The Life and Career of Marie Ann Hoenings and her advice on how to specialize in law

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"If you're going to dabble, it's better to do it when you're younger and you don't have as many obligations," she said. "It takes a very long time to establish a reputation in a particular area. There's that painful period when you don't have the reputation and you're struggling—work wise and financially—and if you don't have the luxury of time, it makes things exceedingly difficult."

A 1985 graduate of Hofstra University School of Law, Ms. Hoenings specializes in civil litigation, but also handles everything from real estate to employment issues. She has also worked in the New York County District Attorney's Office.

Q: What's the biggest mistake new graduates make while job hunting?

I would say the lack of preparation and being untruthful during the course of an interview. I'll ask simple questions like "why did you go to law school?" and I can tell whether or not it's a made-up answer they think I want to hear, as opposed to something that's truthful. My own answer is I couldn't be a teacher, so I wanted to be a lawyer. Saying they grew up always wanting to do insurance coverage work because that's what we do—it's a wonderful field once you understand it, but you don't go to law school because you always wanted to do insurance coverage.

Q: If you could go back and do anything over again, what would you do differently?

For a brief period of time, I went out on my own in a partnership and didn't thoroughly investigate my partner. I was so taken with having my own law firm with my own name that I didn't give enough consideration to the type of work and whether the work itself was going to be fulfilling. That might be a mistake that a lot of people make because they're so anxious to have a job or so enamored with either a title or a dollar value. They don't really understand the number of hours that are going to have to be dedicated to it. If you're miserable or you don't like what you're doing, it's going to make things very difficult for you.

Q: How easy is it to switch specialties once you're actually practicing?

Within the first five years, you need to make a decision. At that point in time, you're still very liquid; and if you have good core skills, then you'll be able to switch. Litigation is litigation, whether it's litigation of a malpractice action or litigation of a real estate matter. If you're a good litigator, you can learn the underlying laws. I don't think that it's difficult. If you spend seven years just doing transactional work, it's going to be difficult to do litigation. But if you want to, you could probably do it with a cut in pay. But you're not going to make a lateral move.

Q: What's something law schools should teach, but currently do not?

The practical aspects of the law and how to function in the workplace. We hire first-years that come in, and their first work product is always very academic. They'll be inclined to do law review articles, citations, things that clients aren't going to pay for and judges usually aren't interested in unless there have been no cases on the issue.

Q: What's your advice for new associates?

They need to have good research and writing skills. When they first start, that's really the bulk of what they're going to do. One of the biggest stumbling blocks is not taking the job or deadlines seriously enough and realizing the impact. There's not really an appreciation for the impact upon the client if the deadline is not met.

Q: Who's your favorite lawyer in books, movies, or TV?

I loved Ally McBeal. I thought that was the most realistic law firm atmosphere just because it had the combination of personalities. They might have been magnified, but it showed how there was this combination of different personalities and quirks and oddities, and they all seemed to function in a successful law firm.

Q: How does your firm work to prevent new associates from becoming disillusioned?

We try to mix up the assignments so that a first-year [associate] is not only doing research. I try to show them from experience that we have ebbs and flows, we have good days and bad days. Nobody likes the paperwork that we shuffle. You do get to do the trials and depositions, which gets the adrenaline running and wipes out the bad parts.

Q: How can lawyers avoid burnout?

I think what causes the greatest burnout is trying to compare yourself to other people and measuring where you should be based upon where somebody else is, whether it's the types of cases they're doing or the salary that they have or the clients that they have. My advice would be to sit back and see if you're satisfied with yourself and what you're doing and, if not, put into place things to change just that, as opposed to trying to keep up with the attorney, partner, or associate in the office next to you.

Hofstra University School of Law


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