In this week’s episode of Lawline's Lawyers Who Lead podcast, Sigalle interviews Scott Piekarsky, partner in the litigation and real estate departments at Phillips Nizer LLP. Scott shares how his upbringing informs his leadership through commitment approach. Scott’s journey is one of intentional and educated decisions and a relentless prioritization of his clients, team and health. Listen to the full interview or read highlights of the interview below! Transcribed answers were edited for readability.
Interview with Scott Piekarsky
On the Start of His Law Journey
Small Family Businesses and Fighting a Traffic Stop Created Intrigue
I didn’t always want to be a lawyer. My family always had small businesses. I worked in my family's businesses. My dad was a dental technician. He had a dental laboratory. He made crowns, bridges, caps, things like that. I did deliveries for him. My brother, way back when he had a bike store, an infant furniture store. And I was a worker from the age of 14 on. I was always working. And I loved it. I enjoyed it. And I said, I'm gonna go to college. Get a business degree, maybe go get an MBA. But I took one or more law courses in college and it just sparked this great interest.
And I was always kind of intrigued by the law. It's funny, my high school in New Jersey always did a Memorial Day kind of event, a softball event to raise money for the local mental health center. And I forgot what it was that we were doing. I think we were transporting some money. I was in the car. I was driving. I got pulled over by a local cop. Didn't care what we were doing, wrote me a ticket, and ultimately had to go to municipal court with my dad. And I actually landed up myself cross-examining the testifying cop. And I said, this is really cool. I'm really intrigued by all of this.
Unfortunately, I think we landed up losing and landed up probably paying something. We knew people in town. I grew up in town. And someone in the government had said to my dad, oh, don't worry about it. You know, I'll be down there that night, wink, wink. You know, it's no big deal. And of course he was nowhere to be found. He wasn't there to assist me. And I was on my own. But it gave me greater intrigue. Like if, God forbid, it happens again, what do I do? How do I prepare? You know, it was a rough, dry run, but really sparked my interest.
On Testing Out Law School Before Investing
Cornell’s Pre-Law Program
There was something years ago called the Cornell Law School Pre-Law program. They advertised it in the New York Times, and you had to apply and get accepted. And you went in residence, up in Ithaca at Cornell Law School. And you took two law courses, Socratic method, casebooks, and all that. You lived up there for six weeks. I got admitted. I went through the program.
Most lawyers and law graduates said you're a lunatic, because why would you want to put yourself through that before you have to? My response was, I don't wanna waste my parents’ money. I know they work hard for the money and I know we may borrow some money, but I'm not gonna waste their money, start up law school, and then quit. I wanna make sure that this is something I'm gonna want to do and that it's gonna benefit all of us. And you know what? I did this amazing program, with these amazing people. It was scary as hell, but the social activity that we had that summer was marvelous. And I said, I want to go to law. And that's what I did.
On How His Upbringing Contributed to His Commitment
Work Hard, Be Committed, and Don’t Start Something You Can’t Finish
You know my mother always said, may she rest in peace, don't start something that you're not gonna finish. Be committed. Don't spread yourself too thin. And mind you, my folks were not college educated. They were Depression babies. And even though my mother skipped a year of high school, she was so smart. My father came back from Korea, and my grandparents, you know, lost their house in the Depression. Everybody lost everything. So the mentality is that going to college is a luxury for a kid. You need to find a trade, a profession, you need to go to work. So that's what you did.
On the Importance of Reading Growing Up
Family Read Newspapers Together Every Sunday
And my folks were, even though they weren't formally educated and didn't go to college, they were prolific readers, avid readers. I was encouraged from the youngest age to read the local newspaper, the New York Times, the Sunday newspapers. That would be an event on Sunday morning. We'd get bagels and we'd get the papers. And it'd probably be a three hour event of reading newspapers, having breakfast, chatting around the table. I started, you know, reading the New York Times at a very young age. The education section I always read. And I saw this program advertised. They said, apply. Look, we'll borrow some more money with the guaranteed student loan program, and if you wanna go, you'll go. And it was a very selective program. Not everyone got admitted.
I did very well in college. I'll be honest. I goofed around in high school. I wasn't a good student. I had capability, but I didn't commit myself. I got to college and I killed it. I did really well. What was pretty scary was the fact that the kids that got into the program were mostly from the Ivy League. So it was a little bit intimidating with the academic challenge there, but I passed everything and I got college credits also. It really, you know, lit a fire in my belly that this is what I wanna do. I don't care where I get into law school, I'm going. And if it's not the school that I really want, I'll do well and then I'll transfer. So that's how it happened.
I really didn't know what type of law I wanted to go into. I think if my mother were here chatting with us, she'd say, yeah, you were gonna be a corporate lawyer, a business lawyer.
On His Work After Law School
Personal Injury, Insurance Defense, Representing Associations, and Legal Ethics Matters
I think a big function of what you do is where you can find work. So I went to Seton Hall Law School in Newark, and I was lucky enough to get hired by a solo practitioner. He did plaintiff personal injury, plaintiff med mal, real estate. You name it, he did it. He was like a general practitioner. In my second year, my first really good clerkship was with an insurance defense firm. And I really loved it. The work was very interesting, very diverse. And so I landed up, you know, doing insurance defense work at two firms for, oh God, about 16 years. So that was really my foundation. And that's where I got, like, a boatload of jury trial and bench trial experience.
I started out cutting my teeth on auto cases and slip and fall, but I ended that part of my career, defending physicians in medical malpractice cases, defending lawyers in malpractice cases, and a variety of other things. But then it was sort of time to go out on my own. The last firm was winding up after many years. First I was with a buddy from law school and we did our thing locally. He did a lot of government work and I still did some insurance defense. But one of my other niches has been representing condos, co-ops, and homeowner associations. And I started to really develop the legal malpractice into ethics, professional responsibility, fee arbitration. I started representing lawyers in ethics matters. And I started doing more expert reports in malpractice cases, which I do a lot of.
On Merging With Phillips Nizer
Overcoming the Challenges
The practice was very busy. My partner didn't wanna hire more help. And I know from 16 years of working in some successful firms, you only make money with more lawyers. You need more billers. Otherwise, we're never gonna grow and make more money. So, I then opened my own practice in ‘07, and we went full speed ahead till November of 2019. I had four associates, five in-staff. Very successful. But I said, you know, I'm doing everything. I'm bringing in the work, I'm working on it. I'm billing it. I'm supervising all these people. It's just too much. And that's when I said, you know what? Maybe I can get more help through a merger. And in November of ‘19, I merged Piekarsky and Associates into Phillips Nizer, which is a New York City LLP that's been around since 1926. It was started by the renowned Lewis Nizer, one of the greatest trial lawyers to ever exist. Just an amazing firm with an amazing culture, started by him and Mr. Phillips. So that was the next step.
It's a very complicated, emotional, financially driven, somewhat risky kind of thing to do. But I knew the reputation of the Phillips Nizer firm. And I felt like I would fit in well in that culture. There are so many moving parts. And one of the biggest things was breaking it to my associates and my staff and preparing them for that merge. Getting them all on board.
It was very complex. The day-to-day complications of making sure clients are on board, getting a tail policy of malpractice insurance, shutting down the other operation, computer systems, and then bringing this other group to a new setting. It's mind boggling, it's awesome. And it's incredibly challenging.
What makes it even wilder is, so we merged in November 2019. I'm in the middle of a jury trial in early March of 2020. And the judge says, everyone have a great weekend, but I don't know if I'll see you on Monday. This pandemic is really picking up and we may not be back here on Monday. She hit it right on the head. We were not back on Monday. We segued into and pivoted into Zoom. My wife was teaching on Zoom. My younger daughter came home with her boyfriend from the city. They were both handling their jobs on Zoom. My older daughter, she was still home, but she was working as a labor and delivery and a NICU nurse. So she was going to work. But we were scared stiff for her because every hospital locally was loaded with COVID. So that one year was just wild and crazy. But I gotta say it was an amazing experience. To have this closeness with your kids and, of course, I ate well and ate too much. But it all worked out fine. It really did.
On the Heart of His Work
Ethics and Wellness
What was really interesting as a legal professional, I landed up writing two law review articles. One on how to deal with working remotely and ethically during COVID, explaining the ethical nuances and the challenges. And then after, I wrote that first article for the Rutgers Business Law Review, the University of Miami Business Law Review. They picked it up and said, would you please not only lecture for us on this subject, but would you also write an article for our law journal? And the masochist I am, I said what the heck, let's do it. It was a labor of love. It was a tremendous amount of work, but I can't tell you how gratifying it is to have a law review article published.
The security and ethical parts are nuances that still exist today. So, you know, we've got VPNs. We have double authentication. But I may be on a confidential meeting with a client, or on a sealed court hearing. I have a duty as a lawyer to maintain confidentiality to maintain what goes on in the attorney-client relationship. And if Alexa is there behind me, Alexa is listening to all of this and recording it. And third parties are having access to this. So that's one issue.
The unauthorized practice of law issue was coming up where many of my partners were at second homes throughout parts of the pandemic. And they're some lawyers out there that would say, wait a second. You're practicing law from your house in the Berkshires, and you're not licensed in Massachusetts? That's the unauthorized practice of law.
Preserving the data, preserving the material. God forbid, you get COVID and you die. How is somebody gonna get that preserved material? Are you saving it and protecting it? If, God forbid, you do die during COVID, what's your succession plan? It's wild.
The second article went into stuff like virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and then cryptocurrency. I had lawyer clients calling me. They're like, we've got a great new case, but the guy wants to pay us in cryptocurrency. What's the status of the law, and the regs, and the ethics rules in New Jersey on this? I need an answer by tomorrow morning. So really cool, interesting stuff that I love working on that I'm gonna continue to write and lecture on. But I guess the latest topic, and what I'm gonna be doing a lot in the area, is attorney wellness.
We really need to talk more about wellness. And my mantra is kindness, passion, and grit. That's how you're gonna have success. But unfortunately, we've really not paid close attention to the wellness of law students, wellness of lawyers, and we really haven't paid close attention to the wellness of judges and their staff. And we need to do a lot more in that regard. I've unfortunately had a lot of health issues starting in 2013 up to the present date. So I'm really sensitive to it. And I think it's been neglected for much too long. We need to talk about it and we need to really move the dime on that topic.
I just read an article, it may have been an ABA publication or elsewhere, but the stats on young law students with problems and anxieties. Of course, I'm the first one to say to clients, family members, and friends, if you need psychological help, don't be embarrassed. We're human, it's there, and it's available to you.
On The Culture at Phillips Nizer
“We’re All Part of The Same Team”
Everybody is real. They're human, they're friendly. There's a synergy. It's all for the common good. We're all part of the same team. We refer stuff back and forth, we give names and referrals, and we help each other out. And this is a constant thing from day one. I've had this constant interaction with colleagues and it's wonderful.
On Lewis Nizer As a Role Model
Following In and Modernizing His Footsteps
Nizer was truly a Renaissance man. There have been very few people that have reached the levels he has. There's an American Trial Lawyers' Hall of Fame and there's a very small group of people in there, including Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Darrow. Well, Nizer is one of the few people there. He had a passion and a love for the law. He felt that proper preparation was perspiration, and really killing it for trial was working through the night. Literally staying in the office all night, staying in the law library all night, and burning the midnight oil to be ready in the morning. He'd be the first one to cancel a vacation, a trip, an anniversary party, even for himself, because he had to pick a jury on Monday.
And he had other interests. I mean, he was a musician, he was a painter, he was a writer. He was also athletic. He won this tennis tournament in the Motion Picture Club.
On What Makes an Elite Lawyer
Being Able to Finesse Optimal Work Ethic with Life’s Priorities
You know, that's truly a gift. That really sets the best and the elite from the others. I mean, to be able to finesse that and balance it. But it takes a lot of skill and talent to say, okay, it's now time to have dinner. It's now time to clear my head. And it truly takes a little bit of selfishness, maybe selflessness to say, look, I gotta worry about myself and my family. And there's a time and a place for everything.
I practiced this a long time ago before the pandemic. I'd go home for dinner. I'd go upstairs to my bedroom. I'd change. I'd put my cell phone on the charger and I'd go downstairs and have dinner with my wife and my girls. And if people complained to me later, I was trying to get you at 6:30 on a call, I'd be very clear about it. When I come home for dinner with my family, the phone goes in another room. We have important talk, chat, liveliness, and we have a meal together. And then after dinner, I can deal with the emergencies. We as lawyers, we need to learn how to divide and separate that. And we come first, our health comes first and that's it. Our health comes first and that's my mantra. Your health comes first. The judge that I clerked for back 35 years ago said your health comes first. Your family comes first. That trial will happen. It'll happen another day and another week, but you're most important.
We really need to learn that. We need to preach it and practice it. Oh, you know, that doctor's appointment will happen at another time. Well, no, if that's the only time to get in for that cardiac evaluation now, and otherwise you gotta wait a month. I'm sorry, let the doctor's appointment happen and we'll start the trial a little bit later.
On Helping His Team
Mentoring and Embracing Them Through Challenges
So it's mentoring and it's working with me. One of the beauties is, we come together, we talk about stuff. We went through it this morning. We had a lawyer call and say, we've got a trial date on such and such case. What are you thinking? Is it gonna go, is it not gonna go? Are you gonna ask for an adjournment? Are you ready to go? And then I said to my team, is it Zoom? Is it in person? And most importantly, the client must be respected. He wants it to go as soon as it can go, but I'm going through some health issues now. And if it's gonna be in person, I don't know if I can do it. But if I can, I'm gonna need part of my team to come with me to court.
I'm having a little bit of a dizziness issue right now. And to hop in the car, race to the courthouse, jump out of the car, get through the metal detector up the elevator, and be ready to roll at 8:30 or nine o'clock is gonna be a challenge for me. So we're already talking and preparing. For my newest of associates, he's learning and we're explaining how you deal with these kinds of challenges and issues. I don't put somebody out, you know, to the fire. I help them and embrace them to meet those challenges.
On What Leadership in Law Means
Kindness, Passion, and Hard Work
Leadership in law is being kind, being passionate, and working hard.
On What He Would Change About the Legal Industry
More Flexibility in the Court System
I guess it would be this allegiance to statistics, numbers, and data, and not worrying about the statistics and the data. But just like a fine wine, sometimes you have to wait till a fine wine is ready to drink. Some cases are just not yet ready. And if the parties and their lawyers are not yet ready, let's not force them out to trial. Let's wait till everyone's ready.
The courts are very sensitive to the fact of moving cases and numbers, not having cases in backlog, and following schedules. And we're ready to go and let's pick the jury. Jersey differs a bit from New York. New York, basically, you don't docket it until you're ready. Jersey's the opposite. You file, you serve, you're full speed ahead. And when you're basically at the point where there's a trial, you gotta go. And sometimes both sides are not ready. The client may be having a surgery. The lawyer may have a prepaid vacation. Allow it to be in such a way that everybody's ready, and then let's do it.
On Practical Advice for Leaders in Law
Kindness, Preparation, and Commitment
Being kind to people, being polite, being courteous. It's always worked really well for me. I never thrived with book throwers or screamers. Maybe some people do, but I would say most people don't. If you wanna be a great success, you have to have some level of passion. You really have to enjoy it and love it. And some 35 years later, I still love it. I have a passion for it. It's exciting. It's fun. You need to be kind. You need to have the passion, but you'll learn shortcuts. I learned a lot of shortcuts over 35 years. But as a young lawyer, you gotta do it by the book and you have to have this hard work commitment. Hard work and preparation is the only way you're gonna have success in the practice of law.
On Who Shaped His Journey
My folks most definitely did. They had a work ethic, they worked hard to exist. Their families lost everything in the Depression. They knew the value of education, which they never got the benefit of. My mom skipped a year in high school and went right to work as a legal secretary. So she was an inspiration. My dad, after coming back from Korea on the front line, went right to work. He was a paraprofessional. And I knew that working hard, committing yourself, and treating people well and kindly would bring success.
And I knew that if I worked my tail off, I committed myself, and I was kind and good to other people, it would work. And one of the things I learned along the way that everybody needs to understand is, you may want everyone to be your friend, but it's not gonna happen. You know, there's different personalities. Not everybody's gonna love you, but it's okay. You know, you don't have to be friendly with everyone. You don't have to love everybody. They don't all have to love you, but you need to respect everyone and they need to respect you. That's critical.
Putting Health First
Finally, after 35 years of practice, I'm watching my diet. I'm eating a healthy, reasonable meal for breakfast as well as for lunch. Most nights, I'm home for dinner and I'm also eating well. I'm exercising and I always go for my yearly and regular doctor's appointments. I'm very in tune with my health and the health of others around me.
I preach it and I hope that others take it as seriously. Because if you want to have a meaningful, fantastic life and career, you're not gonna do it if you're not healthy. Mental health and physical health are really critical to be successful in whatever field you're gonna go into.
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.
Each episode explores the guest’s journey to leadership, the underlying principles that helped them make an impact, and devises ways listeners can apply these concepts in their own lives.