“From Where I Sit” is an insider’s conversation with Marc H. Pillinger. Marc is an executive partner at Pillinger Miller Tarallo, LLP and one of its three founding partners.
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How was the pandemic year for you personally and professionally?
I have been fortunate. As a law firm, we were able to keep everybody on staff without furloughing. Everybody received their paychecks every two weeks, and it is something we were very proud we were able to do.
We took care of our people first and foremost. We instituted very early on safety procedures. We had a consultant advise us on what to do to make our facility and staff as safe as possible.
Personally, I am very fortunate that nobody got sick in my family. My children are gainfully employed and ironically, my daughter has three Master’s degrees and her Ph.D. in International Public Health Policy. So, if you are wondering why I’m still working for a living, now you know.
Suddenly, due to the pandemic, she became in great demand. Whereas before the pandemic, my wife and I were terrified that there would only be two jobs in the world for her and both of them would have been filled. So, we have been lucky. I thank the Lord every day that we have been able to come through this the way we have.
You are widely recognized both within the law firm of Pillinger Miller Tarallo and the legal community as an accomplished educator and teacher. How did this come to be?
Genetics, my father was a real estate attorney. His office was right near City Hall, and he had a very dear friend who was an accounting professor at Pace. Long story short, this friend came to him one day and said, “the contracts Professor quit, we need somebody to teach contracts, can you do it just at night for one semester?”. My father said “yes,” and many years later, he would retire as the law department chairman at Baruch College.
I have always enjoyed teaching as all of my partners and associates and friends and family will tell you. I love to hear myself talk so, it’s just fun. If I ever retire, that’s what I would do. I would retire and teach. I like the interaction with people, the questions. The best thing that can happen when you are lecturing is for someone to ask you a question you don’t know the answer to, ironically enough. Because that is the challenging thing, and you can say to them, I don’t know the answer to that, but this is what I think. So that is a passion. The practice of law started out to be a passion. It is not a passion anymore. Teaching is the passion.
You’ve created a training program within PMT for attorneys and new hires. Can you tell us a bit of what the training consists of, how it’s organized, and how you got started with this?
As we grew, I realized that the level of knowledge, based upon the individual’s attorney’s experience, varied greatly. I felt it was important to create a baseline. So that even if you did not handle Labor law cases, you would have a working knowledge of Labor law.
Also, as we hired more young lawyers coming out of law school with technical and theoretical knowledge, I noticed they were not prepared for the real world. I felt that a lecture series in-house would be tremendously advantageous for them. So, I emailed all of the attorneys and asked them what topics they would like to hear addressed.
We received everything from no-fault to “I would like to get lectures on anatomy.” So then, I instituted the program and reached out to my partners to see who would volunteer to handle presenting the lectures. Some lectures were just as simple as the new court rules, basic motion practice as well as educational topics on the law itself, so, this would be done after the workday, but not too far after. For the people who are in the office, we would bribe them with cake and cookies. Additionally, people could zoom in. We disseminated the material to the attorneys in advance of the lecture, which was very important. We addressed questions at the end of the lecture. We discussed all topics, even those that may have arisen during the workday for an attorney.
In addition, every day we would, and continue to, roundtable cases with the senior partners and trial attorneys. We call it our PMT Numbers Roundtable. It’s not only for the lawyers to discuss value, but also to discuss their cases and get insight from more experienced attorneys. Because, sometimes, even on your files, you can’t see the forest for the trees, and you can get hung up on minutiae. So, taking advantage of just discussing a case with several senior partners is extremely advantageous. For the most part, we do this every day, and everybody is invited to put a case or a topic on the agenda that they wish to discuss.
It comes across that you have a talent and a passion for teaching, training, and mentoring. When did you first recognize that you had this passion, and how have you used it over the years, to help other PMT attorneys and outside of PMT.
My first job out of law school, I knew nothing. I thought I knew something, but I knew nothing.
There was a gentleman named Herb Minster, may he rest in peace. He truly took me under his wing and taught me how to draft a complaint, how to draft an answer, and how to draft a bill of particulars. He taught me the nuts and bolts of the business. I so appreciated what Herb did for me, I decided then that I would return the favor if ever given the opportunity because he didn’t have to do it. He was a senior associate, and I didn’t even work under him. He just saw the terror in my face and decided to help this poor kid out.
That’s how it started. Since then, in addition to the PMT in-house education, I have lectured for the New York State Bar Association, the New York State Academy of Trial Lawyers, the Bronx County Bar Association countless times. I have lectured on topics I felt were interesting or important to share with other lawyers. I would answer questions after the lectures because that is what I felt I was there to do.
My lectures have been recorded and available for people to review as part of their continuing legal education.
You studied two years of medicine in Paris. How did you go from wanting to be a doctor to becoming a lawyer?
I was Pre-Med in college and went to medical school in Paris for two years. Medical school in Paris is for six years, and I decided that I did not want to be in Paris for another four years. With the benefit of hindsight, if I had known that I would quit after two years, I would have had a wonderful two years in Paris instead of working like a dog. So I came back to the United States. I had a Pre-Med degree, and I did not want to be a dentist. I did not want to be a hospital administrator. I had no talent and no skills.
So, when you have no talent and no skills and do not know what you want to do, you take the LSATs. I did surprisingly well, and I applied late to several New York law schools and was fortunate to get into several. That is how I became a lawyer. I became a litigator and defense attorney because when I came out of law school, I was in debt with school loans, and my first job was with a defense firm.
Here I am today. Obviously, it was all master planning on my part that resulted in me being a partner in this firm.
Your mother was happy because if she could not have a son that was a doctor, she had a son who was a lawyer.
My mother was happy because my little brother, who is eight years younger than me, is a medical professor at NYU and a doctor. Even though she did not get a doctor out of me, she got a doctor out of my brother. So, I always say that it was okay by my mother. My brother picked up the slack for me.
What skills are most important for training and mentoring new attorneys and future leaders at PMT?
I have little patience for people who do not know how to write. I realize that because I am old, I still write things on a yellow pad. In contrast, all of the young associates type all their work themselves, but that is no excuse not to write a cogent sentence with proper grammar. That is my bugaboo. You have to teach a new lawyer, or even some of the more experienced lawyers, is while we are a profession, we also are a business. If they do not bill their time, we cannot bill our clients, and if we cannot bill our clients, we do not get paid. If we do not get paid, they do not get paid. So while I appreciate that they are working very hard, I am not happy when a lawyer who has worked hard at the end of a week has not put in their billing time.
The other thing that they have to learn is that we advocate for our client’s positions. That does not mean that we ever represent something to the court that is not true. I always tell my lawyers that if you want a lecture on ethics, here it is…if your gut tells you it’s wrong, do not do it. But as an advocate for your client, you have to present your case the best way possible. The young lawyers coming out of law school are used to presenting both sides of an argument to a professor. We are not here to present the plaintiffs’ argument to the judge. We are also not here to misrepresent the facts or the law. Young attorneys have to be taught how to construct an argument, deal with the weaknesses of their argument, and sum up the strengths of their argument. That is what needs to be imparted to some experienced attorneys as well.
What advice would you give to new attorneys after everything you experienced in your legal career?
I would advise them to maintain a work-life balance and keep perspective. Being an attorney is a service business. No matter what you do, you have to deal with your clients, and you have to be responsive to your clients and their needs. Even if you think they are acting nitpicky or asking for something that is not timely. That is not for you to determine.
The law business will eat up all of your time if you let it. You have to learn to prioritize, and that is one of the hardest things to do. With the appropriate time management such as keeping and maintaining a calendar and a tickler system, you can have your cake and eat it, too. You can have your family life. With PMT, we are believers in you seeing your child play little league or you going to your child’s play. We do not care if you do your work at seven o’clock in the morning or seven o’clock in the evening as long as you get your work done. We consider you to be a professional. If I cannot rely on you to get your work done, I have real problems because you should not be working here.
Being a lawyer, especially now, is a difficult way to make a living. I suspect it’s always been difficult. But there are a lot of extraneous pressures put on you now that you cannot control, so you have to control what you can.
Is there an area of the law you most enjoy practicing, and if you can tell us, how did this come about?
I most enjoy practicing environmental litigation. How it came about is I was working for a firm, and they got in an environmental case. Nobody handled environmental law in the firm. So the partner called me into his office and said (paraphrasing) “congratulations, you are now an environmental litigator,” and gave me the file to handle. It was on-the-job training, and I was going to all of these lectures and conferences on lead paint, asbestos litigation, mold litigation, oil spills. I learned as much as I could about both defenses because I was on the defense side and the medicine. I guess the progress of life is when I went from the student to the teacher. I enjoy environmental law. It’s challenging, and there’s a lot of regulatory things you have to be aware of.
Environmental law also goes well with your interest in medicine and science.
Yes, it always helps. If you are going to do personal injury work, knowledge of medicine is invaluable. You have to be able to read the medical records and understand what your experts are telling you. It all comes full circle for me.
Any last thoughts?
I would conclude by saying there is no such thing as a dumb question. There is only a dumb person who does not ask the question. I am not saying an attorney should come into my office and ask me, “what’s the statute of limitations for negligence in New York”, because that’s something you can look up yourself.
But, ask questions. You are never going to get yelled at for asking questions. Come to me or any of the partners if you have a problem. Most problems can be fixed, especially by people who have more experience. But if you don’t tell us you have a problem, we cannot help you fix your problem. The ostrich head in the sand approach to problem-solving does not work. That is how I would conclude our discussion today.
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