Legal Innovators & Leaders: An interview with Steve Epstein
Typically when one thinks about lawyers transitioning, we think about lawyers transitioning out of practice. However, Steve Epstein of Poyner Spruill is changing the way we think of “transitioning.” After 25 years in litigation Steve decided to transition to family law. Steve went from representing companies to helping individuals navigate some of life’s most significant problems.
Steve’s personal experience in family court fueled his desire to want to do more to help people dealing with similar situations. He knew that his transition would come with its challenges, but his desire to make a difference in the lives of others and the support of this colleagues gave him the confidence he needed to jump into the world of family law. We had a chance to talk to Steve about his transition.
LM: What led you to change practice areas after such a long career in litigation? What was it that attracted you to family law?
SE: Commercial litigation typically involves representing large, amorphous companies. Most of what is at stake is money—either protecting it against litigation filed by others or trying to obtain it from those who allegedly did wrong. Though I worked with and for individuals, usually in corporate legal departments, I did not feel my work was making a significant difference in their lives, however successful we may have been. Meanwhile, I was going through my own separation and divorce, including resolving issues over the custody of my children. Dealing with that, and sitting in courtrooms watching others litigate similar issues, I realized that family law was an area in which I could help people solve life’s most significant problems, and that success in this arena could make life-long differences in the lives not only of the litigants, but their children as well. I felt called to jump into this new arena. So I did.
LM: What challenges did you face during your transition?
SE: Other than what I learned in my own case, I knew very little about family law nearly 25 years into law practice. I realized that I needed to take all the CLE I could, read all I could, and learn all I could. I spent many a day sitting in family court courtrooms watching others practice and seeing how judges presided. It was like drinking from a fire hose. Family law is much more complex than most lawyers who do not practice in the area realize. There are so many subtleties and nuances, as well as large areas of gray in the law and huge discretion afforded to judges. Very different from commercial litigation. When I finally landed my first two family law clients, it wasn’t long before each decided to obtain other attorneys. I began doubting myself and my decision to make this career change. Fortunately, I hung in there. And after 2 ½ years, my practice has grown significantly.
LM: What advice do you have for other attorneys who are interested in changing practice areas?
SE: There is probably a reason why you are considering the change. It may be economic. It may be necessity. Or it may be, like me, you are looking for something different. Something new. Something that truly excites you. Whatever the reason, if you feel that pull, explore it. Talk to others in that practice area and find out what would be involved in making the shift. Start taking some CLE. Start reading. Like a new relationship, you will quickly know if it was meant to be. If it was, the economics should take care of themselves. If you are truly passionate about what you are doing, the work will come. And you will be more fulfilled.
LM: What would you say is the key to a successful transition of practice areas?
SE: At the most crude level, the key is obviously building a client base in your new practice area so that you can have a profitable practice. But you will only get there if you learn everything you need to know and make the networking connections that will permit a successful transition. It is a great opportunity to meet lawyers you have never worked with, appear before judges for the first time (I had never appeared before a district court judge in nearly 25 years of practice), and market yourself in a whole new way.
LM: What role did your firm play in helping you with your transition?
SE: My firm was instrumental in helping me make this transition. There was no other lawyer in the firm practicing family law. And actually a firm policy against the practice. I sat down with my managing partner and told him what I wanted to do. Without blinking an eye, he said: “Steve, if this is what you want to do, we will support you.” And he and the firm have. With resources (personnel and money), marketing support (including filming a video series posted to the firm web site), and lots and lots of encouragement. My firm’s support has been huge and so appreciated.
LM: What was your biggest fear when preparing to move into practicing family law?
SE: My biggest fear was the ultimate fear: failure. I was afraid of failing my clients because I didn’t know enough. I was afraid of being outlawyered by practitioners who had had many hundreds of family law clients and cases for years when I was walking into these courtrooms for the first time with my very first clients. I had the same fears a brand new lawyer has the first day they walk into a courtroom and realize they are the most inexperienced attorney there.
LM: Do you have any final tips for our readers?
SE: I think what gave me a leg up on making this transition was that there was a common connection between my old practice and my new practice. Family law litigation is still litigation. It involves pleadings, rules of procedure and evidence, and the trial of facts. I had been doing all of those things my entire career. So though I felt like a fish out of water in my first family court proceedings, I felt very comfortable presenting legal arguments to judges, presenting evidence, and examining witnesses. I knew my command of the substantive issues would come with time, patience, and practice. So my advice for those considering a similar change would be that a change will be easier if there is some connection between your old practice area and your new one.