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Beyond the law Today’s attorneys find that knowing their field means studying more than its legal element

Michelle Schaap, member, Chiesa Shahinian and Giantomasi P.C.

In the early ’90s, Michelle Schaap served as in-house counsel at Wayne-based Toys R Us, where she was handling various important contracts for the toy retailer, such as a contract involving the rights to film a Toys R Us location for a “Toy Story” film.

“At that time, they were building 50 stores a year at least … but didn’t have the bandwidth to keep up with the real estate contracts,” she said.

Schaap, a few years out of Rutgers Law School, was thrust into handling some of those contracts, too — and she had to learn quickly.

The way she did it was by speaking with the people actually doing the construction.

“My first classroom teaching me to deal with construction contracts was sit-downs with the corporation’s construction folks,” she said. “I learned from people who worked in that area and understood the business side, not the legal side.”

She never forgot the lesson.

A sideways job market
Lateral hires — attorneys leaving one law firm to be picked up by another — have been an prevalent component of the job market recently, according to John Fanburg of Brach Eichler LLC.
“Law firms today are interested in bringing in laterals who either have a book of business or who can develop business with the assistance of the law firm’s resources,” said Fanburg, a managing member at the Roseland-based firm.
The motivators for a lateral move on part of the attorney vary, and could be as simple as commuting distance, Fanburg said.
On the law firm side, the hire has to be a good fit — typically meaning one whose work is focused on an area the law firm also concentrates on.
“In our law firm, our lateral profile is someone who is in a practice area that is complementary to what we do,” Fanburg said. “We’re not really looking to expand into a foreign practice area. We want to build on our base.”

Schaap, who now works at West Orange-based Chiesa Shahinian & Giantomasi P.C., where she is tasked with negotiating construction-related agreements byzantine in complexity, knows a lawyer can never have enough knowledge about her specialty.

And she knows law school isn’t the only place you can go to prepare. That’s why she found herself at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in 2008-09, earning a certification in construction management.

“I felt a need to understand the workings of a construction project from the perspective of those who do it, so that at least I knew enough to be sure I was asking the right questions,” Schaap said. “It has worked for me — but, obviously, there’s not one right way to become a subject matter expert.”

Along with bolstering her practice’s credibility, Schaap believes earning the certificate helped her improve her skillset as an attorney. She’s even eyeing another business certificate program for a different area of the law she works in.

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Stepping outside the bounds of the legal field has become, somewhat paradoxically, a point of differentiation for those in specialized legal areas.

And the outside field is not always directly related to their law practice.

Shelley Slafkes sought education outside of the legal framework to complement her work at the bankruptcy law firm she co-founded in Maplewood, Levitt & Slafkes P.C.

Just over a decade after founding the firm with husband Bruce Levitt, Slafkes earned a master of social work from Rutgers University and became a licensed social worker.

“Sometimes I think I use those skills here more than I would in social work positions,” she said. “It’s a very emotional area of the law. People come to us with all sorts of problems. You have to be able to make them feel comfortable, to be caring and compassionate.

“That, in turn, makes for a better practice, because people open up and talk to you when (you come from a social work background). You get a bigger picture, which is important, especially for this area of the law.”

Any advantage she can garner for her practice is welcome, given that her specialized law firm has to fight for all the business it gets.

Her husband and business partner, Levitt, explained that’s a product of the number of consumer bankruptcy filings decreasing every year for several years in a row.

“There’s also just not many commercial bankruptcies in New Jersey; you look at the state of the economy and wonder why there isn’t more,” he said. “But as a result of bankruptcy not being as plentiful, some that were doing it have been getting out.”

Slafkes feels her specialty degree will help her firm stay relevant.

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There is no scarcity of niche and often wildly complicated specialty areas within the legal profession.

And they are changing every day.

Specializing

Young lawyers are taught the need to specialize in a field from their first days in the profession.

And while specialization can help build a book of business, veterans of the industry say it’s not wise to put all your hopes in one specialty.

Michelle Schaap, of West Orange-based Chiesa Shahinian & Giantomasi P.C., feels it’s best for young attorneys to experience as much as possible, especially in an era when one specialization can be hot one day and cold the next.

That includes getting a feel for the business side of an area of law, as Schaap and others have chosen to do.

“I am of the firm belief that you would be a better lawyer, no matter what area you practiced in, if you experienced a number of different practice areas, including on the corporate side and the litigation side,” she said.

Schaap considers it something of a lost art.

When she was initially entering the profession, there were summer associates who would rotate into different groups across the firm, which she always counted herself an advocate for.

“Even back then, a lot of my compatriots were looking at me like, ‘Michelle, shut up — we don’t want to rotate,’” she said. “None of them wanted to cross the line.

“But you can’t give a complete view of an issue without being able to see all sides of it — it’s worth remembering that.”

That’s why lawyers should never stop learning, experts say; more so, lawyers should never stop thinking about the next big thing in law.

In the past decade, specialties connected to health care, life sciences, compliance and cybersecurity have grown tremendously, according to Max Crane of Newark-based Sills Cummis & Gross P.C.

Crane said lawyers in these fields can never have enough personal experience related to them.

As for the future, Crane feels one specialty area has the potential for explosive growth. He’s just not sure how lawyers can properly train for it.

“It always brings a snicker,” he said, “but the fact is that the cannabis sector is becoming a bigger and bigger industry nationwide.

“My personal instinct is that it’s only a matter of time before it comes front and center in this state as well. And the legal aspects will be a big deal.”

E-mail to: brettj@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @reporterbrett

Brett Johnson

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