By Patrick Connelly, originally published in Buffalo Law Journal, Buffalo Business First on Aug 12, 2019, 6:00pm EDT.
Caitlin O’Neil, Christina Gullo Largo and others share tips they’ve learned as they build lasting legal careers
Attorneys Christina Gullo Largo and Caitlin O’Neil are still surprised at the large number of people who came to an after-work event in June that they helped plan.
Both are vice presidents of the Rising Champions of Justice board, a recently created group that’s part of the Erie County Bar Association’s Volunteer Lawyers Project.
The group’s goal was to plan an annual event that would appeal to a younger crop of lawyers. Attendees could have fun while learning about VLP and its programs.
Largo, O’Neil and other board members settled on a mixer at Big Ditch Brewing Co. in Buffalo.
“The idea came about that we should have a fundraiser in the summer when it’s nice and sunny and at a place where people like to go (with their friends),” O’Neil said.
The event, dubbed “Beers and Volunteers,” attracted a sellout crowd.
“I don’t think we could be happier about the turnout,” Largo said. “I think it reflects the bigger issue that people just don’t know about the pro bono opportunities (available through VLP). And I think … by getting younger attorneys involved, they’re going to stay involved.”
Largo is an attorney at Kantor Law Firm PLLC and O’Neil is an associate at Connors LLP.
They said that for lawyers to take interest in pro bono work, it’s best to encourage it early in their careers so they build it into their routines.
“Not only are you giving back to the community but you can be learning valuable skills and you can be gaining a mentor and networking (with others), so there are a lot of upsides,” Largo said.
She and O’Neil are 2015 graduates of the University at Buffalo School of Law. Their work with VLP and other organizations helped them in getting acclimated with the Western New York legal scene, meet prospective mentors from outside their firms and gain exposure for their budding practices.
“My advice is to go to everything you have an opportunity to go to and join everything you have an opportunity to join,” O’Neil said. “Lawyers like to talk and somebody will always talk to you and give to the conversation, no matter what.”
A good start
Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, senior associate at Phillips Lytle LLP, takes networking cues from what his father taught him as he ran a small business.
“I had the opportunity to learn how to get involved in the community and (learn how to) utilize your time in a manner that made sense to develop certain (future) opportunities,” he said.
Fitzgerald carried that mindset into his legal career and said he uses networking as a tool to meet new mentors and new clients.
“I think that … your career has different stages of development,” he said.
His practice area, while based in real estate and environmental law, is diversified in several sectors. Networking with professionals through Western New York United, where he volunteers, as well as through trade associations and via the bar association helped him grow his practice.
Fitzgerald is chair of ECBA’s Environmental Law Committee. He said he learns a lot from other attorneys at the monthly meetings.
“(ECBA’s many committees) provide a lot of opportunities for young attorneys to get involved to help advance your career,” he said. “It allows you to get a different perspective with attorneys who you may not work with on an everyday basis.”
Elizabeth Fox-Solomon, president of the local chapter of the Women’s Bar Association of the State of New York, said she took time early in her career to join and be active in the group she now leads.
“It’s a great way to meet mentors informally,” said Fox-Solomon, an attorney in the Buffalo office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
“There are a lot of formal mentoring programs but a lot of mentors (of mine) I’ve met through women’s bar events and just with other connections with attorneys who are passionate about the community, passionate about legal services and our mission.”
While in law school, O’Neil was a student board member of BASNY, a position the group has each year.
“I went to all the board meetings and I sort of learned what the legal community was like through that lens,” O’Neil said. “It was sort of reiterated to me when I started at my firm to keep up with what the bar association is doing. It’s like the pulse of practice in the area.”
Ashlyn Capote, associate at Goldberg Segalla, moved from Detroit to Buffalo in 2013 and used ECBA as a doorway into the legal community here.
She’s now co-chair of ECBA’s Young Lawyers Committee with Buffalo attorney Charles Kruly.
“I didn’t have any connection at all to Buffalo, the local law school, local attorneys or anything like that,” Capote said.
She and Kruly said their work with the Young Lawyers Committee has presented them with lots of opportunities.
Kruly, although a Western New York native, said he utilized the group himself as an entry point to the legal community after being out of town for law school.
The committee is open to anyone who has practiced for fewer than 10 years and is a member of the county bar association.
“For me, it was a nice way of breaking out,” Kruly said. “You meet people from all different practice areas and you get to know (them).”
Help for young attorneys
After a conversation with a young attorney a few years back, Dan Kohanelogged onto LinkedIn and wrote about what they discussed.
The two talked about how the young attorney could start his career off on the right foot.
Kohane figured it was perfect for a detailed LinkedIn post.
“I found it very easy to write (the posts),” he said. “I love mentoring young lawyers, I really do. It’s part of who I am.”
He now has over 3,300 followers on the social media platform and has heard from people around the country who thanked him for the tips.
Kohane has been an attorney at Hurwitz & Fine PC since 1980. He started as a clerk shortly after the firm opened and now is a senior member.
LinkedIn gained new life in recent years as a peer-to-peer educational community among professionals.
Kohane said he relishes being part of that world digitally as well as face to face.
“I think it is a part of what it means to be a professional,” he said.
Sharon Porcellio is a member at Bond Schoeneck & King PLLC who, along with a New York State Bar Association task force, has since 2015 studied how to eliminate gender disparity in the courts.
“What led to that was there seemed to be less participation than expected by female attorneys based on the sheer number of graduates,” she said.
The group commissioned a study that judges around the state helped complete and later distributed a report on the findings.
This fall, the group will take another look to see what has changed in the years since the report’s release.
One thing that did change was the adoption of a courtroom-equality statement by judges statewide to encourage the participation of young attorneys as members of legal teams in oral arguments and in trial presentations.
U.S. District Judge Lawrence Vilardo and others have disclaimers on their websites that outline their commitment to more participation, and Porcellio said she’s gotten positive good feedback.
“The participation of relatively inexperienced attorneys in all court proceedings … is strongly encouraged,” Vilardo’s website says. “And when a relatively inexperienced attorney needs supervision at a court proceeding to ensure that the client is represented competently, a supervising attorney should be present.”
Porcellio said young attorneys must keep their arguments focused, and they should know when to speak or refrain from doing so.
“I think one of the most important things is to listen to and to answer the questions the judge is asking,” she said.
O’Neil said she has a poster in her office that says, “Work hard and be nice to people.” She’s used that as a mantra for her career.
“If you join (a group), you’re going to find other nice people who work hard. You’ll find there’s a community of people like that,” O’Neil said.
Capote said any awkwardness she felt before joining ECBA dissipated when she started to talk with other attorneys.
“I didn’t feel out of place,” she said. “I think what some young lawyers don’t realize is a lot of people who are new to the profession feel the exact same way.
“As long as you are willing to put in a little bit of an effort, I think people will find it really starts to pay off.”
The Young Lawyers Committee has seasonal happy hours, a mixer with judges and a holiday toy drive in partnership with Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo Inc. that sets up a fun competition between firms.
The group hosts a “Life After Law School” seminar for new attorneys.
“We really try to make an effort to provide a way to open a lot of people’s eyes to things they might be interested in,” Kruly said.
As for joining VLP, Largo and O’Neil said a good way in is to volunteer in two-hour increments.
“It’s an awesome way to feel like you’re giving back and … you’re not losing a full day,” Largo said. “What we’re finding is firms are happy to allow associates that (time) because they’re helping the community.”
In just four years since finishing law school, Largo said she feels entrenched in the Western New York legal scene, thanks to volunteering and networking.
“The Buffalo legal community is so (tight-knit) and generally welcoming and kind,” she said. “People want to help and people want to talk. It’s just putting yourself out there.”