Evolving Your Law Practice Means Constantly Seeking New Ways to Grow

Sigalle Barness | August 24, 2022

On This week’s episode of Lawline's Lawyers Who Lead podcast, Sigalle interviews Nicole Kobis, partner at the New Jersey law firm, Lindabury, McCormick, Estabrook & Cooper, P.C.  Nicole discusses how she became a lawyer as a second career, her path to partnership, and how she continues to evolve her practice with new approaches.  Listen to the full interview or read highlights of the interview below! Transcribed answers were edited for readability.


On Switching from Public Relations to Law

“I Needed to Do More. I Wanted to Help People.” 


I actually went to college in Washington, D.C. I graduated with an undergraduate degree in marketing and public relations. It [law] was always something in the back of my head. If you looked at my transcript from undergrad, I have a lot of law classes, so it's always been an underlying interest of mine. 

After going to college for four years and focusing so strongly on public relations and marketing, I knew going right to law school and being in school for another three years was not right for me at that time. I was in Washington, D.C. I wanted to come back to New Jersey and be with my family. So the timing of it didn't feel right and I had to do it in my own way.

I Came back to New Jersey. And I worked for two and a half years, doing marketing in PR in the fashion world. Got to plan fashion week, got to hang out with a lot of celebrities, meet really cool people. [But] I would be sitting in these meetings with very high powered individuals, both in the United States and abroad, and everyone was so passionate about what they were doing. And I was going through the motions in a way. I was doing a really good job at what I was supposed to be doing, but I thought to myself, I can't imagine doing this for the next 20, 30, 40 years. And if I don't do it now, when am I gonna really make the switch and pivot and do something else? 

And then one day I was sitting in a meeting and I just was like, this is not for me. I need to do more. I wanna help people. And I remember I got on the train back home that day. And my now husband, my boyfriend at the time picked me up from the train station. I said I'm gonna study for my LSAT. He said, okay, did you have a bad day at work? What happened? I said, no, it's not a bad day. It's just, you know, I need to do this. And I took LSAT lessons at night because no one at work knew that I was doing this. Studied, took them, got into law school, and then I gave my notice. I started law school two and a half years later and just completely switched career paths, haven't looked back.


On Wanting to Become a Family Lawyer

Internship and Clerkship Revealed Her Love for the Practice


I wanted to work with people. And I wanted to help people. When I was in my first year of law school, I interned for a judge who was doing a domestic violence calendar at the time. He did a little bit of divorce here and there when they needed him to help out. I loved it. 

I also interned for another judge who did larger civil cases, complex injury cases, and complex employment cases. He would always say to me, I'm gonna put you on a really interesting case. I think you're gonna love it. And I would always say, oh, you know, that was cool.

But I loved working for the other judge and doing things for him. And I got lucky that he gave me the opportunity to stay on as his intern during my second year of law school, helping out with the divorce calendar that then he had transitioned onto. So, I got a lot of experience early on and just really found my niche and just felt like this was where I wanted to be. 

And then ultimately after law school, I clerked for the head of the family division in Union County. Her docket was completely divorce-related and pre and post-divorce issues. And my clerkship, I say it time and time again was the best year of my career. I wish I could have been a law clerk forever because I just learned so much, I got to have so many cool experiences. And so it was just something that I knew was the area I needed to go into.


On Her Ideal Client

Looks for Clients Who She Can Work Well With


So there are people that do focus their practices on male, female, or husbands, wives, moms, and dads. To me, it doesn't matter. You know, I'm representing the individual. There are definitely clients that have come my way where I know we're gonna be like oil and water, and this is not going to work.

And I'm not your friend, but it's someone that you need to jive with. And I'm not gonna jive with everyone just like not everyone's gonna jive with me. And that's okay. I'm lucky that I have partners here that, you know, if I feel that maybe I'm not the best fit, there's someone else and vice versa, but it's a very personal decision picking an attorney. You're dealing with the most important things in someone's life: their children, and their families. So it's definitely, I look more for the personality versus necessarily like their interests and like what they're after.


On Approaching High Stakes and High Emotion Cases

Explore What Works Best by Ensuring Clients Feel Heard and Managing Expectations Early On


It helps to have more experience under your belt. In my first few years, I'd bring a lot of it home with me and really had a hard time turning it off. It's definitely a learned skill. There's nothing that anyone could teach you how to do it. You need to figure out what works best for you, because there are clients that, you know, you feel awful for them or you might have lost a motion in court and you're just beating yourself up. Should I have said this? Should I have not said this? It's very, very difficult. 

And what I try to at least do is I want anyone that's coming into my office to feel that they've been heard. I want them to feel like they have their opportunity to speak. And that I understood where they were coming from. And then respectfully, if I have to disagree, say, well, you know, I'm not your friend. You're paying me for my professional advice. And while maybe on a personal level, I might agree with things that you're saying the law unfortunately is not on your side. 

But I feel that my clients' expectations are managed early on. I try to be as efficient as possible because at the end of the day, they have to pay my bill out of whatever income, you know, and assets that they have left over. But I also just want them to know that I am there for them and I am looking out for their best interest whether or not at the end of whatever they're going to say, I'm going to agree or disagree with them. 

When people come into my office, it's a lot of times, the first time that they're even dealing with a divorce, know anything about a divorce, you know, they've of course read their Google articles. They've talked to their friends and their parents, and they think that, you know, they have an idea of what's going to happen, but sometimes they also just need that space to vent. Just, I had a really bad day. I had this interaction with my co-parent and this is what happened. What do I do? And they're not necessarily looking for me to do anything about it. They're just frustrated. So sometimes, you know, I'm just that ear, that safe space that I'm understanding what's going on. I'm gonna make the best decisions based on the cards that have been dealt.


On Writing the Challenge of Being a Sympathetic Divorce Lawyer

Examining the Concept of the Relatable Advocate


I wrote in that article, and I remember it clear as day, that I would spin my engagement ring around because I just felt bad being like, oh look, here's my sparkly new ring. I'm so happy. And, you know, across the table is someone who's crumbling at the seams. 

It's a balancing act for sure. And something that, again, with experience just comes more confidence and belief that you know what you're doing and to just be open and listen. You know, we don't listen enough. Yes. We all hear things that are happening around us, but the actual skill of opening the ears, putting down the phone, and actually listening is something that we all can work on. And, really, in this kind of industry, it becomes invaluable. 

Especially with the pandemic, I've gotten to know my clients on a much deeper level. It's the whole silver lining of the pandemic, right? My client meetings are now on zoom, so it's much easier instead of exchanging emails with a client saying, hey, let's hop on a quick 15 minute zoom call, as opposed to you having to take a day off, come into my office to meet with me. 

So I've gotten to see my clients quote, unquote, face to face much more often. I've gotten to see their houses. I've gotten to see their kids in the background when I'm introduced as, oh, this is my friend Nicole. And I'm like, oh, hi, nice to meet you. It's definitely lent to a much deeper attorney client relationship than I think prior to the pandemic.


On Whether Aspects of Remote Lawyer Are Here to Stay

Will Depend on the Client’s Specific Needs and Lawyer’s Comfort


It's definitely a personality thing. There are plenty of attorneys in my office that clients are coming in to meet with them in person. For me, I think it just makes much more sense to be on zoom. Because of my personality and the way I'm able to interact with my clients, I don't lose anything from not physically being able to shake their hands, even though are we shaking hands again?

So I think that. As the younger generations come up through the ranks, I think we will be embracing more and more technology. And I think the legal profession in general has a lot of catching up to do with technology. And this probably forced some of the issues and made them speed up to this century, you know, a lot faster. 


On Notable Things the Pandemic Changed in Family Law Practice

Divorce Cases Particularly Impacted: Division of Real Property Assets and Vaccination and Quarantine Disagreements Between Parents  


So it's definitely made divorce on a lot of instances harder because of the finances. And so for a while, at the beginning of the pandemic, a lot of cases stalled because rental offices were closed. No one was really showing houses or able to go into houses to sell houses or buy houses. So that was certainly an issue.

Now that the vaccinations are much more readily available, as are treatments, things are returning a little more to normal in terms of the rate at which cases are moving and the rate at which cases are coming in. But there's still also the considerations of quarantining. And when you have young kids that aren't vaccination eligible yet, and how you're going to manage that with work travel schedules, and some people are back in the office sometimes, some are not, it's definitely added little wrinkles along the way that I think we're all gonna have to continue to deal with. 

You know, COVID's not going anywhere. It's just gonna be managed better. And we all just have to adjust to the way the cases are. No one has a crystal ball. You just have to be able to react as best as you can with the tools that you have.

So, in particular, one of the biggest issues was child vaccination. What do you do if one parent says I want my kids signed up for the first appointment, then the other parent's like, ah, I wanna wait a few months. I'm not sure about this. I wanna see how things go. Now, what do you do? And granted, some of these issues would've still happened in an intact family, too. You don't always see eye to eye with your spouse or your co-parent and you have to work through those issues. 


On Her Advice to Parents Making Decisions While in Divorce Proceedings

Ask: What Would You Have Done if You Were Still Happily Together?


And that's also what I try to impress upon my clients is that there are certain issues that you would've had to deal with even if you've stayed together with this person. There are things that you're not gonna see eye to eye on. And like you have to come to a resolution. The court is available to parents that are no longer together or couples that are divorcing and that's great, but no one is going to know you and your family and your children, the way that the two of you do. 

So I really try to empower my clients to try to think about that so that they're still somewhat in control of the decisions that are being made. Cause once you leave it into a judge's hands, you're leaving it to a stranger. And listen, they're gonna read whatever is submitted. They're going to look to experts if they don't know what to do, and they're going to do the best that they can to make the decision that they feel is appropriate. But who's to say that decision, it ends up being what works for you and your family and then you're stuck with it. 

We also had that issue with quarantining at the beginning, too, in particular healthcare professionals. Do you deprive a healthcare professional who's an ER doctor, an ER nurse, time with their child, because there was a very long period of time where it was very scary, how you even got COVID. So do you say no, you can't see your parents because we're concerned about your health and safety or they're mitigating factors, and then you're bringing COVID into another person's household. It was a colossal mess for a while of trying to figure out what makes sense.

 And that's why I tried to at least tell my clients, what would you have done if you guys were together? Would you have kicked your wife out? Would she be sleeping in a hotel? Would you allow her to come into the house? Like it's the same kind of risk reward that you need to weigh what makes sense for your family.

At the end of all this, the people that have children in common, you're stuck with them. Whether your child is eight months old or 18 years old, or 28 years old, there are still going to be milestones in this child's life that you need to be a part of together. And there's decisions that you're going to have to make together. And when people get married, you could fall in love like the yin to your yang, right. Where you're not going to see eye to eye on anything, but for one reason or another, it works. 

Just because the romantic part of your relationship no longer works doesn't mean that you still can't come to another kind of level of your relationship where you could be effective coparents.


On Collaboration With Opposing Counsel

Being a Good Adversary Makes the Case So Much Better for Everyone Involved


It's interesting because there's definitely attorneys that when they get into a case, I'm like, okay, this is how this case is going to go. And you prep your client for exactly what it is. You know, we're a very small community of lawyers. So chances are, if I haven't worked with them directly. I know someone who has, and you know, your reputation in this industry means everything. And so it's definitely frustrating when you get an attorney on the other side of a case who you know is in it for the wrong reasons. And practices a way that you maybe don't believe in and you know is not gonna mesh well with you. But when you have a good adversary, while yes, you still have to advocate for your client's position, it makes a case just so much better for everyone.

And that's what I think clients lose sight of. Because they're like, no, I want you to yell. I want you to scream. I want you to write nasty letters. I'm like what is that going to do for us? That's not gonna do anything for us. You want me to try to cut through the weeds as quickly and efficiently as possible and get you to the other side of the trees. Like that is my job. And that's why I'm really trying to tailor my practice more towards mediation and collaboration and collaborative law at work and parent coordination work where those are the skills that you use to really help people.


On Tailoring and Evolving Her Practice 

Became a Certified Family Divorce Mediator and Trainings in Collaborative Law and Becoming a Parent Coordinator


So about five years ago, I did training to become a certified family and divorce mediator. It was many hours of training. I had to shadow a mentor and watch their mediations. And that training to me was truly invaluable and something that I think should be required of all family law attorneys, frankly. And yes, I understand the court needs to be there in the event that a decision can't be reached, but I also think, on the other hand, the courts are too available to emotionally charge litigants who just want to fight. So a good mediator to me is the best thing that you could have in a case. 

Once I did my certification, I also was able to get on the state's approved list for mediators that can be appointed by the court, which has opened the doors to a lot of really cool opportunities and unique cases and fulfilling opportunities because if you're able to help two people coming into a case that you don't think could even agree that the sky is blue and somehow you get them to an agreement at the end of the day, to me, there's nothing more fulfilling than that.

During the pandemic, I got trained as a collaborative divorce attorney. And that's a whole other area of practice where you agree not to use the court system at all. In fact, if one of you tries to use the court system, then every professional in the case has to be fired. There's an agreement that you enter into so it's a little more extreme and a lot of people don't necessarily agree with it because they're like, I'm choosing my attorney because I wanna choose my attorney. I don't want them to be fired at the end of the day, but it keeps everyone having some skin in the game, but it's the same thing. You're working for the collective whole while still being able to advocate for your client's best interest and like their wants and wishes at the end of the case.

I'm now getting my training to be a parent coordinator, which is a more up-and-coming area of the law. I'm also doing more guardian ad litem and guardianship work. 


On What Motivates Her To Continuously Evolve Her Practice

When I Saw What Litigation Can Do To A Family … I Knew There Had To Be A Better Way


Because I went into this business to help people. When I saw what litigation can do to a family and forget about the money aspects of how much litigation costs, but the emotional toll that it takes not only on the spouses and the litigants but also on the children who didn't ask to be a part of this. I just knew there had to be a better way. 

And when I started learning more, I found out, in my opinion, what that better way is. And it's through mediation and negotiation, that's really how you could help people through the hardest time in their life.


On How Other Lawyers Can Grow

Leverage Bar Associations, CLEs, Training, and Shadow Other Attorneys


I would definitely recommend whatever your local state bar association is to definitely take advantage of whatever CLEs they have for mediation training because you're gonna learn from very experienced mediators. At the training that I did, there were retired judges that spoke. There were accounting professionals that spoke. There were therapists that spoke. So you really learn it from a different angle than what you're used to in litigation.

I'd also recommend networking. Look up attorneys that do a lot of this kind of work. You have to pay it forward and the more senior attorneys are happy to get a phone call from a junior attorney saying any chance that you have a case that I could shadow? And yeah, sure, they have to get waivers from the clients and things like that. But in my experience, I've been very lucky to have a lot of really great mentors, which has really helped to have those lifelines, to call when you don't know how to handle a situation, or you need someone's second opinion on the read of the case. 

And also just to get your name out there too, that you're interested in doing this kind of work.


On the Mentors in Her Life

Previous Boss, Clerkship, and Connections Have Culminated Into Great Mentorships


I think I've just been really lucky. I hate to say it. Some of my biggest cheerleaders when I worked in the fashion industry, I'm still in contact with my two bosses that I worked there who've always been, once I gave my notice, beyond incredibly supportive. The judges that I interned for were just amazing and allowed me to ask whatever questions I wanted.

The judge that I clerked for, in particular, is actually now my partner at the firm, which is amazing that I get to work with her now every day. In the year that I was able to be with her, I learned more than I think I have in probably the last 10 years of practice. She rolled up her sleeves. She dug in. She taught me so much. She would ask me questions and then make sure I had to explain them back to her. So I really understood what she was trying to tell me. If she knew that there was a really interesting case happening in another courtroom, she said, don't work for me today. Go sit and go watch. This is going to be your once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do these things. 

And then, straight from my clerkship, I should say while I was clerking, really, I met an attorney who ended up recruiting me to my firm now that I've worked with for the last decade. He gave me the confidence to practice, gave me the space to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes. He showed me that he's never been too busy to answer a question I had. He's always said, ask me the same question 10 times, but don't just yes me to death. Make sure you really understand what I'm saying. 

Being able to work with him and learn from him has really been just truly amazing. And I'm just very fortunate that I've fallen into these different people and been able to look up to them and learn from them. But at the same token, when junior attorneys come into our office, I'm always the first one that volunteers to be their mentor, because you wanna pay it back to them because that's what people did for you. You have to learn somewhere. We have to support one another.


On Maintaining Relationships

Try To Have as Many Touch Bases as Frequently as Possible to Let People Know You're Thinking About Them


It is definitely challenging just because, you know, there are only 24 hours in a day. Between work and being a mom, you've got your plate filled as is. But sometimes it doesn't have to be these grandiose gestures. It's the checking in, staying in touch, sending out holiday cards, remembering birthdays, seeing an interesting article that reminds you of something funny that, you know, you might have shared and you shoot off a two-line email, just like check this out, thought of you, remember that case when we saw X, Y, and Z. It's just trying to have as many touch bases as frequently as possible just to let people know that you're thinking about them.


On Becoming Partner at a Law Firm

Have a Business and Thought Plan, Seek New Opportunities and Nuances, and Manage Client Relations Well 


So our firm is more of a mid-size firm. So partner track is not as rigid and structured as the larger firms where you have to do A, B, and C, one, two, and three, and then you're considered. When I found out that they were considering me for a partner, it was earlier than I had thought, which was an incredible honor and you have to put together a presentation in front of all the shareholders and partners as to why you should be a partner. And these are people that at that point I've worked with for years and years, and I was terrified. The main thing that they stressed to me, which was why I was considered, was that they saw a business plan and a thoughtful plan going forward.

I wasn't being reactive. I was seeking out new opportunities and new certifications and new nuances in my practice area. So for example, as I'm now getting my training to be a parent coordinator, which is a more up-and-coming area of the law, I'm also doing more guardian ad litem and guardianship work. So constantly evolving. 

And I think one of the biggest things about becoming a partner early on is that you have to continue to evolve your practice. You have to continue to move with the times. You have to continue to look for opportunities. Opportunities are not just gonna necessarily fall on your desk. Every day of the week, you have to continue to seek out. This is a client service business. And especially with family law matters, they're not like institutional corporate clients where you get three corporate clients in your entire career and they're just gonna keep feeding you work. A lot of times, my clients are one and done. And you have to put your best foot forward because your best referral sources are going to be your former clients. 

There's nothing more gratifying than getting a phone call from a new client. I said, oh, you know, how did you find my name? They're like, oh, so and so loved you. And I'm like, oh my God, I haven't thought about this client in years. And then, like I was just saying about touch points, that would be an email that I'd say, oh, thanks so much for sending your friend. Like, how are you? How are your kids? And it's nice too, I even get holiday cards a lot of times with my former clients and I watch their kids grow up.

It's the client relationships though, especially partner track. Once you're a partner maintaining those relationships for the firm is really key.


On Law School Education

Need to Focus Deeper on the Business of Law


There are so many facets to this business. You know, really law school needs to be revamped in a lot of ways, because these are things that they don't even forget about teaching you. They don't even talk about it. There are no lessons about the business of law and, you know, how to manage clients and things like that. Yes, you learn every Supreme court case and you learn Con Law and you know, you do all those things and that's great and all probably for like this teeny tiny subset of the population where that's the area of law that they go into. But for the rest of us, you walk out of law school and you really don't know how to be a lawyer.

And it's definitely a skill that you need to be at least shown at first. And then what you do with those skills is really up to you. 

I think a clinic and an internship are gonna be much more useful. It's gonna be more hands-on. It's going to be less cookie cutter because this career is not cookie cutter. You know, every case, even though you think that the facts are exactly the same, can take on a completely different life of its own. But I think though, what needs to be taught in law school is the fact that it's a business. And at the end of the day, if you bill a hundred hours on a file and you are only able to collect 50 hours, that's as if you worked 50 hours. 

That is often lost in a lot of practices. And it's certainly not something that I was ever taught in law school. The mechanics of running the business and how you deal with clients that want you to do more, but you know you don't need to do more and how you balance them feeling maybe you're not representing them adequately, but at the same time, knowing that you know what you're doing and you're gonna be able to get them the result that they need.


On a Piece of Advice to New Lawyers 

Find Someone at Work Who Will Have Your Back


Seek out opportunities, ask questions, and find someone that's actually gonna go to bat for you and defend you. Early on in my career when clients would second guess what I would say they would respond to my email and they would copy my partner on it, looking for him to essentially go against me or say something else. And he would back me a hundred percent. And just knowing that you had someone to fall back on as the person who would show you the rope, but also not throw you under the bus is really important. 


On What Leadership in the Law Means

Leading by Example


Leading by example. If you're not going to walk the walk, you shouldn't be talking the talk. 


On One Thing To Improve About the Legal Industry

Attorneys Should Ensure They Are Practicing Law for the Right Reasons 


I think there should be some way and somehow there be an oversight on the way attorneys practice. There are a lot of people, especially in family law in particular that are not in it for the right reasons. And because of that, your client, my client kind of gets taken along for the ride and comes with that a lot of time, a lot of money, and a lot of emotion. It just shouldn't be allowed.

I don't know how you set up checks and balances system to prevent that. But when that happens, it gets very frustrating for both me and my client. That there's only so much within my power that I can do. And there's typically nothing I can do to prevent it. The system allows it.

You shouldn't be in family law for money. It is very easy. You can take a file you can churn it and you can bill it to the nth degree. And if you have a client who has very deep pockets, you'll get paid. The courts are set up and designed so that they'll make sure that attorneys get paid, but that's not the reason to be in this profession. 

You are playing with people's hearts. You're playing with people's wallets. You're playing with people's children. And you should be doing everything in your power to make the right decisions for them, regardless, of whether you get paid $1 or $1 million. And I think that gets lost on a lot of people.


On What People Misunderstand About the Work She Does 

Contrary to Popular Belief, It’s a Practice That Spans Many Issues Including Complex Agreements, Business Plans, Finances, and Trust and Estate Plans 


That I yell and scream and fight all day. I don't. I think a lot of times family law attorneys get a bad rap because of the kind of law we practice and it's much more fact-sensitive than law sensitive. 

But I draft complex contracts every day of the week. I draft mediation statements and position statements and prenuptial agreements. I'm reading trusts and I'm reading LLC agreements and I'm reading business plans. I'm reading severance agreements. I see a lot. And I think the misconception is that on top of the yelling and screaming that family law attorneys only know about family law. When in fact you learn a little about different areas of the world in general, just based on the cases that you interact with.


On A Practical Advice To Leaders And Future Leaders In The Law

Protect Your Reputation


Protect your reputation at all costs. No client, no judge, no adversary, no decision is worth ruining your reputation. Because once you ruin your reputation it is almost impossible to rebuild it back.


On Self-Care

Morning Workouts: Peloton and Zumba


I have a Peloton. I spin. I am a certified Zumba instructor and I did Zumba religiously for years, I would plan dinners and gatherings and stuff around making sure I had my schedule of classes that I would attend. And, you know, with being a mom, it's just not that practical to be out every night of the week.

So we have a Peloton in our basement that I try to use as much as humanly possibly can because I need that time for me. Even if it's only 20 minutes, which is all I could fit in this morning. You know, when I woke up, there were 20 minutes where it was just me and I didn't have to worry about anything else. 


On Her Favorite Peloton Instructor

Ally Love, Cody, and Robin


I did Ally Love this morning. I just love her spirit. Like, she's just like a feel-good. I mean, Cody makes me laugh. I sometimes can't do Cody though when my daughter's downstairs because you never know what's gonna come out of his mouth. And Robin is just so inspirational too.


Lawyers Who Lead is a weekly podcast that celebrates lawyers who are making powerful changes through extraordinary leadership. Each week, Lawline’s Chief Storyteller, Sigalle Barness, interviews a lawyer who is driving meaningful change in the legal industry. Guests represent a diverse and exciting range of experiences but with one common thread, the pursuit of bettering the legal profession. 

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About the Author

Written by Sigalle Barness

Sigalle champions and grows Lawline’s brand awareness through impactful stories that are authentic, meaningful, and thought provoking. She designs communications strategies that underscore the why and how behind Lawline's work. Sigalle is an avid lover of music, video games, blogging, asking questions and all things food. She is also fluent in Hebrew and enjoys writing fiction, traveling and scuba diving.


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