit to having your law firm appear first or second in a web search when a potential client is looking for a lawyer; however, I decided against spending money on this.  I knew from having left the PD’s office that I did not want to have a volume practice.  Instead, I decided to focus on procuring the right clients and not on being first on the list of a Google search.

PD: Have you seen people take on more than they can chew?

VC: Definitely. Starting a new practice can be overwhelming, both professionally and financially.  Many people take on cases they may be unprepared to handle just to pay the bills.  I chose not to do that and only handled cases and clients I could properly serve.

PD: Any other common pitfalls that you knew were not conducive to how you wanted to enter private practice?

VC: Yes, hiring unecessary full-time staff. As attorneys, we must delegate a portion of our admistrative tasks so we can focus on representing our clients.  However, attorneys should be cautious in delegating specialized tasks to staff and create a monitoring or checks system to ensure those tasks are done properly.  Also, attorneys should consider the cost and productivity of the staff to assess whether the investment in human capital is worth it.  My business background requires me to think of things like return on the investment.

PD:  So, do you use any support staff or do you do everything on your own?

VC:  Yes I do. I cannot do everyting on my own.  Using assistants, paralegals, and interns have proven to be vital for me.  They help me with client communications, research, discovery review,  and the like.  I also use courier services to pick up/drop off items and a transcriptionist to save time.

PD: In the beginning, did you have to decide how much money you wanted to make versus how many cases you wanted to take on?

VC: I made a conscious effort that I would not take everything that comes through the door.  I would only take what I could handle.  Also, I decided that I was not going to overextend myself.  That meant that I had to turn down some cases.  I knew it made sense to focus on what I knew, so that I would not have to worry about the learning curve if I ventured into an unfamiliar area.  The times that I did venture into new things, those cases were  ancillary to criminal law, such as grand jury witness representation, protective orders, school disciplinary hearings, et cetera.  I think setting those parameters early in my practice have served me well.

PD: I am curious about this decision.  I can see someone just starting out and being tempted to take on as much as they could, especially when they go from a steady income to having to generate income.

VC: So can I, but I didn’t do it.  I just stuck to what I knew. I’m a firm believer in staying in your lane.

PD: You are your own boss.  How did you determine what your work schedule would be?

VC: I don’t necessarily have a set schedule. I usually work Monday through Friday during traditional work hours either in my office, at the jail, or on the road.  I also work nights and on the weekends, as needed.  If I am not able to meet with a client during the day because of court or other obligations, I will meet with them in the evening.  I also tend to spend a lot of Saturdays at the jail visitng clients.  Flexibility and balance are important to maintain when operating your own law firm. For instance, when I finish a big project, I try to take a bit of time off before I move on to the next big project.

PD:  You mentioned that you informed people that you were opening your law practice before you left the PD’s office.  How was business in the beginning?

VC: When I first began, I had a lot of downtime which was much-welcomed as it allowed me time to focus on establishing a strong foundation for my private practice. During this time, I continued to explore legal topics relevant to criminal defense as well as wrap up any administrative obligations the firm had or would soon need.

PD: Another decision that I think falls under the category of self-care/self-preservation when starting your own practice is partnering with other lawyers.  Did you consider partnering with anyone?

VC:  I did.  A few people solicited me for partnership.

PD: Why did you decide against partnering?

VC:  It was a hard decision.  I was approached and had conversations with several great attorneys who I admire.  At the time, I knew I could benefit from a partnership; however, I felt the better option was to establish myself first.

PD: You did not partner, but do you collaborate with other lawyers in any way?

VC: I do, often.  I have a group of lawyers that I work well with.  We share cases.  We refer cases to one another.  I cannot say I will never partner with anyone, but it is something to weigh very heavily before doing.

PD: You mentioned taking downtime in between big projects. What else do you do to clear your mind?

VC: After my most recent trial ended a couple of weeks ago, I travelled  to visit my sister.  After another big trial last summer, I vacationed at the beach for a week.  I need to have downtime.  My happy places are anywhere there is water and a beach.  I take advantage of these getaways whenever I can.  It’s relaxing to get away from work and deadlines. It helps me to balance the demands of running my law firm.

PD: Describe the vision that you have for your practice, as far as Vernida is concerned.   What do you want your practice to look like, for you, mentally?

VC: I am blessed to have a good practice and great clients that trust me to handle their cases.  This work is hard and can be very unpredictable, so it is important for me to take things in stride and stay composed no matter what obstables may come.  My vision for myself is to stay on this path I’ve already established so that I may continue to give my clients highly-skilled and ethical representation.  Also, I will continue to steadily grow my business and, maybe at some point in the future, have a full-time staff and perhaps a partner.

PD:  Thanks Vernida and congrats on the success of your firm!

VC: Thanks Patricia!

If you want to learn more about Vernida, visit her on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/vernida-r-chaney-b9899045

The Ethical Esquire: Substance Abuse in the Legal Community

The Ethical Esquire

By: Maryam Hatcher, Esq.

Dearest Readers:  I am best known for my unparalleled wit and profound ethical reasoning (at least that is what I think I should be known for), but I will forgo offering solutions to the ethical quandaries of fictitious advice seekers this month, and instead discuss an issue that is no laughing matter: substance abuse in the legal community.

While substance abuse is a widespread concern in the United States, it is particularly prevalent in the legal community.  The stress and hyper-competitiveness that law students face as they earn their JDs, often leads them to turn to illicit substances to assuage tension or abuse prescription drugs to increase academic performance.  A 2016 study found that 20 percent of lawyers felt that their substance use was problematic, with most of them reporting that their problematic use of those substances did not start until law school.

Unfortunately, substance abuse in the legal profession increases once students leave the hallowed halls of their law schools.  One study from the 1990s reports that 18 percent of attorneys abuse alcohol, as compared to 10 percent of the general population.  The same study found that after 20 years in practice, the number increases from 18 percent to 25 percent.

These statistics are very grim.

And attorney culture helps feed these figures.  For example, the significant stress and heavy workloads attorneys face throughout their careers can, without other intervention, cause them to turn to substances for comfort.  Also, the weight of the issues that many attorneys deal with – including heinous crimes and civil injustices – can cause them to burn out quickly and seek illicit substances to mitigate the stress.

But attorneys do not just use alcohol to drown their sorrows; they also turn to it in times of celebration.  In fact, social drinking in the work place is often encouraged by way of networking events and victory dinners with cocktails and wine on the menu.

Further, and quite understandably, there is a direct correlation between an attorney’s substance abuse and her likelihood to be brought to the Bar for attorney misconduct.  The American Bar Association has reported that 27 percent of attorney discipline cases involve alcohol misuse by attorneys.  After all, Rule 1.16(2) of the ABA’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct expressly prohibits a lawyer from representing a client if “the lawyer’s physical or mental condition materially impairs the lawyer’s ability to represent the client.”  Individuals suffering from substance abuse are likely sufficiently impaired to trigger this rule, any may find themselves in trouble for violating it.

Fortunately, the Bar is on notice of the alarming level of substance abuse in the legal profession, as evidenced by the ABA’s adoption of Resolution no. 105 that “supports the goal of reducing mental health and substance abuse disorders and improving the well-being of lawyers, judges and law students.”  The resolution’s report details research on this topic, and offers recommendations to help the legal community tackle the problem.

The ABA also offers a list of various resources to help lawyers dealing with substance abuse.  You can access those resources here.  If your local lawyer assistance program is not listed, be sure to call your bar association directly for information on how to get help for yourself or others.

Now – go forth and be ethical!

–  EE

*Disclaimer: This blog is satirical in nature and, though it aims to provide helpful guidance regarding professional responsibility dilemmas, it is not intended to offer legal advice.

Next month, Ethical Esquire will offer tips on avoiding ethical concerns when transitioning from one job to another.

 

The Lady Lawyer

The Lady Lawyer: Monica Parham Part II

By Patricia Donkor

February 5, 2018

 

Hello Everyone! Hopefully your year is off to a smooth start. Like many of you, in the spirit of the new year, I recently attended a vision board party. It was my introduction to vision-boarding. I used to think the concept was, shall we say, cliché. However, this particular party was organized by a legal network of black Lady Lawyers and therefore I was incentivized by the company, more than the concept. However, my preconceived notions were unfounded. I had a great time! We enjoyed brunch and mimosas as we fellowshipped, flipped through magazines, and artfully designed our boards. Because resolutions and “New Year, New Me” talk is so commercialized, I took for granted the value of goal setting and forecasting. It was refreshing to listen to the other women as they discussed their plans for spirituality, family, and career. I was reminded that there are women just like myself with similar goals, insecurities, and wishes. That is one of the reasons for this blog – a space to learn something from women, like yourself, even if you were not expecting it.

This month’s blog is Part II to last month’s post. If you haven’t had a chance to read Monica Part I, you can find it here. You will recall that Lady Lawyer Monica Parham, is a Diversity, Inclusion, and Talent consultant. She spent twenty-one years at Crowell and Mooring, LLP, where she held positions ranging from Associate to Diversity Counsel. Monica Parham PD: Welcome back Monica! So, I wanted to begin Monica-Part II by discussing law firm attrition, particularly as it relates to minorities. A friend of mine, a black woman, recently left her second associate position at a large firm. She candidly reported that she felt she was pushed out of both firms. Partners seemingly had their favorite associates, and she was not among the desired. Few partners gave her work, making it difficult for her to meet her billable hour requirement. Ultimately, she was told that she should look for a new position, but the firm would provide her with a favorable recommendation. Do her experiences sound unique to you? MP: Law firms are inherently attrition models. Most still use a rough “pyramid” model: You can’t have as many people at the top of the pyramid as you have at the bottom of the pyramid or your financial leverage is off.

That’s one reason why it’s hard for diversity initiatives to gain traction: you are trying to gain traction in a setting that is essentially based on pushing people out as you move up the pyramid. Do I think that this is felt by minorities disproportionately? Yes, because you have so few people of color to start with. So, if you take away 1/3 from an entering class of 30, you lose 10. However, as applied to the, say, 6 people of color in that class, it’s a different dynamic and it leads to the isolation and other factors that then feed into and accelerate attrition. With a lot of other demographic groups, you start to see attrition accelerate at the mid-level stage. For women of color, particularly African-American women, you start to see it operate pretty much from the get go. By the time you are talking about partnership, the pool of African-American women is so small it’s hard to measure. PD: You managed to stave off the attrition curse. How did you pull it off? MP: To some extent, I had blinders on. I kept my head down and worked hard. I was not special. I was a little bit stubborn. In hindsight, that was a double edge sword. I was focused on doing top-notch work, which is what allowed me to move to Counsel. However, I was not as focused on building relationship capital as some of my peers and that, ultimately, was not to my advantage. PD: Did you tune out on purpose? Was that your version of self-care? MP: I think it was a form of perceived self-protection. As a woman of color in a large organization one can start to feel very lost. You look up from doing the work and you realize that other people are going out to lunch and you are not being invited. You realize that other people have gone to partners’ homes and are becoming personal friends and you are not a part of that friendship circle.

So, at that point, the instinct is to kind of retreat into the work. After a while, a not-so-virtuous self-reinforcing cycle starts forming where you react to isolation by further isolating yourself. One key piece of advice is that while it may not always feel comfortable, but it is critical to focus on building internal relationship capital, reaching out and going on lunches, etc., even when it’s not what you’re feeling – and even when you may basically have to invite yourself. PD: After over a decade as one of very few black women attorneys at the firm, you became Crowell and Mooring’s first Diversity Counsel (“D&I”). To me it sounds like you did not always feel like an insider during your time as an associate and Counsel, in part because of who you are and the way you were raised. Considering this, was it uncomfortable to hold a job where you were having to discuss others’ implicit biases related to background, race, gender, and class? MP: Well, it was invaluable that I had stayed on the practice side as long as I had. I had been on the practice side 12 years. I had been evaluated, done evaluations, seen most processes from both sides.

Part of what I brought to D&I role was a focus not simply on programming, but a focus on structural change, since I’d had an inside view of the structures because I had been part of them. Even so, some things surprised me. PD: Like what? MP: I think it was the naiveté among very intelligent people across the profession regarding diversity and inclusion. For instance, the insistence on using the term “qualified minorities.” Whether the speaker fully comprehends the meaning or not, the phrase implies that minorities are inherently not qualified – while the lack of such qualifiers with other groups implies that they are. That, in turn, triggers a veritable domino effect of other biases such as confirmation bias that create tremendous headwinds for women of color. D&I is hard, because you are engaged in change management. You often can’t just say “you are just wrong.” You are often working with leaders who didn’t necessarily have with a lot of law school classmates of color generally, and who more broadly often have had very few Black women colleagues and personal friends through their own personal and professional journeys. They may be grappling for the first time with how to address, on an institutional level, the issues that we’ve been dealing with on a personal level for a lifetime. You have to build trust in order to close that gap before any change can begin to occur.

That’s one reason why I feel that dialogue – in the old-fashioned sense of sitting down and actually talking and getting real about things – is a much more powerful instrument of change than “training” that allows everyone to check off a box (done!) but changes very little. Yes, training is needed but without the ongoing dialogue the needle isn’t going to move. PD: Were there frustrations? MP: Every day it was something. Life became a series of teachable moments. PD: What outlets were important to you as Diversity Counsel? MP: Within the context of wellness, lots of people talk about work-life balance. With Diversity 2.0, I think of it more as work-life integration. Work-life balance historically developed around the notion of women balancing work and having children. There are any number of things, regardless of parental status, to integrate: your professional life, spirituality and faith, community service, friendships, family (whether nuclear or extended, biological or not), exercise, diet, sleep – the list is slightly different for everyone. These may shift in priority over time, but the key is to identify and integrate those things that are meaningful to you into your life. PD: In one of our conversations, you mentioned that wellness is equally important in the conversation of diversity and inclusion and authenticity.

What role does wellness play in the authenticity conversation to you? MP: The wellness components of diversity and inclusion are often overlooked. We talk about opening doors for various groups, including women of color, but we don’t talk about the physical and mental costs associated with walking through those doors such as less-than-healthy diets, lack of sleep, isolation, depression, and anxiety. Maintaining one’s physical and mental well-being is absolutely critical to thriving as a Black woman lawyer, regardless of practice setting. Too often, self-care in the form is wellness is one of the first things to go, when it should be one of the things that we never let go of. I started working out with Black Girls Run because for me, I needed to integrate physical fitness in a way that was supportive and non-judgmental and yet with some accountability (because otherwise why get up at 5:00 on a Sunday morning to sweat through some miles?) For me, the benefits are mental as much if not more than physical. Honing one’s approach to wellness doesn’t require grand gestures: whether it’s a 20 -minute morning meditation, a brisk lunch time walk, a standing Saturday morning hand-dance class or full-blown marathon training, whether it’s more mindful eating or a new approach to one’s diet find something that works for you, use that as a baseline, and build from there.

Your mental and physical well-being will benefit. And, by all means, never be ashamed to seek professional support on the mental and / or physical side. PD: I am first-generation American-born. My parents hail from Ghana, West Africa. I am also the first lawyer in my immediate and extended family. I understand that that one issue that is dear to you is the intersection of women of color and first-generation issues. MP: There are many different “first gen” layers. Being a first-generation American, first generation college graduate and first-generation lawyer are all “first gen” issues, but the contexts are quite different. There are, however, some key areas of overlap. Often, there are tremendous family expectations on first generation lawyers. Your family identity essentially becomes as “the lawyer.” Particularly in a first gen immigrant context your “community” identity might become “the lawyer” as well. In each that identity, in turn, may come with an entire set of expectations regarding how lawyers talk, act, dress, etc. – expectations that may or may not comport with your personal sense of authenticity. It may also come with the “expectation” that you not only know but can and will offer free legal advice on everything from small business matters to landlord/tenant law to domestic relations/divorce.

Though it is hard, you have to take charge of that narrative, and define your role within these various contexts. You also have to learn to manage expectations. Too often, external expectations can keep people in places longer than they need to be because they are so afraid of letting their family down that they lose sight of themselves and what brings them fulfillment and gratification. When I switched from litigation to D&I, my family was initially less than thrilled and asked why I had bothered to go to law school if I no longer planned to be a lawyer. My response was that while I would no longer be practicing law, I would always be a lawyer. In hindsight, I realize that the question was less about what I was actually going to do and more reflective of a feared perceived “loss” – of stature, of income, of gravitas, and fundamentally of identity. Over time those fears were allayed, but such fears can create tremendous pressure on us, especially along any of the “first gen” dimensions. Honor your family, but know that honoring your family does not mean sacrificing yourself. PD: There are so many considerations for us Lady Lawyers to navigate. We have the considerations that are inherent to the workplace, such as understanding the firm’s culture and try to assimilate in the most authentic way you can for yourself. Then you have the considerations of family and community and the pressures that come with that. What do you think are common pitfalls that lawyers, particularly minority Lady Lawyers fall into? MP: I always tell people don’t let the profession define who you are. People will ask “Do you think you are a certain way because you are a lawyer?” My response is “I am a lawyer because I think in a certain way.” In other words, lawyers tend to be verbal, process-oriented, analytical, and good decision-makers.

Those are all very good things and they are qualities that I have, but those qualities don’t define who I am as a human being. There are a lot of other things that I like, other things that I do and other ways that I define myself. I also tell people that there is a difference between feeling discomfort and feeling pain. When you are stretching and growing, whenever you move in a new direction, at any stage in your career, you are going to feel some discomfort. That is very different from the “pain” of being devalued, isolated and generally being in an environment where you aren’t permitted to thrive. It is critical to know the difference between the two. Embrace the discomfort of having a stretch assignment. Organizations like GWAC are the safe spaces where you can massage out those sore spots and then, refreshed and renewed, grab those opportunities for growth. PD: Thanks so much for your time Monica! You had so many valuable pointers and we covered a ton of ground in your two-part feature. Ladies, read more about Monica’s work here. Join us next month as we feature a new Lady Lawyer. Also, feel free to leave comments for me, our guests, or with future feature suggestions.