CAREER PATHS – Julie Garfield

Julie Garfield

Interviewed by Cynthia Thomas


Julie Garfield is a solo practitioner who handles all aspects of civil dispute resolution before State and Federal courts, arbitrators and administrative agencies for clients with matters relating to real estate, business, contracts, construction defects, judicial foreclosure, professional malpractice defense and employment.  Licensed in California, Oregon and Alaska, since 1990, Ms. Garfield has offered her services throughout California to her own clients and to other attorneys who need additional support from time to time with the ebb and flow of their own litigation workloads.

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Tell me how you got started on your career path?
My parents were both college graduates and worked in medicine.  From an early age I assumed that college and a profession of some kind were in my future.  I started to give serious thought to choosing a career path by the time I was 14 years old.  I rejected medicine and veterinary science early on as the sight of blood just wasn’t for me.  Lacking any artistic skill, architecture was likewise quickly eliminated.  I did not particularly enjoy the study of advanced math and science required to be an engineer.  My experience as a summer camp counselor led me to eschew the thought of classroom teaching.  I found daunting the “publish or perish” paradigm then applied to university professors.  

By virtue of growing up with four mostly older brothers I already understood at a basic level the power of words, the arts of persuasive negotiation and problem solving, and how to “take” whatever was dished out by my siblings.  As an adolescent, law was the only profession that seemed like it could be a good fit, so that is what I had in mind from that time forward. Becoming an attorney was the right choice for me; I am one of the few truly happy lawyers that I know.

Was there something in during your law school experience that sent you to the courtroom?
During the first two years of law school, I was unsure that litigation would be the right area of law for me.  I was not concerned because I already understood there were many other ways to productively use legal training.  However, my focus changed when I participated in a full-time externship program for six months spanning the summer and first semester of my third year of law school.   For the first three months, I was in the courtroom almost daily while I worked the misdemeanor calendar for a municipal prosecutor, including bench trials.  Later, I was assigned significant civil law and motion work along with research and preparation of advisory memoranda during another three months with the civil division of that same municipal attorney office.

This practical experience provided me with my epiphany: research, construction and presentation of persuasive written and oral argument, whether in the context of advice or courtroom advocacy, were an acceptable way for me to earn a living as a lawyer.  Although I did battle with my nerves for quite a while when actually presenting in court, I gained the necessary confidence during my externship and was ready to go by the time graduation rolled around six months later. 

A testament to the efficacy of that on–the-job training is that I successfully briefed and argued summary judgment motions while a law student and successfully defended one such ruling making new law for that State that was appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court after graduation, but before I was admitted to the bar.

How did you find your first job after law school?
At graduation, I had the luxury of being offered two positions.  The one I reluctantly refused was with a mid-sized AV-rated firm in downtown San Francisco, which did not have a litigation position open at the time and where I was offered a position with the tax and probate department.  The genesis of that offer was a chance meeting several years earlier on the Lake Tahoe ski slopes when a senior partner of that firm and I had an occasion to meet and to talk extensively while we waited for our chair lift to restart following some kind of motor malfunction.

The offer I accepted was to return to the Anchorage municipal attorney’s office where I had been an extern, to handle civil advice and advocacy assignments for various municipal departments.  For a new attorney, practice in Alaska was different from practice in San Francisco in that I was allowed to take on as much responsibility as I felt ready to handle and demonstrated I could in fact handle. I was and still am a real “go-getter.”  I had so much career satisfaction and fun that I stayed in that job for more than a decade, until circumstances beyond my control caused me to move on.

How did you find your next job?
Family considerations occasioned my return to the San Francisco Bay Area.  Not wishing to be cold any longer, I rejected the foggy days recalled from a childhood passed in San Francisco and focused on the place in my memory of warm summer days in Marin County.  I figured that I could commute easily from there to wherever my next job might be located.

Without a book of business, a lateral position was not an easy move to make. With the use of Martindale Hubbell, I identified firms located outside of the City of San Francisco and sent my resume to them as well as local government attorney offices.  As a result, I received several job interviews with larger firms, but ultimately rejected those opportunities, concluding that the big firm culture was not a good fit for me.  Ultimately, a small firm in Marin County hired me.  I took a significant pay cut as the price of the move, but it was worth doing so because that job facilitated the move back to California. 

About 18 months after relocating to California, in 1990, I opened my solo office in Marin County, specializing in real estate, construction defects, and business and employment disputes both for my own clients and as contract attorney supporting other attorneys.  I have been doing that ever since and am constantly looking for California attorneys who might benefit from the support services I offer on those occasions when there is simply too much work to handle with their normal resources.

What do you like about working in Marin County?
I enjoy being part of the Marin County legal community.  Resources and colleagues tend to be accessible and helpful.  Courtroom personnel are friendly and helpful. 

What have been some of your career successes and disappointments?
I have been very fortunate in my professional life – there have been a few irritating little bumps in the road here and there, but no major setbacks or disappointments.  I have had a great track record in terms of forging productive relationships with clients and colleagues and getting good results for my clients. On the rare occasions when the desired result was not obtained, I was confident in the knowledge that I had done the best I could for my client given the surrounding facts and circumstances. 

Have you ever stepped off your career path or made a significant career change?
After several years as a staff attorney with the Alaska municipal attorney’s office, I was appointed to the position responsible for administration of ten attorneys, their support staff and the entire civil office.  I soon found that the amount of time I had to devote to administrative matters threatened to swallow the time available to perform substantive legal work, as I had chosen to retain regular responsibility for some of my departmental clients rather than entirely devote myself to administration, as had my predecessors.  As a result, I adopted a variety of strategies to improve my time management skills but still found it difficult to create a suitable balance between administrative duties and substantive law practice.

A few years into this arrangement, I was being pressured by my spouse to leave Alaska for a warmer climate.  I had no interest in leaving, but recognized that it was his turn in this regard.  A compromise was struck both with my spouse and the Municipal Attorney:  in lieu of my resignation and relocation, I returned to a staff attorney position and commenced a 9-month annual work schedule that allowed for us to live outside Alaska for three months starting after the Super Bowl in January.  While a technical deviation from a traditional career path, I considered this arrangement to be a real coup.  Talk about work-life balance – this was it!

What kind of things have you done to develop clients for your business?
I have always found the power of personal connection to be the most productive means of finding and keeping clients, whether they are other attorneys for whom I provide contract attorney services or lay clients who I fully represent.

While some referrals may come from one’s own clients or repeat business with a particular client, in my experience, most come from other lawyers.  Accordingly, it is my practice and advice to others that they make the effort to meet their target clients by participating in social activities and conferences attended by the target clientele to foster face-to-face interaction.  In addition, get to know your colleagues by attending local bar functions and let them know the areas in which you prefer to work and that you would welcome referrals in your practice areas.  If you are presented with a matter that you do not want to take, make your own referrals and make sure the other attorneys know that the referrals came from you. 

How has the practice of law changed in the time that you have been practicing?
Three significant changes have occurred since I graduated from law school: (1) electronic research and access to information; (2) computer-based office management and organization tools; and (3) the acceptance of paralegal support.

What are some of the current challenges of the legal system?
The most obvious challenges to meeting legal needs are (1) the current cutbacks that are reducing the court’s efficiency and (2) the excessive cost of dispute resolution.  The court’s “fast track” approach coupled with an increased emphasis on use of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) methods implemented years ago were significant steps in the right direction.  Fast track seems to be losing ground now due to the more limited access to the courts caused by fiscal belt tightening in all public sectors.  ADR options, however, are ever more available, as more veteran attorneys are choosing to become mediators and arbitrators.  For ADR to be most effective, ways need to be found to encourage the attorneys and their clients to more quickly prepare and present their cases through ADR. 

What advice would you give to stay ahead of the curve of change in profession?
Recognizing that there are some cases that may require disposition by trial, I would recommend that, for every other kind of case, an attorney take responsibility for being part of the solution, rather than part of the problem, by doing what he or she can to speed up preparation for ADR and to prepare the client to resolve the case at that stage. 

Steps in this direction could include, for example, not taking on more work than the attorney can expeditiously handle with available firm resources, hiring extra help offered by a contract attorney to stay or to get back on track with desired timetables for completion of work, promptly initiating and completing discovery, identifying ways to narrow the issues prior to ADR by use of stipulations of fact and declarations in lieu of live direct testimony for some witnesses, by identifying an acceptable ADR provider early and scheduling the procedure well in advance for a date by which the attorneys reasonably expect to be ready to participate in ADR, etc.

What is some of the best advised you received?
I was very fortunate to have had the benefit of a superb group of attorney-mentors in my early years of practice, all of whom helped me stretch professionally and develop good habits that have served me well in my efforts to be an excellent attorney while enjoying a bountiful personal life. 

Most remembered among the advice I received, mainly by way of their example, was

  1. Do your best
  2. First impressions do matter, making preparation and timeliness key ingredients of success
  3. Make no assumptions unless unavoidable, as assumptions are often wrong
  4. Ask for help when you need it
  5. Have as much fun as you can in all aspects of your professional and personal life

What is some advice you would give a young attorney entering the field today?
Therefore, I could render no better service to more recently minted attorneys than to pass along the foregoing advice that I, have found so useful over my long and still enduring career.

Finally, attend as many attorney related events as possible.  I would suggested to get involved immediately with your local bar association, since they tend to be smaller and comprised of people in your geographical location who can help you in landing your first job.  Their size can help you to feel like you can become an active member of the group quickly. 

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