"A Day in the Life of an Attorney” Panel Discussion for Law Students


Five members of the Dallas Association of Young Lawyers (DAYL) presented a panel discussion today for law students at UNT Dallas College of Law. Using the theme, “A Day in the Life,” the moderator and panelists described their typical day or week as representatives of varying kinds of practice, and firms of different sizes. The Office of Career and Professional Development hosted the event and provided lunch for the students and speakers.

The panel moderator, Ashley Withers of Jackson Walker L.L.P., was joined by panelists who covered four areas of law in their discussion: family law, transactional, criminal and civil. The panelists participating today were:

L-R: Robert Withers, Ashley Withers, Chelsea Hilliard, Assistant Dean Courteney Harris,
Sam Ackels, Miles McDougal

Chelsea Hillard practices a broad range of commercial litigation. She described her typical day/week (when not in trial) as spending the morning dealing with pressing phone calls and emails and the afternoon drafting and reviewing documents; in court 2-3 times per month when not in trial. During 2014, Ms. Hillard had two trials and a month-long arbitration. “Schedules are really different when you’re preparing for trial or in trial,” she added.

In contrast, Sam Ackels told students he is in court four days per week and in multiple courts in the same day. As a criminal defense attorney, Mr. Ackels estimates he sees three to four clients per morning in courts and negotiates with prosecutors in mornings as well. His afternoons are generally spent with phone calls and client meetings. He prepares for the next day or next week in court in the evenings.

Robert Withers good-naturedly describes his family law practice as “controlled chaos.” While he averages being in court about twice per month, his goal is to try and avoid his clients going to court due to the expense for them. He spends a lot of time drafting documents and handling discovery requests and responses.

“Family Law clients are frequently dealing with emotional situations and they have no legal background. It’s really important to help them by being very clear with explanations and not using legalese,” added Mr. Withers.

Miles McDougal deals mainly with transactional tax work and pointed out that his schedule is probably more predictable and structured. As a young attorney in a large firm, he describes his “client” as the partner he works with.

When the moderator steered the discussion to professionalism, great advice from the panelists followed, frequently prompted by student questions. One panelist stressed developing good relationships with the clerks and coordinators in the courts, and being open with them when you need help or have a question. Mr. McDougal carried the theme back to working inside a firm and being willing to ask questions inside the firm, too. “The partners know you’re a new lawyer, and they expect you to ask questions. Asking questions is how you learn.”

The topic of networking created a lot of discussion and questions from students. “It is so, so important to meet new people, to stay in touch with your classmates, and to get to know attorneys in other firms,” began Mr. McDougal. He, and other panelists, encouraged students to join the Dallas Bar Association and take advantage of the opportunities to meet and network with attorneys through DBA events.

When a student asked for suggestions on what to talk about at a DBA social event, the responses were specific. Examples include, “learn about the other person by asking open-ended questions,” “listen for ways you might be able to help them,” “ask if they know someone that works in an industry you’re interested in learning about,” and “find a method that works for you to keep a list of the people you know and a way to periodically keep in touch with them.” Ms. Hilliard told them “if you don’t make time to stay in touch, two years can go by and you will not have done it at all."

"The Office of Career and Professional Development creates so many opportunities for our class to learn about real-world experiences.” Pat Gallagher, 1L

The importance of networking, making friends, and staying in touch is about business as well as friendship. “This is an industry where a lot of business comes from referrals from other attorneys and from current or previous clients. It’s important to help others when you can, because it all comes back around,” agreed the panel.

Other topics covered by the panel included the importance of demonstrating that others can trust you. “It’s not enough that people know you,” said Ms. Hilliard. “People don’t hire attorneys they don’t trust.”

The panel had good suggestions on how new and young attorneys can demonstrate skills outside of the immediate workplace and build visibility in the legal community.  Get involved, serve on a committee, speak at events, take on a volunteer project – all of these present opportunities to meet people and also demonstrate that you are a responsible, professional, trustworthy, capable person.

“Hearing from different lawyers practicing different kinds of law reminded me of how truly diverse the law profession is.” Sophia Mai, 1L

Another helpful discussion was created by a question students frequently ask attorneys: “How did you know what kind of law you wanted to practice? When did you know you had it figured out?” Although it was a serious question, the panelists laughed. It appeared to be the laughter of self-recognition, and their responses proved this to be the case.

“I was convinced I was going to practice in a certain area when I started law school, but here I am loving something completely different,” said Sam Ackels. “Don’t pigeonhole yourself too soon,” he added.

Ms. Hilliard encouraged students not to be too narrow in their exploration during law school. “My practice started pretty broad and now I can identify specific sub-practices that I really enjoy.”

The panel all agreed that the students’ experience in the classroom with a practice area should not shape their final decision. “You may hate a class and thoroughly enjoy the hands-on reality of the same practice area in the real world,” they advised.