This is an excerpt from my book, A Lawyer’s Guide to Creating a Life, Not Just a Living: Ordinary lawyers doing extraordinary things.

Are you pre-programmed? Yes, pre-programmed, with what you should do, with no room for what you want to do? Is your comfort zone killing you?

Has complacency set in? Are you just going through the motions? Is complacency sucking the oxygen out of your dreams, your courage, and your passion?

I have the great privilege to work with lawyers and I know all too well the answer to that question isn’t good.

It doesn’t have to be that way. The legal profession is a traditional one, and consequently, it tends to create traditional environments, procedures, and expectations. Yet there are lawyers who have broken the shackles of tradition. It takes guts to swim upstream. It takes courage to believe in yourself when you have little evidence that it will be successful. It takes wisdom to apply the skills you honed practicing law in a different way or another environment.

Whether you are looking to build your practice where you are, find a new firm, or start your own firm, move from public sector to private sector or vice versa, or just stop the madness, you can make it happen!

Candace Duff has broken the shackles of tradition with guts, courage, and wisdom. You will be inspired by her journey. Candace Duff knew what she should do and knew it wasn’t enough, but she found a way to do what she wanted to do and stepped out of her comfort zone. Candace Duff is a mediator, attorney, arbitrator, and a published novelist aka L.J. Taylor.

Black: Tell me about your early influences.

Duff: Well, I decided to become a lawyer when I was twelve years old. I went from visiting nurse to spy to lawyer. There weren’t any lawyers in my family. I probably got the idea from TV and books. As a child, I was a voracious reader. I read all the books in my parents’ collection, including quite a few inappropriate ones. I used to read twenty Harlequin romances a week, when I was in high school, much to the chagrin of my math teacher.

I always had a creative side, though. I loved to sing. I loved to write. I wrote poetry and song lyrics. There are even some of my poems in the high school yearbook. And I even tried to write a science fiction novel when I was thirteen years old. It has heavily based on Star Wars—back then Star Wars was a hit and really huge, so there’s a hero, there’s a princess and all.

Black: Did your family play a strong role in guiding you?

Duff: I had a very strict mother, and she stressed education. You know, if she knew you could get an A, you couldn’t come back in that house with anything less than an A. She also stressed having a profession. You had to be a doctor or a lawyer..

She downplayed hobbies. Being a writer and being a singer—those were hobbies, those weren’t professions to her. In fact, my mother had a beautiful voice herself. She sang like Nancy Wilson. And there were a few recording studios who had courted her, but she declined, because, you know, back then you just didn’t do that. You raised your family, you finished nursing school.You didn’t go off into the sunset to try to become a singer, and she taught us the same thing.

Black: Did college fuel your creative side?

Duff: After high school, I got into Vassar College. And Vassar College opened up a whole new world to me. It allowed me to explore my creative side. I was an actress in the Ebony Theater Ensemble. I was a singer in the gospel choir. I was even a dancer back then, although I couldn’t do ballet to save my life.

After Vassar College, I went into law school, and I didn’t write while I was in law school. In fact, I couldn’t even read fiction books. In law school, all you read are legal tomes. You do so much reading it pretty much turns you off from reading anything else.

Black: So what happened after law school?

Duff: After I left law school, I ended up getting a job at Greenberg Traurig. Greenberg Traurig is an international firm—top one hundred. And so while I was there, I focused on becoming the best lawyer that I could be, because there were so few African American lawyers in the firm that I really wanted to be a good example. Later in my career, I focused on making partner and I worked a million hours, and there wasn’t time for anything else.

Black: Did you find any time to write?

Duff: I took a vacation every year and during my vacation I would go to writers’ conferences. I really liked the Maui Writers Conference, because it was in Maui, so how could you go wrong with that?

And I would dream. I would dream of writing a book.And there were so many people there, so many writers there, I would get all this intellectual stimulation while I went and I would dream about writing a book, but I just never had the time.

Black: And how was the rest of your life moving along?

Duff: I made partner at Greenberg in 2001 and I said, now what? September 11th happened later that year and I realized I had no personal life at all. All I had done was work, and I was restless. I misinterpreted my restlessness as a desire to get married. So I accepted the first proposal that I got, and married the first man who asked me. My ex wasn’t very supportive about writing. He told me that even if I became a bestselling author, I could never stop practicing law, because he wanted to make sure that money came in steady. Needless to say, that didn’t last very long, and he and I were divorced two years later.

My sister became unable to care for my niece. I ended up raising a fifteen-month-old baby by myself. Here I was, a professional woman—a single mother, suddenly—working at Greenberg with a fifteen-month-old baby. I’m surprised my niece is still alive!

I had no time to write. I had no time to go to writers’ conferences and hone my craft. I had no time for anything but to work and take care of my niece.

Black: When did things start to change?

Duff: My first “aha” moment came two years later. My niece was reunited with my sister and I had become a construction law expert and I practiced primarily real estate litigation, representing developers, but then in 2007–2008, the market crashed. Banks weren’t lending. Real estate wasn’t being sold. Condos weren’t turning over and suing developers. People who had differences in real estate and construction thought it was better to settle than to litigate the issues. The cranes had stopped.

Like so many other attorneys, I had to reinvent myself. So I started doing work that I wasn’t in love with, and I did that for a while. Until one day I asked myself, is this what you want to do for the rest of your life? And the answer was no.

Black: I bet that was eye-opening. What did you want to do?
Continue Reading An Interview With Lawyer and Novelist Candace Duff

This is an excerpt from my book, A Lawyer’s Guide to Creating a Life, Not Just a Living: Ordinary lawyers doing extraordinary things.

Retirement. What does that word mean to you? Old or wise, laid back or charging ahead? Playing endless rounds of golf or attending endless board meetings?

Retirement has certainly been redefined; we’re working well beyond sixty-five. All we have to do is look to the Supreme Court as a prime example. According to Bloomberg, in an article by David Ingold, the projected age when a justice will leave the Supreme Court is now about eighty-three. That’s a ten-year increase from the 1950s. Wow, that’s ten additional years of being relevant and contributing to the decisions of our country’s most important issues.

Okay, I get it. Not many of you have an appointment for life—or do you? I think it depends on how you look at it. Have you had a lifetime of helping and mentoring, or a passion for the arts, or maybe volunteering to make life better for so many others?

My next lawyer has had a lifetime appointment. Quite frankly, I believe it’s in his DNA, and he couldn’t have done it any other way. John Kozyak was one of the founders of a bankruptcy and complex litigation firm more than thirty-six years ago, and is currently the chairman of the board of the Parkinson’s Foundation. He is the force behind the enormously successful Minority Mentoring Picnic that fosters diversity in the legal profession.

Black: John, where did your deep-seated commitment to diversity come from?

Kozyak: Well, I grew up in a totally segregated community in Southern Illinois, just a few miles from St. Louis. I graduated from high school in 1966 in a class of about nine hundred students, and not a single one of them was black. Of course, black was not a term used then, and where I grew up, I never understood the mean prejudice that was everywhere surrounding me.

My mother was the kindest, most wonderful woman I ever met. Surrounded by hate and prejudice, my mother was a quiet, small civil rights leader. Before 1964, when the Civil Rights Act was enacted, the bathrooms and restaurants in St. Louis were legally segregated. When we went there to go shopping, my mother chose to sit on the segregated side of the Woolworth’s soda fountain counter. I’ll never forget her courage when people would call her an n-lover, and that’s when it started that I thought I could make a difference, and I would try.

I never spoke to a black person or a colored person or Negro until I was in the Army after college, but some would say I made up for it since.

Black: Well, John, I certainly can attest to that. So how did you focus on diversity as a young lawyer?

Kozyak: When I became a lawyer in 1975, I got involved in recruiting, and heard far too often, “If we could only find a good one.” That was code for someone who spoke like a white person, was unbelievably bright, articulate, well-dressed, and would not make waves—in other words, somebody who was far, far better than the people we were hiring.

Black: How did you happen to start the Minority Mentoring Picnic?

Kozyak: The University of Miami Law School had a program in the nineties and I loved being a mentor. The law school dropped the program, and I decided to pick it up and expand it.

My wife, Barbara, and I hosted receptions in our backyard for black law students at UM for several years before we had our first picnic. And we didn’t initiate or invent black lawyers and black law students getting together for a picnic either; we just decided we could help.

We had two hundred people come the first year. Barbara and my law partner, Detra Shaw-Wilder, served food, cleaned up, sent my mentor out for more hot dogs and beers. People brought food. And it was my first time to get a sweet potato pie, and I knew we were on to something.

The picnic grew. When we realized that many of the lawyers signing up to be mentors werewhite women and Hispanic men and women, we decided the second year to include every minority. We actually started looking for gays, lesbians, transgenders, Muslims, Christians, Dominicans, Haitians, disabled, women, and everyone else who might need a boost.

Now I’m so very proud, and know my mother would be proud, that I feel that we have the best diversity-oriented event in Florida—maybe the country. We bring everyone together for a day, and then, maybe, a lifetime.

There are so many good stories that resulted from the picnic. You can see the young children— Muslim, white, Hispanic, Asian—all of them playing together, and their parents enjoying it, their parents meeting new people. I’ve become close friends with many of my mentees, and I know that we have made a difference.

Black: What was your vision for your third act and when did you start thinking about it?

Kozyak: Strangely, I first started talking about retirement in my early forties as a way to rationalize my crazy workaholic lifestyle. I would tell people that I’d retire by fifty, or maybe teach a few classes, to get them off my butt about working too much.

In my late fifties, my mother and then my father were both diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. It’s then that I recognized that I didn’t control everything in my life. I decided to live my life as if I was going to be diagnosed with Parkinson’s any day.

When I was approaching sixty, I decided I could do more than bill hours and make money. I also thought I should make up for all the hours I spent at my desk, in court, or on a plane, or up in the middle of the night, worrying about clients instead of people who loved me and whom I love.

Fortunately for me, that included a number of people I had worked with my entire career. I have the best partners and staff imagined.

Black: So what did you do?

Kozyak: I also wanted to go out on top. I have boxes of plaques and awards. I don’t tout my accomplishments, which have been many. I’m one of a handful of lawyers who are Fellows in both the American College of Bankruptcy and the American College of Trial Lawyers. I decided to officially slow down and sell my equity back to the firm a year before the recession of 2008. I was tired of hustling for work, and I thought I might have lost a little off my fastball.
Continue Reading An Interview With Bankruptcy Attorney John Kozyak: A Journey to a Fulfilling Third Act

This is an excerpt from my book, A Lawyer’s Guide to Creating a Life, Not Just a Living: Ordinary lawyers doing extraordinary things.

When I talk to lawyers about finding a niche, there’s usually an audible groan. Most lawyers want to leave their options open. They say, “I can do a lot of things, so why not make a list that says that I can do them all?” Two reasons come to mind.

One is that a long list signals that you’re not an expert at any of them. And two, it’s hard to get referrals, because no one can remember what you do. It takes courage and vision to draw a line in the sand and declare your specialty—your little corner of the world, so to speak. And it requires tenacity to become known for that niche, so you need to enjoy it.

Not many lawyers have the courage, the vision, or the tenacity to become known for a specialty like Michelle Estlund. She will tell you how she found a niche she enjoys and became an authority in the area. Michelle Estlund is the most recognized Interpol defense lawyer in the world. Yes, I said world.

Black: Michelle, what was going on with your practice when you realized something needed to change?

Estlund: I had been practicing criminal defense for most of my career when I met you, and     I really enjoyed it, but I was also feeling complacent. I knew that I wanted to add something to my practice and grow it into a very complementary part of my life, rather than just have a job or even just a career.

And I remember that in our discussions you had told me several times about developing a niche practice and to kind of be on the lookout for that. I remember you encouraged me to focus on a very specific area. And I had heard this from other sources also, but it seemed like so many things related to criminal law were already saturated with specialty attorneys.

I knew that I loved criminal law. I loved human rights and politics. But I didn’t really honestly think I could mesh all those things together in a law practice that I both cared about and would be lucrative. I thought, that will just never happen.

Black: Explain how your “aha” moment came about.

Estlund: I remember that a client walked into my office with an Interpol case and asked if I could help. This client was wanted out of Venezuela. This was at a time when the Venezuelan government was nationalizing various industries—including the banking industry. And in order to obtain the assets being held by this particular bank, the government had issued arrest warrants for the heads of the bank and the people who were on the board of directors, including that particular client.

I started researching extensively, and what I realized was that there was no real in-depth treatment of Interpol anywhere online. I saw that even the attorneys who were advertising themselves as being experienced were in fact not, once you did a little bit of digging. Nobody was looking at this on a profound level and I realized I could do better than nobody.

Black: I remember what happened next.

Estlund: I told you, “I think I have an idea,” and I told you about the Interpol research I had done and the client that had approached me. And I remember you smiled and told me I had to give you my credit card so we could buy a URL and start a blog. I remember that I did take out my credit card and hand it to you, and I did not want to let go of it because I knew that once I did, that this thing was going to start—and that was really scary for me.

I remember that you told me, “You’ll be the leading expert on Interpol,” and I knew that you were a crazy person. And turns out that kind of ended up happening, didn’t it?

Black: What were the obstacles that almost stopped you?

Estlund: I think my primary limitation at that time was a concern or a fear of criticism. And this might sound odd coming from somebody who is a criminal defense trial attorney, who should be used to criticism and used to hearing no, but this was different for me, because it wasn’t a set of facts in a case that was presented to me, for me to protect and defend another person. This was for me, which is often more difficult. It was my writing, my thoughts, and my ideas. The idea of something that personal being critiqued was very challenging for me.

I wanted to start a blog that was geared toward other attorneys, potential clients, academics, and people like that with the goal of educating people about Interpol, establishing credibility for myself, I wanted to attract clients, of course, and I wanted to advocate for reform where it was needed. Like I said, part of what I wanted to do was advocate for reform of Interpol proceedings, and I was worried that people would think, well, who does she think she is? Why would we listen to this Miami lawyer over in Europe?

This is an international, quasi-legal organization, and I just didn’t feel that I had the gravitas that I needed in order to effect change.

Also, I was worried more personally for my practice—that if I publicized myself as being a specialist or focusing in a niche practice, people would think that that’s all I could do, that I’m a one-trick pony. So those were my concerns.

Black:What was your strategy?

Estlund: In terms of strategy, I can’t say that I had a specific strategy thought out, other than I knew who my target audience was going to be, and I knew that I wanted to serve as a source of information that wasn’t otherwise readily available. And I hoped that consistent blogging about my topic would also force me to stay on my toes, and it has.

Black: So what did you learn, and how did you muster up the courage?

Estlund: I eventually accepted that no one knows everything, even experts. And I remembered my favorite, most well respected professors and mentors throughout my life all had something in common. It was that they didn’t back away from saying “I don’t know,” because they loved what they did, and they knew how to go find out the information that they needed. I knew I could do that too.

I also realized that we can’t wait until we’re not afraid to act. It’s not brave if you’re not scared. Even the most seasoned attorneys are afraid of something. For me, it’s not judges, it’s not juries, it’s not law enforcement officers, and it’s not public speaking. For me, what I was really afraid of was writing about something I cared about and having it not be perfect in public and online.
Continue Reading An Interview With Michelle Estlund: How She Found a Niche

The following is an excerpt from my book,  A Lawyer’s Guide to Creating a Life, Not Just a Living: Ordinary lawyers doing extraordinary things.

Everyone knows that success in business is in direct correlation with the relationships one fosters. In the legal profession, relationships have been the foundation of building a practice or a career path. It was the only option before lawyers were allowed to advertise and certainly before social media.

Many internet marketers beat the drum about SEO and pay-per-click advertising. They have their place in a modern business development strategy, but they will never replace a good old-fashioned relationship.

So how do you build relationships that matter? One of the ways is to listen—be present. You never know where a seemingly insignificant conversation may lead. To listen is the greatest gift you can give another human being. We all know the feeling we get when someone isn’t listening. It’s dismissive and demeaning, certainly not conducive to building relationships.

There is a secret to building relationships that matter, relationships that are genuine and authentic. It’s about looking for opportunities to connect on common ground.

I spoke with a lawyer that is a master relationship builders. Clarissa Rodriguez is a shining example of why building relationships is the key to a practice you love. She’s a commercial litigator and an international arbitrator. She describes herself as becoming Indiana Jones.

Black: So Clarissa, I am dying to hear the backstory of you becoming Indiana Jones.

Rodriguez: Well, believe it or not, Indiana Jones raised me. I can recite any line from any of the first three films cold. At age nine, I boldly declared to my parents that I’d be an archeologist when I grew up. Instead of being proud or impressed, my parents were practical. They reminded me I didn’t like the outdoors. I’d prove them wrong and try to camp in our backyard, but I wouldn’t make it to sundown. Archeology seemed out of the question.

Despite the setback, I found myself taking church history courses, art classes, and getting a minor in anthropology in college. I didn’t, however, become an archeologist. I became an attorney.

My practice area has always been international. Miami being the hub between Latin America and Europe has afforded me the chance to work with international clients on cross-border investments, international arbitration, and litigation.

This focus drew me to professional organizations for international practitioners, like the Miami International Arbitration Society and the Florida Bar International Law Section. I volunteered for everything to get involved, and it paid off. Within a few years, I found myself voted on the executive council of the International Law Section, and later onto the executive board. I’m slated to become the fourth woman president of the International Law Section in thirty-eight years.

Every year, the International Law Section hosts a premier conference in Miami, titled the iLaw. The iLaw 2017 invited world renowned Donald S. Burris to be the keynote speaker. Mr. Burris’s work was characterized in the movie Woman in Gold.

As you may know, Woman in Gold is a film starring Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds, about Holocaust survivor Maria Altmann’s fight against the Austrian government to retrieve a series of Nazi-looted art taken from her family during World War II. It happens that Maria’s family had commissioned the artist Gustav Klimt to paint the portrait of her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer. He painted what would be called Woman in Gold, also known as Austria’s Mona Lisa.

Maria Altmann’s quest was to get back her family’s art collection. She hired a friend of the family, Randy Schoenberg. He was a solo practitioner renting a cubicle in the same building as Don Burris.

Black: Neither Randy nor Mr. Burris were big firm lawyers?

Rodriguez: No, neither. Amazing, right? Randy and Mr. Burris had been friends for years. Mr. Burris bumped into Randy in the elevator of his office building. He asked Randy what was going on and catching up, when Randy mentioned he had opened up his own firm and needed help with the Altmann case. Don agreed to help.

Black: So did either of them have experience in restituting looted art?

Rodriguez: No. Neither of them had experience retrieving art from anyone, much less looted art. Together they sued the Austrian government, and fought for eleven years to retrieve the artwork. They successfully argued before the Supreme Court and won the right to sue the Austrian government.

Once they had the right to sue Austria, they engaged in an international arbitration and won. The Austrian government was compelled to return the entire collection to the Altmann family, consisting of eleven pieces of art, setting the precedent for this kind of work.

The movie Woman in Gold chronicles the legal battle. And since then, Mr. Burris has become the preeminent legal expert in the field of looted art and its restitution. Hearing this, I knew I would enjoy his talk at the conference.

Black: How did it come about that you met Mr. Burris?

Rodriguez: The International Law Section was hosting an opening ceremony cocktail party for the iLaw conference, and I was asked to entertain Mr. Burris and his wife, a California couple in their seventies, and make them feel welcome. I was hooked.

Mr. Burris and his wife invited me to dinner, and by the end of the night, I had an invitation to their home in Los Angeles. We became instant friends, and he insisted I call him Don.

The next day, at the conference, his speech “From Tragedy to Triumph: Altmann, Benningson, and the Pursuit of Looted Art” was a splash of cold water on me. His work was impressive, inherently noble, and utterly captivating. For days I couldn’t stop thinking about Don’s lecture. It was an adrenaline rush.

Fast forward to a few days later, when you and I had our follow-up meeting to develop my practice. You knew I had lots of international work experience. And I remember we were trying to find the right one to explore and focus on. Casually, I mentioned the conference and began talking about Don, and suddenly your eyes widened. You screamed, and “Wait, stop!” Remember?

Black: Oh, yes, I do.

Rodriguez: You asked, “Why didn’t you start our session with this? Are you listening to what you’re saying?”

Honestly, no. I was telling you about meeting this amazing man with this incredible practice. And what you heard was me discuss the invitation to dinner, the invitation to visit in LA, and the invitation to stay in touch. It had not occurred to me that these invitations meant something. You recognized I had a connection with Don because of our mutual passion and his area of practice. It was international, historical, and unique; it was exactly what I wanted to do.
Continue Reading An Interview with Litigator Clarissa Rodriguez: How I Became Indiana Jones

The other day I had the television on in the other room and heard Viola Davis’s velvet voice from the distance. It was calming and inspiring, she spoke of strength and confidence.  I share it with you. Well done Bank of America.

How far we’ve come isn’t even close to how far we can