Thoughts Going into the Internship at Smith Strong, PLC
As a prospective law student from Brisbane, Australia, I came to my internship at Smith Strong, PLC in Virginia ready to learn, and make the most of my two weeks shadowing attorney Van Smith.
As I now reflect on my short stay at the firm, I feel as though I have gained knowledge far beyond understanding the physical practice of law. That is, I have learnt about the nuances of ‘practicing’ law.
From my observation, this can be broken into three key areas; the management/internal control aspects of running a law firm, the psychological aspects underlying family law in particular, and the leadership qualities required to be a success not only in a small business setting, but in life.
The First Day: My Introduction to the Productivity Machine—Smith Strong, PLC
My education started before I’d even had a chance to step inside the offices of Smith Strong, PLC. Van was kind enough to drive me to and from work each day, these drives becoming a chance for me to ask questions and get the most out of the limited time I had. As we drove to work on that first brisk morning, Van began explaining how he operates, and what to expect. I came to discover that it is the small procedural details that have allowed Van to create what he calls the “productivity machine” that is Smith Strong, PLC.
The weekly Monday morning huddle allowed the whole team to discuss briefly the current status of each case, field any questions, and assign tasks for the week ahead. The documents associated with these tasks were then immediately ‘yellow sticky noted’ (on the top right hand corner of the page) with specific instructions. I was impressed simply by the ability of the attorneys to process new information and taken aback by the fact that all paralegals seemed to have an extensive knowledge of each case.
Hyper Focus on Managing by Organized, Calendared Tasks
As the days passed, I also learnt that the attorneys at Smith Strong, PLC do not take any unscheduled, inbound phone calls to minimize time wasted, thus allowing them to focus on completing productive, billable hours. Further to this, I noticed that Van would always schedule a follow up call if required before hanging up, “to maintain momentum,” and have it entered into the calendar – this date then acting as a deadline for both parties to complete relevant tasks.
What I was in fact witnessing was the “compounding success of early capital decisions,” as Van phrased it, to establish efficient and integrated internal control systems. As I prepare to embark on the challenge of law school in Australia, I have been pondering ways to transfer these time management skills to maximize my own productivity.
Family Law: Delicate Balance Between Law and Therapy
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how efficient these systems are unless you can then convert it to success. Having previously never encountered family law, I was unsure exactly what to expect. As the days ticked over, I found that tears and encountering clients with delicate mental states became a regular occurrence in a day in the life of a family lawyer.
I found this quite confronting at first, and it took an emotional toll.
I was continually amazed by Van’s emotional intelligence, patience, and ability to reach a fair result for all involved on numerous cases. Naturally, with more experience comes a greater understanding of the forces at play and inevitably, ‘thicker skin.’
Whilst lawyers are often required to be part counselor, and part therapist, “the key to negotiation,” Van noted, “is to care, but not too much.”
This quote from Van has stuck with me as a reminder to not get so caught up in emotions that you lose sight of the task at hand.
Understanding the Psychological Forces at Work in Every Negotiation
When I asked Van to further explain this idea of the underlying principles of law and negotiation, he explained that at a basic level, “people tend to be motivated by one of two psychological forces—victimization, or empowerment.”
Therefore, the key to success in this context is to understand what makes people tick, and then using this knowledge to reach an outcome. On more than one occasion Van would predict how the parties would respond to an offer, leaving me to watch in awe as proceedings unfolded exactly as planned.
Understanding this is important even before the client retains, and Van attributes his high closing rate to getting personal with potential new clients. What I didn’t realize was how planned each minor action of his was, from even something as simple as seating positions at the table of that first meeting, that allow for the client to feel more comfortable, to Van mimicking their posture and even as the meeting progresses, their breathing.
Again, whilst I may be a few years off utilizing these learning’s in the legal profession, I will definitely be looking to take advantage of this newfound knowledge in my everyday life.
Leadership: Pulling a Shared Load
With a keen eye for politics, and more generally leadership, many of our conversations revolved around the topic of what makes a good leader, not only as a political figure, but also as an entrepreneur/managing director.
Firstly it is important to distinguish between a ‘boss’ and a ‘leader.’ As Van explained to me, the schematic of a boss is someone who is riding the chariot, whipping the employees pulling below.
A leader, on the other hand, is in the front pulling the load with his/her employees.
Van notes that “this is something you can’t fake, they (employees) have to see and feel it.”
Further to this point, it’s important to demonstrate a sincere compassion for employees, which in turn influences how they will treat other coworkers and “that compounds throughout the community you’re building.”
I feel as though the word ‘community’ epitomizes the environment of Smith Strong, PLC.
Vision: An Entrepreneurial Future?
This is a credit to Van and I hope that I am able to emulate his success, perhaps one day practicing under ‘Candy & Associates—Barristers.’
As I now continue on my journey around the world, this January 2016 internship has reaffirmed my decision to study law and I would like to extend a thanks to everyone at Smith Strong, PLC for making this experience so valuable… yes even you Morgan Sears [paralegal], I’ll do my best to forget your driving back from lunch!
Article written by Trent Candy, of Brisbane, Australia, (a future Barrister) and Attorney Van Smith, a joint effort