From the State Bar of Texas Bar Leaders Conference, Texas Young Lawyers Association President Victor Flores hosts a Q&A with President-Elect Britney Harrison and former President Sally Pretorius. They answer questions submitted at the Bar’s new lawyers swearing-in ceremony—providing helpful tips on litigation preparation, work-life balance, and overcoming fears as a new lawyer.
State Bar of Texas Podcast
Bar Leaders Conference 2019: Q&A with Leaders of TYLA
Intro: Welcome to the State Bar of Texas Podcast, your monthly source for conversations and curated content to improve your law practice, with your host Rocky Dhir.
Victor Flores: Hello and welcome to the State Bar of Texas Podcast, recorded from here in Houston, Texas. We are at the State Bar of Texas Bar Leaders Conference and this is Victor Flores and I’m the host for today’s show.
Joining me I have Britney from Dallas, Texas. She is the President-Elect for Texas Young Lawyers Association as well as Sally, she is a past president of the Texas Young Lawyers Association.
And before we get to our topic, I’d like to see if maybe you could tell us a little bit more about yourself, Sally first and then Britney.
Sally Pretorius: Sure. Hi everybody. Welcome to the podcast. Like Victor said my name is Sally Pretorius. I am the immediate past president of Texas Young Lawyers, just rolled off here in June, and was happy to turn over the reins of TYLA over to Victor and I practice Family Law in Dallas, Texas where I live with my husband and my two dogs.
Britney Harrison: Hey everyone, this is Britney Harrison and I am your TYLA President-Elect. I’m also a family lawyer that practices in Dallas, and I’m originally from Austin.
Victor Flores: Thanks. Thanks guys and today we’re here to talk about or actually answer some questions that were handed out at the new Lawyer Swearing-In Ceremony, and we got some questions from some of the new lawyers and so we’ll be discussing some of those and providing maybe some helpful tips.
I guess we’ll start with the first question here. The first question comes from a young lawyer out of based in Dallas, Dallas, Texas. The question is what is the biggest most important thing to do when preparing for Trial? I know I’m actually not so much of a litigator but you both are constantly in the courthouse, maybe we’ll start off with Sally.
Sally, what’s one of the most important things you do for trial prep?
Sally Pretorius: Yeah, I have two things. Okay, so one is know your Judge. If you don’t know anybody who knows your Judge, go a date before or a week before, sit in and watch your Judge. Judges are super-particular about how they run their Court. Call friends, call mentors, call anybody you can who’s been in front of that Judge and find out what there’s at all. If sequences are or find out what their preferences are, how do they want stuff.
The second thing is over-prepare. I would tell you that even as a 10-year practicing attorney I still over-prepare because I think that the easiest way to lose in court is to not be prepared and I have won cases and maybe I shouldn’t have or won cases against way more experienced attorneys, because I was over-prepared and had everything that I need.
So I know Britney and I were trained the same at the same firm, but there has been a lot of the same opinions but there definitely be my few pieces of advice.
Britney Harrison: And I would completely agree with both of those, and also really prepare your clients, because a lot of times they’re not going to be familiar with being in the courtroom, they’re going to think it’s exactly like it is when you’re watching a television show, but it’s a good thing to just practice questions with them and get them in the habit of answering questions and then I also sometimes encourage my clients to go to the courthouse before the hearing so they can see what the courtroom looks like and they get a little bit more comfortable.
But just echoing Sally again, over-prepare. Know your case, practice your opening. I practice mine while I’m on the drive to the courthouse and I’ve actually been busted doing that by some of our partners, they saw me driving down this hallway and I’m sitting there practicing my opening statement, but that’s just kind of my little ritual before I go to court.
Victor Flores: Hey Britney, you bring up a good point, right, is preparing your client for Trial, what are some ways that you prepare your client for the actual Trial date?
Britney Harrison: Well, I usually like to bring in my clients and we’ll just sit down in the conference room, go through documents and also just practice answering questions and even they’re not about the case you just want to get them in the habit of answering questions fully, answering exactly the question that’s being asked and just trying to get them comfortable with it, because it’s not — most of us like to talk over each other, you can’t do that because you have a court reporter taking everything down. So it’s a good way just trying to get them in the habit of answering questions in general.
Victor Flores: Yeah, and then you mentioned getting the client comfortable. I’ll throw this back to Sally. Sally, in your ten years of practicing law how do you get your clients comfortable being inside a courtroom, because as attorneys that’s your workspace, but for your clients it’s probably maybe for some the first time they go into court, how do you make them comfortable?
Sally Pretorius: Yeah, they’re never going to be comfortable to be honest and I tell them that. Britney and I both do family law. I think we probably do a little bit more client-intense work and we rely on our clients a lot more to sort of carry the case for us and that they need to do a lot of the testimony and a lot of the information comes directly from our clients’ words.
00:05:16 might be working with our witnesses. So I think when you’re preparing any witness whether it be your client or an expert witness or just a fact witness or whoever it is, I always tell them to try to remain conversational and so I tell them look, look at the person who’s talking to you.
So when I’m asking you questions you need to be talking to me. If I tell you to tell the Judge something, please turn to the Judge and tell the Judge to keep the Judge engaged. If opposing counsel is asking you questions you need to be talking to them, don’t have dirty eyes. When I’m talking to you don’t direct your question, this is like a family law thing, but don’t direct your answers to my questions at the other side. You are not going to win any points in the Jury Trial or a Bench Trial or any hearing by being snarky.
So I always try to just tell them to be conversational and look at me when they’re doing it and remind them that nobody’s comfortable. I’m not always 100% comfortable on the court especially if I’ve never been there before.
So I think it’s just something it’s out of our comfort zone for all of us. Nobody — nobody would 00:06:21 maybe some people were, right, but that’s not your natural habitat.
Victor Flores: Yeah, so both of you were sharing. Yeah, there is maybe some legal preparation, of course a lot of legal preparation for a Trial hearing, but also preparing our clients, so I think that’s great, that’s great advice.
We have another question from a young lawyer out of Houston, Texas. Their question is what’s the best method for coping with work and workload stress and just maintaining sanity as a young lawyer, and I know Texas Young Lawyers Association this year, we’re having a focused effort on attorney wellness, but for you or for both of you what are some of the ways that you cope with work-life stresses?
Sally Pretorius: I think you should answer this one. I think out of all of us maybe you’re kind of going through that, so I turn it back to you on that one and do your worst nightmare is a podcast interview and make you answer your own question.
Victor Flores: So I think what Sally is sharing is, my family just had a baby that we had eight weeks ago yesterday, and so balancing, taking care of family along with the work stresses and then now traveling across Texas, I’m sharing it with everybody all the lawyers about all the good things that the State Bar of Texas does along with the efforts and programs from the Texas Young Lawyers Association, that takes a lot into your calendar. My advice would be just setting expectations with your family, setting expectations with your workplace, setting expectations with your volunteer organizations and telling them all, hey, these are the things I’m doing, I want to be — I want to be able to participate in all of them, but just know that I’m committed to all these things and trying to — I guess work on communication and setting expectations is what I would recommend.
But how about you, ladies, how do you kind of help cope with work/life balance?
Britney Harrison: One definitely a work in progress. I do struggle with this, because I’m always wanting to give my all to everything, but it’s impossible to do that.
So I’ve learned that for me if it’s on my calendar it gets done and so I am starting to schedule breaks, like schedule time to go work out, put it on my calendar, I’m going to go work out at this time. I’m going to go get a massage on this day, things like that. So where that way it’s on my calendar I’ll get it done, but I’m also taking time for myself. And also I am learning that the answer no is always an acceptable answer sometimes. You really have to know when to say no when you’re overloaded just be able to be okay with that, and it’s hard, but trust me everyone is struggling with this.
Sally Pretorius: And I don’t think that I am a big fan of dashing the word work-life balance, because I don’t ever think that there is a balance in anything. I think that as young lawyers as attorneys we always have 500 balls up in the air and sometimes some of those balls are going to fall and I think that part of creating a lifestyle that’s healthy for yourself and that you’re kind of keeping everything in check is recognizing what those balls are, and then when one of them falls to make sure that you pick it up, right.
So a good example would be for me coming off of TYLA President year, I need it for the past year, I told my family and I told my husband and hey, you guys aren’t going to be as top of a priority as you had been for my entire life, and so for this year this is what I’m giving my all to, and so when TYLA ended I made it a point to see what balls that I kind of dropped and where did I need to pick up the balls and put them back up in the air.
And so that’s something that I’ve been doing and along with that is kind of what Britney said is I’ve been having to say no to stuff. So I know that there are fundraisers or there are happy arms that could probably go to every night of the week just living in Dallas and I’ve had to start saying, you know what, this one’s probably not a good one. I haven’t had dinner with my husband for an entire week and that’s something that I’m going to do this year.
And so, I think saying no and just recognizing what those balls up in the air are and realizing when one of them falls is probably a really good step. I don’t think that any of us can keep all those balls up in the air and I think to even have that as an expectation is or to have any sort of balance in your life is sort of that — that thing in itself is putting stress on us to think that we have to create a balance or keep all those balls up in the air.
So that’s my feeling on that.
Victor Flores: Right, no, great points Sally and Britney. Something that you guys started talking about, we both kind of mentioned maybe you didn’t realize it was lawyers, young lawyers are always doing all the things, we say all the things, and it can be not only stressful but just take a lot of energy out of you.
I’m going to ask a question now I’ll answer it first to give you guys time to think about it but what’s one of the ways throughout your week or within a day that you re-energize so that you can do or attempt to do all the things, that’s the question I’ll kind of answer at first to give you guys time to think about it.
But for me, my kind of outlet, my recharging is actually spending time with my two boys, they kind of ground me. I say now “two boys” but at the time my son Brennan and just doing activities with them — it kind of just — it gives me just an enough amount of disconnect from work or stresses of volunteer service and kind of grounds me.
And so that’s whether it’s going to a baseball game or just playing ball outside with him that kind of gives me the energy to keep on keep on going, it kind of gives — lets me refocus a little bit so that I can do all the things or at least somewhat be somewhat successful and doing all the things.
So how about you, ladies? What’s the one thing that re-energizes you?
Sally Pretorius: Yeah, so I go on these really long obnoxious walks with my dog. We rescued a pointer about five years ago and she is a terror if she doesn’t go on a walk, and I didn’t realize that I also needed those 45 minutes an hour sometimes on Sunday morning, Saturday mornings they go for two-and-a-half hour walks and I think she’s become a little accustomed to those, a little spoiled, but that dog can tell you.
I think she knows somehow inherently when it’s a weekend like she’s like, oh, today’s a Saturday we’re going on a long walk. But I thought that those walks are really helpful. I love listening to other podcasts. I listen to like Crime Junkies and This American Life and I just something about walking and just listening to other people talk is nice for me. I don’t have to engage with anybody, nobody’s talking to me. I try to put my phone on airplane mode and just let the podcast go.
Another thing that I do is 00:13:23 the shop like I could walk around the mall for hours. It’s probably not healthy for a wallet but it is something that I like doing. I could end up returning everything or not buying anything but just like 00:12:35 those are a couple of things that I do.
Victor Flores: How about you, Britney?
Britney Harrison: Yes, well so, like I said I’m still a work-in-progress but things that I have found and I moved to a new neighborhood in December and I’m finally getting out and exploring that. And so walking around just kind of seeing what’s out there, but I’m very much an introvert, and so I like to stay at home sometimes. And frankly, out though on an episode of girls and girls and I’m good.
Victor Flores: Was that Golden Girls?
Britney Harrison: Yes, Golden Girls. I’m telling you it’s just relaxing or just watching just random TV shows, stuff like that, listening to music, but just kind of being by myself not really thinking about work and just having time for me.
Victor Flores: Well, that’s — I mean those are all great recommendations and I guess to your point, Britney, each attorney kind of has their own personality type and introvert or extrovert or whether it’s walking the malls or maybe staying home and reading a book or just kind of spending time with family or whatever — whatever it is that’s appropriate or familiar with that attorney, but it’s good to kind of have that discussion or at least be aware of that and incorporate that into your daily schedules.
So we have one last question that I’m going to kind of throw out there. This question comes from young Laura out of Grand Prairie and her question is tailored about fear and the fear of I guess just — I guess generally being a young lawyer but her question is how do you get over the fear of jumping into something so new that’s so much and so just a perspective of being a brand-new newly minted young lawyer and all the fears that come with starting a career in law.
How did you prepare yourself, or I guess that maybe not the appropriate question but just how have you dealt with that fear, and does that fear ever go away?
Sally Pretorius: I have a funny kind of story. Somebody once told me this and I think it’s hilarious and it really is kind of the way your career goes is when you’re young attorney, you really think like you have this fear about like how you’re going to perform, but you don’t have a fear about how much you don’t know.
So you’re sort of practicing in this like little tunnel and I think that your fears change throughout your practice. Like I said, your first year fear is like I don’t know what I’m doing, do I look like an idiot, is the partner going to laugh at me, what’s going on here, but then as you start to know stuff and as you start to like prepare for your board certifications or whatever it is, you start to actually learn the law and like you have the experience I will look back at stuff that I did as a first-year attorney.
Like I remember when I started mock trial in law school so we were always taught like the Motions in Limine but I didn’t know that you don’t do Motions in Limine really before a bench trial. So I walked into my first trial as like a six-month attorney by myself and argued a Motion in Limine before the Judge and thankfully the other side was like very gracious and like looks like, well Judge, I don’t think that’s really appropriate, but we’ll agree not to go into that.
So looking back I can tell you that like I thought that was the right thing to do and I think that your fears just change along the lines. So like I don’t think that this fear is something that goes away and I think this fear is probably something that keeps you doing well as an attorney because if you ever get to the point where you’re not scared about what you’re doing or scared about a position of law or not sure about something and not questioning yourself, you’ll probably need to take a look back at what you’re doing because I’m always and maybe that’s just my opinion but I think that a little bit of fear is probably always healthy for our career.
Britney Harrison: I would 100% agree with that just having that fear because I think the fear in the beginning like she’s saying it’s like all the things that you don’t know or really all the things you’re like I’m afraid I’m going to screw this up, I’m going to talk to you fast, I’m going to do all the things I’m not supposed to do.
But as you do get older, you do fear the things that you don’t know, but I think the fear helps you with preparing, it makes you prepare more and you always want to be out prepared or you want to out prepare the other side if you can.
And so I think it’s just a healthy level like children should always have a slight level of fear for their parents to make sure they’re not doing things wrong. I think that the same kind of like level of like there’s got to be a little bit of fear in there.
But ways to cope with that is finding good mentors, talking to people in your field, like sometimes even though Sally and I are at the same firm, we might bounce questions off of each other because it’s always good to get a different perspective because you can’t think of everything. And so it’s always good to reach out to others in your field.
Victor Flores: Full disclosure, I’m not in the courthouse every day like these ladies are, but over the course of my career I’ve tried to improve my trial skills and so I have participated in some trial academies, and in one of those trial academies what they did is they recorded how we did and we were kind of scrutinized or at least critiqued on our performances and how we did in these either cross-examination or direct or opening and closing.
And what I realized was that internally I thought I butchered my cross and after reviewing a video of myself doing it and hearing the critique, it really wasn’t that bad. And so I think some of the fears are kind of work harder on ourselves and we should be.
Obviously, if you’ve graduated from law school and you passed the Bar exam, you’re qualified to a certain extent, you’re not going to be the great litigator that’s been practicing for 40 years. He or she has had time to really tweak those skills and perfect them.
But I guess my recommendation also is give yourself some grace. Fear is a key part that happens in trial advocacy and just in the profession of law you don’t want to mess up but give yourself some grace and allow yourself to kind of get there, allow yourself to practice those skills and hone in on those skills so you can be a good advocate. That’s just kind of my two cents.
Well, it looks like we’ve reached the end of our program and I want to thank these two incredible ladies, Britney and Sally; great leaders in our organization for TYLA. Thank you for joining us today. Thank you so much.
Sally Pretorius: Hey, you’re welcome. Thanks Vic.
Britney Harrison: Thanks for having us.
Victor Flores: If our listeners have questions or wish to follow up with you, how can they reach each of you?
Sally Pretorius: Yes, so my email is [email protected] and I’m happy to talk with anybody if you’re in Dallas. I always have a one free coffee policy, so if you want to go out to coffee, I’m happy to take you out for a cup of coffee.
Britney Harrison: Yes, email is probably best for me as well. It’s [email protected] or you can just go to the tyla.org website and you can find all of our contact information on there as well.
Victor Flores: Hey ladies, thanks, and that is all the time we have for this episode of the State Bar of Texas Podcast. Thank you to our listeners for tuning in.
If you like what you heard, please rate us and review us on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify or your favorite podcasting app. I’m Victor Flores and until next time, thank you for listening.
Outro: If you would like more information about today’s show, please visit legaltalknetwork.com. Go to texasbar.com/podcast. Subscribe via Apple Podcasts and RSS. Find both the State Bar of Texas and Legal Talk Network on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn or download the free app from Legal Talk Network in Google Play and iTunes.
The views expressed by the participants of this program are their own and do not represent the views of, nor are they endorsed by the State Bar of Texas, Legal Talk Network, or their respective officers, directors, employees, agents, representatives, shareholders, or subsidiaries. None of the content should be considered legal advice. As always, consult a lawyer.