Surviving and Thriving in a Pandemic, Part 2

Unprecedented times. Navigating the crisis. Stay-at-home orders issued.

These are the headlines of the day. And every lawyer – regardless of age, experience, or circumstances – has been affected.

Maybe you had high hopes for launching your legal career but didn’t plan for a pandemic. Or perhaps your career is well underway, yet the pandemic has created challenges never before encountered and not yet fully defined.

For answers, I talked with a few people who started practicing law during or immediately after another crisis, the Great Recession. 

And while the situations aren’t identical – what worked in 2008 might not work now – their stories of evolving and thriving give us hope and a blueprint for moving forward.

Look for Inner Strength: Niya Fonville

Niya Fonville graduated from the University of Miami Law School in 2008. Following graduation, Niya began a 1-year fellowship with Legal Aid of North Carolina, Inc. in Morganton. Niya had her job secured before graduation. While many of her classmates were experiencing a tough job market with very few jobs available and employers rescinding offers, Niya’s position was funded by a grant and guaranteed for one year. As her grant was expiring, another lawyer left and Niya moved into her role and stayed with LANC for 10 years.

As a result of the economic impact of The Great Recession, many more individuals became financially eligible for services and found themselves needing assistance from LANC. At the same time, LANC was facing their own reverberations of the recession and the Morganton office went from serving five counties to serving nine counties in western NC.

“Starting my career during a recession required me to look for inner strength. My family, particularly my grandfather, instilled in me a great work ethic. When you have a job to do, it is expected that you do it. Additionally, you figure out how to make do with what you have. Find an alternative, if necessary, to get the job done.”

After 10 years, Niya decided to make a career change and she joined Campbell Law School as the Associate Director for Career & Professional Development. She coaches the next generation of lawyers through programming, exploration of career options and instructing in the summer Externship Program.

Advice for managing work during a crisis? 

“Exhibit resiliency, grace (to myself and others), and a willingness and eagerness to learn. Be creative and innovative in your approach. Welcome challenges. Seek a mentor or guidance from supervisors and colleagues. But no matter what, DON’T GIVE UP. This is an honorable profession, and your presence, lived experiences, integrity, and existence makes it better.”

When thinking about a post-COVID world, Niya says, “I hope that we continue to extend grace and compassion to ourselves and to each other. To remember that we are all dealing with issues outside of the legal matter that brings us together, but, nevertheless, most of us are trying to do the best that we can.”

Be Willing to Wear Different Hats: Neil Magnuson

Neil Magnuson graduated from UNC Law School in 2009. “I clerked for Williams Mullen during the summer prior to my 3L year and received an offer at the end of that summer.  Many firms at the time had to push back start dates for incoming associates, and Williams Mullen did so in our case but, fortunately, they were able to bring us in after a few months’ delay (during which they also graciously provided us a stipend).  I understand that some other firms at the time were forced to postpone start dates for even longer or, in some cases, retract offers, so I felt very fortunate to have been able to begin when I did.”

What strengths did you develop by starting work during a recession?

“In hindsight, I suppose it would have been the efforts during my first year or two out of law school to try to learn as much as I could, as quickly as I could, while trying to do good work when I had work to do.  I also endeavored to never turn down work, so long as I felt confident I had the time to get it done, and done well.  Eventually, I was able to gain experience handling a variety of matters, which luckily led to my being able to stay busy.  The breadth of experience has also been helpful in-house, where one may need to wear different hats from time to time.”

Today, Neil works as Media Counsel for NASCAR Media Ventures. “I work on the media side of the NASCAR business, primarily doing transactional work for the digital and broadcasting teams.  I draft and review contracts, advise on media and IP matters, and help maintain our IP portfolio, among other things.”

NASCAR sounds like a dream job that perfectly suits Neil’s skill set. 

“Prior to law school, I was a software engineer in the sports television industry – more on the productions / graphics and statistics side of sports television.  Certainly, I had great interest in someday returning to the sports (and television) world on the legal side but expected that opportunities to do so would not present often.  Fortunately, a position opened up at NASCAR five years ago that seemed to be a good fit and, luckily, I was hired.  And it has been a good fit, and a wonderful place to work.  I grew up on stick-and-ball sports, but I now love a NASCAR race.”

She Wrote a Book: Venus Liles

Venus Liles has a great pandemic story to share. An in-house attorney at SAS Institute in Cary, she also moonlights on the side, helping startups and small to mid-sized businesses with their corporate legal needs. 

Venus has two small kids, Violet (age five) and Ivy (age three). As Venus says, “I searched for a children’s book to help explain the coronavirus and social distancing to my kids. When I couldn’t find one, I decided to write it myself. I knew from the beginning that although I wanted the book to explain the coronavirus and good hygiene practices to kids, what I really wanted the book to focus on was the emotional side of social distancing. I also wanted the book to have a hopeful ending. I wrote the whole thing in one sitting, but a significant number of late-night edits followed. It was such a time-sensitive subject matter that I had to act quickly.”

When asked whether her girls are old enough to appreciate that their mommy wrote a children’s book, Venus says, “My older daughter gets it and was very interested in the writing process. They both have a paperback copy in their rooms and refer to it as ‘mommy’s book,’ which is sweet.”

Venus devotes a portion of the book proceeds – as well as revenue from her law firm – to charity.

“I just really love the idea of giving back in different ways. With the book, I’m able to help families have honest conversations with their children about what’s going on the world and donate funds to the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 Response Fund. With my company, I’m able to help startups and small businesses with affordable legal services and give back to local nonprofits. All of that makes the hard work completely worth it.”

We are in Uncharted Territory

You have probably never experienced a pandemic or had to develop a plan for surviving one. Both are scary. But with a plan, and the advice and counsel of our colleagues, we can not only survive this challenge, but emerge even stronger.

Camille Stell is the President of Lawyers Mutual Consulting & Services and a specialist in working with lawyers and firms on strategic planning and succession planning. Continue this conversation by contacting Camille at camille@lawyersmutualconsulting.com or 800.662.8843.

Quay Wembley is an ECU Pirate and a 2L at the North Carolina Central School of Law. Quay was a 2020 summer intern with Lawyers Mutual and gaining valuable experience watching the New Normal of law practice develop in front of him. You can reach Quay at qwembley4316@gmail.com.

About The Author

Nicky Dunlap