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Lawyers, Lawyering, and Law Coaching - Part 2

Charlotte Lawyer and Master Coach Chris Connelly joins Law Talk with Bill Powers to discuss reviewing your law practice, life, and profession during the Coronavirus Outbreak.

Chris Connelly: Well, you're welcome. Yeah. I think it's important to point that out because there's a lot of value in talking to experts. Clients come to us and we're their experts and we have to talk to other people as their experts, and go to seek out their expertise. If you're not doing something new for wellness purposes, you're going to flame out. You're going to be one of the lawyers that we've seen through our careers, through our decades of just flaming out. And one day they're not there or one day they're in trouble.

Bill Powers: Right. And not there can mean a lot of different things, including not practicing law anymore. And I have seen-

Chris Connelly: Getting in-

Bill Powers: Go ahead.

Chris Connelly: Getting in trouble. Yeah.

Bill Powers: Getting in trouble, yeah.

Chris Connelly: Think about the lawyers we've seen, you see him on Friday and then come Monday, you find out that something happened. They had a heart attack over the weekend and they're not there anymore. They're gone. And we're preparing the memorial service and we're preparing the how do we help their clients navigate through the system now?

Bill Powers: Boy, you hit the nail on the head Chris. I can remember listening to David Teddy's eulogy of a very fond-

Chris Connelly: Bruce.

Bill Powers: Yeah, Bruce. That we all knew for years. One of the best lawyers I ever knew. Just a super nice guy. And I can think of just going through that point and just a flood of memories have come back of the different lawyers, just in the Mecklenburg County court system who at very young ages, some of them in their 30s, did not ... And I don't know what happened. Things happen to people in life, but one day they're there and one day they're not. And I don't think our profession unfortunately is ... Well let's just say we have room to improve. I'll leave it at that.

Bill Powers: Let me ask a couple of questions getting back to this sabbatical. I think all of us are kind of on a forced sabbatical. Of course, we don't get to travel the world, going to exotic places and meeting interesting people. How did you prepare for it? Chris, you are a lawyer's lawyer. You are a courtroom person. You are there in court every day, every session. You do state court, you do federal court. You're one of the busiest lawyers I know. And one of the balance issues I have in my life is just trying to figure out how to manage dockets. It's not counseling a client. It's not prepping for a trial. It's sitting in the dang courtroom waiting. And I don't mean to disrespect anybody, it's just the nature of the beast. But calendaring is such a huge and important issue. How did you prepare for your sabbatical calendaring?

Chris Connelly: Well, it took a lot of engineering to do that. I think the first and most important step I took was I set my mind that, okay, come June 1st of 2016, I am going to be on a three month sabbatical. I am not going back to the office until September 1st of 2016. And how do I make that happen? And that has to be at the forefront of your mind that this is a done deal, is going to happen, and you're going to make it happen and do what it takes to make it happen within the bounds of ethics and the law and so forth. But you have to set your mind to it. And once you set your mind to it, everything else falls in place.

Chris Connelly: I would say that it was an engineering process. It was like herding cats, but all the cats got herded in the end. And I think it's a lot to do with my own prayer life. I think this is where I was called to be and it was also where I set my mind to be. I got a coach to help me work through the process and work through all the ups and downs and the roadblocks and the stumbling blocks. I also found a very good local lawyer. I think you know him, Corey Rosensteel. Active lawyer, honest as the day is long. He agreed to basically babysit my practice for three months. We had worked it out that whatever cases came in, we'd work collaboratively on that. So he got some new business out of it, which is great.

Chris Connelly: Some of my more stalwart clients who had trouble during that time, he would basically do the triage and he would, as they say in the ER, stop the bleeding, get them situated, make sure there's no [inaudible 00:15:53] or warrants and get them situated. Then continue the case over until September when I was planning on coming back. He and I had worked that out and we had a good amount of contact leading up to that. I would say that I only came into the office for two hours during that entire three month period just to sign some checks and sign some things that needed to be signed. Getting a coach, getting somebody who is trustworthy and capable to cover your practice. And I think that's actually easier said than done because I think a lot of lawyers would be honored to be asked to cover the practice of a colleague. And they also want to help that colleague take some time off.

Chris Connelly: The third step is talking with your staff, making sure that they know, "Okay, I'm going to go away for a while. I will be available by phone or by email, but I'm not coming in the office. I will come back. You're not losing your job. Your jobs are safe. We have money in the bank to pay you if things get slow during this three month period." And reassuring them that there's still a place for them at the back end of this. Fourth step I would say would be to talk with your adversaries in the court and say, "Look, I know this is unusual, but would you mind working with me on this? And would you mind not scheduling my cases during this time period?"

Chris Connelly: And I primarily practice in Mecklenburg County, although I have some cases in Cabarrus County, and also have cases in federal court. And overall the DA's office and the US attorney's office and the court systems in federal and state court, they were exceptional about working with me. I think I had built a reputation as somebody who doesn't not show up to court, so I had a little bit of credit in the bank with them on that. But they were exceptional about working with me and saying, "Okay, you need some time off. That's fine." I didn't have anybody in custody at the time so that was one less problem to deal with. And they just agreed to not call my cases to trial during that time period. I think it was quite a topic of conversation because it's unprecedented. But I also think that there was a lot of support for me. I think people said like, "Wow, I wish I could do that. Or maybe I can do that."

Chris Connelly: And I think I probably planted some seeds in some people's minds about, "If Connelly can do it, maybe I can do it also." And then of course, one of the last steps is making sure your clients were okay with it and saying, "Hey, I want to take some time off. Are you okay with that? If you're not okay with it, I will refer you to another lawyer who will be available during that time period. And if you are okay with it, I do appreciate it. And let's work together on this because you're going to have a better lawyer coming back at the back end of it. Somebody who's refreshed and recharged and who's reinvigorated." It was herding cats. I probably would say it was about six or seven cats that had to be herded, but they all got herded.

Chris Connelly: It worked out pretty well. And everybody was cooperative. It's almost like there was an unseen hand or providence guiding this whole process so I can take some time off. And I think it did come down into the ... Again, I can't stress enough that it's important that you set your mind to do that in the beginning. That, okay, this is going to happen. This is where I am called to be, this is where I need to be, and how do I make all the pieces fall into place?

Bill Powers: Sure. And once again, you've said some things that are really, I think, important. I do have a question for you because ... And a fair number of our listeners are younger lawyers or even law students. And I don't know if people in the practice even realize this. Heck, I don't know if judges and even DAs realized this. I've yet to ever hear of a judge or a assistant district attorney ever saying, "I got to go ahead and file my secured leave notice." When you control the calendar, you don't have to do a secured leave notice in my mind.

Chris Connelly: You kind of make your own hours.

Bill Powers: Right. Well, that's an area for improvement in my humble opinion. But having said that, and I don't know if younger lawyers or law students realize this is that ... And this is something that we worked on very hard when I was within CAJ, modifying the secured leave notice and not just for maternity leave, but overall changing the process, or processes, I guess it would be, to take some time off. Under the rules of professional conduct we're basically giving three weeks off, five day segments normally. They cannot be broken up into individual days. They cannot be sequential.

Bill Powers: I think you have to give opposing counsel, it's either 90 or 120 days advanced notice. You can't file a secured leave notice with the purpose or intent of trying to get a continuance or delay something. But I'm not aware of any rule of professional conduct that allows for a 90 day, three month or so sabbatical. Is there something that you filed? You said you worked with people. Did you send some letters out? How did that go?

Chris Connelly: It was a collaborative approach. It was not something I could file of course because there is no secured leave for three months, although I certainly think there should be some allowance for that. But it was more of a handshake, an arrangement deal with lawyers and my adversaries in the DA's office and also the courts saying, "Hey, would you mind if I took this time off?" And it was kind of a gentleman's agreement to not call my cases during that time period. So there wasn't a notice per se, but that's probably a topic for another day.

Bill Powers: Sure. And again, for younger lawyers or law students, you may not realize that even if you do a notice of secured leave and you file it with the clerk of court and you transmit it to wherever DA's offices or opposing counsel that you have, the week after that they can throw you right back into a jury trial, which kind of makes it hard to maybe enjoy your vacation time with family. Again, it's an area for improvement, but I'm very glad to hear that you're using your adversary, a friend on the other side of the aisle of the courtroom. They were professional and that's what I would expect. In fact, the Mecklenburg County DA's office in my mind has always been very good about that with me personally and very understanding of that. So I'm glad to hear that.

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