Q+A: Civil Litigation Lawyer

Sterling Henderson on pursuing a law degree, getting through law school, and what it's really like being a lawyer.

~ 14 minute read

The CareerExplorer Discord Community had the opportunity to speak to Sterling Henderson, a civil litigation lawyer, in a live, fireside Q&A.

Sterling Henderson is an attorney licensed to practice in the States of Alaska, California, and Washington and specializes in the prosecution and defense of civil litigation matters involving a variety of business and corporate disputes. He is a partner at the law firm of Gibbs Giden Locher Turner Senet & Wittbrodt LLP in Los Angeles, California, which represents clients in a broad range of legal matters and industries, including business, commercial, construction, and real estate law.

Sterling is also experienced in matters of corporate structuring, governance, and operations, and advises on various processes in the areas of business and commercial law, real property transactions, and intellectual property. Prior to joining Gibbs Giden, Sterling specialized in the defense of civil and administrative malpractice actions and insurance matters.

Originally from Juneau, Alaska, Sterling graduated from St. John’s University in New York with a B.A. in Government and Politics. He obtained his juris doctor from Santa Clara University School of Law in Santa Clara, California. After graduating from law school, Sterling moved to Los Angeles where he has since resided.

The transcript below has been modified and abridged from the original conversation.

Pursuing a Career in Law

How did you decide that law school was right for you? Did you always want to become a lawyer?

I recall being interested in law from an early age. I was intrigued by the esteem that lawyers and lawmakers seemed to have in our community, not to mention the way they were depicted in books and on TV.

But my interest in becoming a lawyer was really cemented in high school when I volunteered for the community youth court, a diversion program which allowed certain juvenile offenders to appear before a court of their peers and avoid the traditional court system—and a potential criminal record. My experience with the youth court exposed me to the real-life impact that the legal system can have on improving lives and our communities as a whole.

That said, there is no ‘one’ path to law. Whether someone has always wanted to become a lawyer or simply found themselves wondering what to do next after college, there are opportunities for success at every turn.

How did you end up deciding to go into civil litigation?

During law school, I was most interested in becoming a criminal attorney, and the majority of my elective courses, volunteer activities, and clerkships were focused on criminal law. Through clerkships, for example, I worked for defense organizations like Legal Aid of New South Wales, in Sydney, Australia, and later prosecuted cases with the Orange County District Attorney.

Ultimately, my interest shifted towards civil litigation, but from those experiences came one of the best lessons I was fortunate enough to learn: finding out what you don’t want to do is just as important as finding out what you do want to do.

What does your practice specifically deal with?

My practice is focused primarily on business disputes in the construction and commercial real estate industries. Most of my clients are developers, general contractors, subcontractors, material suppliers, etc., or owners of commercial or residential properties.

I most frequently deal with breach of contract actions, where one of the parties to a written agreement claims that the other party or parties failed to perform their obligations as promised.

Outside of practicing law, have you ever considered using your law degree to pursue another career?

I also studied music in college and my passion for the arts is as strong as it has ever been. To this day, I am constantly exploring opportunities to apply my legal experience in creative arenas, and I have advised on music licensing and production agreements.

I’m a junior in high school, and I’ve always wanted to become a lawyer. Do you have any recommendations?

It’s great that you’re thinking about the law already! Any exposure you can get to the law now and as you think about college is a great start. For example, my high school volunteer experience with the youth court was critical to developing my interest in pursuing law.

Continue exploring the areas that interest you. Find a firm or nonprofit organization that practices in these areas, or research your county courts to find clerkship opportunities. If you spend even one summer in high school or college working in the field, you will have a head start on most of your peers.

Would you recommend that students conduct informational interviews with local attorneys or law school students if they are interested in law?

Absolutely. I cannot encourage this enough, especially for those who aren’t quite sure if they want to go into law. But do not be discouraged if the feedback isn’t what you expected. Even if the advice given by attorneys or current law students isn’t too encouraging, it is a great opportunity for prospective law students to decide for themselves if they really want to go to law school.

I would also stress that, with the exception of perhaps buying a home, going to law school will quite possibly be the biggest financial investment you make in yourself. You owe it to yourself to do your due diligence, explore the market for all the alternatives, and then decide if the law is right for you.

What personality type is best suited to becoming a lawyer?

I don’t believe there is any one personality type best suited for a successful law career. I have colleagues who are incredible writers, capable of drafting persuasive legal briefs and complex transactional documents, but you will never catch them in a courtroom making an oral argument.

On the other hand, I know some attorneys who are less academic about the law but are extremely charismatic. Put them in front of a jury, and they will be successful. It’s all about finding that part of the practice that you excel in or enjoy.

That said, there are certain characteristics that will make success in the profession more likely. Especially now, when most of us are working from home, the best attorneys are well organized, self-motivated, and know how to manage their time.

What are some recommended undergraduate programs for those who are looking to go to law school?

Many of my fellow law students majored in political science, sociology, history, or pre-law. But my advice to undergraduate students considering law school is to study what interests them. History, art, science, religion, philosophy, theater—whatever it is. I minored in music and would have made it my major if the program existed at the time.

The great thing about preparing for law school is that your undergraduate curriculum is not determinative of your chances of success as a law student. Sure, law schools like to see students who excel in law-related studies and have a demonstrated interest in law, but equally if not more important is to see that students are capable of such qualities as being adaptable, inquisitive, curious, and even creative.

Of course, performance in college will obviously impact your law school options, so whatever the major, study hard!

How can students decide which field of law is right for them?

Another great thing about deciding to go to law school is you don’t have to know what area of law you want to pursue. In fact, it is far more likely that you won’t know.

Start by asking yourself, “why do I want to go to law school?” What are your motivations? As I mentioned earlier, it is a big commitment and a huge expense for most of us, so students should consider working for a summer at a law firm or clerking/interning for the courts if they have the opportunity before deciding to go to law school.

A full-time law program is three years. Typically, students will clerk for a judge, law firm, or nonprofit during the summers after their first and second years. This is a great to time to get exposure to different practice areas.

Ideally, by the end of the second year, students will have an idea of where they want to begin their career and one of those employers will extend an offer to join full-time after completing the Bar Exam.

Even still, most attorneys change course at least once in their career, so your first practice area may very well not be your last.

What is the earning potential for a career in law?

Who isn’t attracted to the idea of a career with high earning potential? The starting salary for lawyers varies greatly based on a variety of factors: the market (supply of and demand for lawyers), what city you live in, your practice area, and the size of your firm or company, to name a few.

For example, I have some colleagues who wanted to focus on public interest and nonprofit work, where a starting salary might be $50,000/year. On the other hand, the starting salary for an associate at a ‘big law’ firm is currently about $195,000/year.

But remember, while the money is important, it can’t be the only motivator if you want to enjoy your practice.

Law School

Does where you go to law school dictate where and what you will practice? Do you recommend going to a law school where you wish to practice?

Great question! Students shouldn’t feel that going to law school in one city or state means they have to commit to living there indefinitely. But it is far easier to attend school in or near a market where you would like to practice.

I learned this the hard way. I am originally from Alaska, went to college in New York, and attended law school in Northern California, before finally moving to Southern California after graduating from law school. One challenge for which I was not prepared was the fact that I had no real social or professional network in Los Angeles. This put me at a disadvantage when I started applying for jobs and interviewing. In hindsight, I failed to appreciate how important it was to start developing your networks—wherever you choose to live—while still in law school.

How rigorous is law school, in terms of the work required and the amount of stress you will face?

Every student should expect a highly competitive and rigorous environment, and they need to be prepared to study, perform under pressure on test days, and deal with all the stress that comes with it. We all manage and handle stress differently, and those who find stressful environments difficult may find law school more challenging.

Even more important, though, is to remember that law school is not only for the academic curriculum. Students are also educated in time management, prioritization, and organization. Those who have already started developing these skills will likely transition into law school more naturally.

And lastly, it all depends on the law school. At Santa Clara, I was fortunate enough to be in a very collaborative and supportive environment. Sure, we all wanted to be the best, but there was a general sense that this was not a zero-sum game. We could all succeed if we all put in the work.

There are horror stories about some institutions that are much more cutthroat—students hiding study guides, turning off each other’s alarm clocks, etc. I am happy to say that wasn’t my experience nor one that I’m aware of anyone personally having to endure.

Are you graded on a bell curve, and does where you land on that curve matter?

Yes, as far as I know all accredited schools follow a similar model for grading. And yes, a student at the very bottom of the curve will need to do some soul searching to decide whether their performance is something they can work on and improve. Or perhaps it is an indication that they lack the interest or commitment to be in law school.

Some schools are great at supporting struggling students such that withdrawing is the very last option.

Are there any strategies to get through law school without feeling overwhelmed?

This is a great time to recite the practices I mentioned previously, as all current and former law students can recall the importance of time management (including not leaving things to the last minute), organization, and prioritization.

Law school is not like college where you can ‘study up’ before the big test. Over the course of three years (or more), it is multiple semester/quarter-long commitments, and you need to work consistently the whole way through.

The most common stressor for students (and attorneys) is falling behind and allowing the unfinished work to become overwhelming. All of a sudden, the idea of the work that needs to be done is actually more stressful than the work itself. But if you just put in the time, chances are you are going to be fine.

For some folks, like myself, it is equally important to engage in activities or interests beyond law school. Remember to carve out time to do the things that you truly enjoy.

Is it harder to pay off student loans in comparison to other degrees?

Simply put, law school is one of the most expensive graduate programs. For that reason, the loans for law students tend to be greater than other programs, meaning it will take longer to pay off those loans.

On the other hand, given the time, expense, and specialized knowledge required to become a lawyer, there is a presumption that lawyers will have more opportunities for higher earnings than many other professions.

This means that, although you may graduate with more debt from law school, you do so with the belief that there will be more opportunities to make more money and pay off that debt more quickly after graduating.

Being a Lawyer

What types of legal disputes do lawyers negotiate and resolve?

Lawyers play an essential role across all industries and economic sectors, and the work they do can vary greatly depending on a multitude of factors. In the broadest sense, civil law (as opposed to criminal law) can be divided into two practice groups: transactions and litigation. 

Transactional law can involve any agreement or contract between parties, such as an agreement to form a new business or a contract to purchase real estate. A transactional attorney will help negotiate and draft the legal documents which are required by law and/or necessary to protect the client’s interests. In the case of a new business, for example, an attorney will draft the documents needed to create the company and establish the rules for governance. If everything goes well, all parties to the transaction will be satisfied and there will (hopefully) be no disputes. 

Litigators, on the other hand, handle countless types of disputes. My practice, for example, focuses primarily on the construction and real estate industries. Most of my clients are developers, contractors, or property owners who are in a dispute with another person or company because that person or company failed to act as they were required to or acted improperly. In these cases, my firm will be called upon to help negotiate a resolution or, if necessary, prepare to take the case to trial.

What are some misconceptions about the legal profession?

One of the biggest misconceptions is that successful lawyers need to be cutthroat. Yes, there is a time and a place to be assertive and even aggressive, but attorneys who conduct themselves that way all the time are often well known and not well liked in the profession.

What do you wish you didn’t have to do on a day-to-day basis?

Billing. Most attorneys have to keep track of billable hours to remain accountable to their clients, which is extremely important so the client knows the value of the services the attorneys are providing. But to be accountable for every time increment—in some cases as short as every six minutes—can be really discouraging.

What do you love about your job?

I think the single most important thing for success in any job is to be grounded in something you truly value or enjoy, whether it’s the practice area, the work you’re doing, or even the people with whom you work.

At the end of the day, it’s still a job and we are all going to have days we would rather be somewhere else. But if you are able to find something that drives and inspires you every day, success will follow.

For me, I found that I’m truly passionate about working with my clients to find creative solutions for their problems. The notion that my hard work can improve another person’s life is part of what motivates me every morning. Nobody wants to be in a lawsuit, but if I’m doing my job well, then my clients aren’t losing sleep thinking about their case. That part of problem solving for my clients is something I genuinely love.

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