Have you ever wanted to ask our capital partner, Frank Guerra, a question about being an attorney? Well, our summer law clerks (affectionately known as “Grasshopper” in the firm) had that exact opportunity.
Frank is a native South Texan who attended Texas A&M University for his undergraduate degree and then attended the University of Texas School of Law to obtain his Doctor of Jurisprudence. He has played a significant role in obtaining verdicts for the firm in many venues. He has handled a large variety of cases dealing with various types of litigation ranging from personal injury, commercial, product liability, and large mass tort cases. Utilizing his wealth of knowledge and depth of experience in court, his goal is to help guide the law clerks as they begin their journeys in the legal profession.
To aide in their journeys, our summer law clerks were given the opportunity to ask questions. The topics ranged from areas like starting your own law firm to his favorite class in law school. In this first segment, he is addressing all the questions that were asked regarding his experience with being a lawyer.
Trial lawyers are fighter pilots. The alpha personalities that accompany most trial attorneys tend to be one of the most challenging aspects of being a trial attorney. From an expectation standpoint, trial attorneys were raised their whole life with the predictable truth that if you put the hard work in to get ready for battle and work harder than anybody else, then there should be the predictable result of a win. In a trial, however, because both sides are doing the exact same thing, you really don’t know who is going to win.
Dealing with the unpredictability of working hard, doing everything you should be doing, and preparing yourself as well as you can for your client and still potentially losing the trial is a challenge when you have an alpha personality. When you do lose (and if you haven’t lost you haven’t tried enough cases) not taking it personally is very difficult. Someone’s real life is always going to be affected and you tend to feel like it’s your fault if you lose, but that is not the case at all. You have to remember that every trial has two stories, every trial has two sides, and eventually, you have one person (a judge or twelve people that are complete strangers) deciding who is wrong and who is right. The only consistent end result is that someone is going to be wrong and someone is going to be right in every single trial. Judge yourself by fighting the fight, not necessarily winning the fight.
What gets me out of bed and keeps me excited about going to work every day are the clients. One of the rules in law is that you are supposed to be objective and try and keep it as professional as possible, but I do the complete opposite. I care very deeply for my clients and I get very passionate about them. I feel like I am really changing lives and that is what keeps me going every day.
We are blessed in this law firm that we have opportunities to handle cases all over the country for all different types for our clients. We are always looking for the next biggest fight, with the next best lawyers, and the next big challenge. Additionally, we are constantly striving to push ourselves to grow as attorneys and help others in any way we can. I hope that as I continue to grow in my profession and my career that I get to try bigger cases in bigger venues with great defense lawyers on the other side to keep me on my toes.
I do get nervous prior to speaking before a court or jury, but that is supposed to happen because you are getting ready for battle. The way you deal with it is to embrace it. The adrenaline rush you experience when you are nervous is part of the process and something you will always deal with. In fact, you should worry if you don’t feel it because that is an indicator that you are getting bored with your profession. So, embrace it, know it is going to happen, know it is a part of the process, and once you begin talking it all goes away.
Although nervousness is inevitable, you can still implement measures to help it ease faster. I suggest you practice, practice, practice, and get as much experience as you can. Take every opportunity you have to go argue, anything that you can, so that way you start feeling more comfortable doing it. This includes practicing opening statements and closing arguments as well. Practice in front of family members, in front of the mirror, record yourself doing it and give yourself constructive criticism.
I am a firm believer in the collective wisdom of the crowds. For those looking to start your own practice remember that it’s always hard to hang up your own shingle because, by definition, there is no collective wisdom to rely on. You are on your own. In fact, I often admire solo practitioners because the hardest thing to do as a lawyer is to evaluate something by yourself. It’s called the practice of law for a reason. So, if you are going to hang up your own shingle by yourself, become a part of lawyer groups. Be a part of TTLA, SATLA, the American Bar Association, or other organizations like that because they provide forums for single practitioners to ask questions, obtain information, and implore the collective wisdom of the crowds in a way that benefits them. That is what they are there for, so make use of them.
My second piece of advice for those wanting to start their own practice is to know your limitations. As a solo practitioner, you will have the urge to take on the cases all the time because that is how you survive. However, you must keep in mind that there is just one of you so you need to know when it is time to associate with another law firm. If you have a case that you believe is expensive or you just can’t handle it by yourself, don’t be proud. Associate with another lawyer and another law firm. You will get the same benefit from an experience standpoint, but you won’t string yourself out on time or finances. Through both of these pieces of advice, joining groups, and knowing your limitations, the main takeaway is to reach out to others for help even if you are in business by yourself.
The type of practice you want to start depends on the amount of experience you will need. There was a long time when I did not hire lawyers with less than 5 years of experience because I believed that they really weren’t capable of handling the high-end cases that our law firm handles on a daily basis. I think that is now a fallacy. Depending on the types of cases you have, obviously the less complicated cases, you can handle right out of law school. On top of that, attorneys can learn by reaching out to other people to see how they do it. The more complicated cases (commercial cases that are high end, patent cases, mass torts, product liability, etc.) require a bit more experience. I would not touch those by yourself unless you’re at least above five years (probably more than ten years) into practicing law.
The point is though, it is not really a function of time but rather a function of experience. For example, if you get out of law school and try cases like Mikal and I did (where you try ten cases that first year and twenty cases that next year) where it makes you have a lot of trials under your belt, then you are better prepared to handle cases quickly due to the experience you received. However, if you sit in an office, and don’t get out there, and don’t expose yourself to trying cases, then you will not be as prepared to handle any case. Ultimately just remember that it is a function of experience more than time, but know your limitations
Right before I graduated from law school, I sent only one resume to one law firm which was a defense firm. All I wanted to do was try cases. For my first five years, every Monday, I was in my vehicle traveling somewhere to go try a 3 or 4 day a week trial in some South Texas venue. This workload made me receive an inordinate amount of trial experience, which is different from almost every single lawyer I know. One of the very first cases I tried was with Mikal in which we were on opposite sides of each other. In fact, we almost killed each other in the courtroom which made us bonded in a way that most people don’t bond.
In the fifth year of my defense practice, a team of members from the law firm and I decided that it was time to make a move. The timing was right because Mikal was climbing the popularity chart by being one of the more well-known trial lawyers across the country and he needed help. So, we formed the Watts Guerra office, back when it was Watts law firm, of San Antonio in April 2001. It wasn’t hard to make the transition because Watts Law Firm had a lot of really good cases coming in at the time and San Antonio was in need of a powerhouse Plaintiff’s law firm. We filled that need.
As I continued to grow in the practice that Mikal had, I was doing well, so Mikal elevated me to capital partner in 2009.
The three skills I believe that comprise a successful attorney are having balance, a strong work ethic, and managing your ego.
Whether it be your first year or your twentieth-year practicing law, remember Frank’s advice to keep your ego in check, keep striving for improvement, and never stop working hard. Gather as much experience as you can and remember to reach out to your community when you need help. Stay tuned for the next portion of Frank’s interview in the coming weeks!
Board Certified – Personal Injury Law
Texas Board of Legal Specialization
WATTS GUERRA LLP
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San Antonio, Texas 78257
Phone: (210) 447-0500