This week’s Attorney in the Spotlight, Erika Orcutt, is not only a trusted advocate known for treating her clients like family but is also, I am happy to report, my friend and neighbor. Erika, originally from Pasadena, California, moved to the suburbs of Atlanta in 2002. However, I wasn’t fortunate enough to meet her until about five years ago when she was choosing an office space close by. The conversation segued into deciding to attend a networking function together later that same week, as I recall, and we both walked away from the event with some promising business connections. Since then, Erika and I have remained in touch, at times, to collaborate on projects or to meet up for coffee and a chat.
M.G.: Erika, thanks for meeting with me! I’m surprised I don’t know the answer to this first question, but were either one of your parents attorneys? What prompted you to become an attorney all those years ago?
E.O.: They were not – I am a product of a teacher and an engineer. My uncle (my Mother’s brother) went to law school as a second career when he was, well…when I was in middle school. I originally wanted to be a doctor, but…the science and math…Calculus was not my thing! My uncle would send me his course catalogs as well as various information about law school while he was there. When he got married, I was a freshman (in High School), and I went to his wedding in Minnesota. He was clerking for a big firm in Minneapolis at the time. A couple of days before his wedding, I tagged along with him (as he was working) and was able to go to the firm’s law library and watch as he was wrapping stuff up. At that time, the era of L.A. Law (on tv) and his office, the firm, looked (to me) just like that! It had a big two-story library, and I just thought it was the coolest thing ever. Now, in retrospect, I should have thought, “Oh my gosh, here he is on the eve of his wedding and still at work…!” (Laughing) Nonetheless, that (experience) put the bug in my (ear) and working as an attorney became my focus from then on. Also, I’d been interested in history, political science, and government matters, so I saw how a law degree could be a vehicle to tap into those interests as well.
M.G.: I know you have worked for the Federal Government and the State as well – and perhaps even across branches? Could you please elaborate on your career history so readers and I can better understand how you married those interests to the work you have done?
E.O.: Sure – and, actually, I have worked for all three branches of the government. In Law School, I worked for the U.S. Attorney’s Office and The Department of Justice, the Executive Branch. I interned for the subcommittee for Administrative Oversight and the Courts headed by Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) under the Senate Judiciary Committee – the Legislative Branch. Lastly, I worked for Federal Judges shortly after law school in the Judicial Branch. So, yes, I’ve worked for all three branches.
M.G.: What a great experience! Do you ever want to return to working in that capacity again?
E.O.: No, it was fun being in (Washington) D.C. at that time. I got to go to President Clinton’s second inauguration, and I had some neat experiences. I enjoyed them, but I really don’t have a desire to do that again.
M.G.: How do you handle the hard side of practicing law – particularly in your Practice Area (Wills & Estate Planning)? Managing the emotions and difficulties which arise when dealing with such weighty issues – often in stressful moments in people’s lives – must be incredibly challenging, true?
E.O.: When my first client died, it was really tough, yes. But, I try to treat my clients like family in those situations and (work) to give them reassurance and guidance and let them know I’ll be here for them. I’ll be here for their loved ones afterward to walk them through the steps they need to go through after they pass away. I try to be a resource for them and their families. And, yes. I know not to take things personally, but these are my clients, and I do care about them, which makes it hard. Dealing with death is part of my job.
E.O.: I’ve gotten calls for and respond to deathbed will signing requests or received calls for changes (to a client’s will) when they are gravely ill. But, right now, in this COVID time, that’s really difficult. I can’t always help in the way someone is requesting due to limited access (to my clients) to hospitals or Nursing Homes. It’s very hard to tell someone I care about, “I can’t do what you are asking.” Even if I try to assist in the ways they are requesting, there are limitations. I have to explain, “I will do what I can to make that happen.” But, in these situations of explaining constraints to their loved ones as they’re going through such a difficult time makes things even more challenging, I think.
M.G.: Have there been times where this made you doubt your practice area?
E.O.: No, it hasn’t. I am glad to be able to help provide clients with a plan, hopefully, before someone passes away, and I appreciate being able to guide families through the process afterward. It’s almost more heartbreaking to watch folks go through dementia or Alzheimer’s – and to watch clients and their families go through that – possibly even more than the death part. In those situations, my office and I try to support folks by finding resources like support groups and other services to help clients and their families.
M.G.: I know your practice also focuses on Business Succession Planning. Which practice area do you prefer: Wills and Estate Planning or Business Succession work?
E.O.: Actually, the two complement each other. The aim is to dovetail Business Succession Planning with Estate Planning effectively. Often, business documents fail to address death & incapacity. On the other hand, Estate Planning documents traditionally don’t provide direction on how to manage the business if or when the Principal is incapacitated or dies. Answering the question of whether the company will continue or be dissolved upon the owner’s or partner’s death or incapacitation, for instance, is a critical component frequently overlooked when helping proprietors achieve peace of mind. For example, without Business Succession Planning, an unfortunate scenario can play out when an unexpected event leaves the owner incapable of making business decisions. The court has to intervene, which will likely tie up the business and the owner’s assets indefinitely – precisely what they hoped to avoid. I enjoy helping my clients who are business owners develop a cohesive plan for their businesses within their Estate Plan.
M.G.: That is helpful, thanks. And, now, can you please share one of the best or most worthwhile investments you’ve ever made into yourself or your practice?
E.O.: A couple of years ago, I hired professional organizers to come into my office and rework what I had in place. They moved (and changed) everything! From furniture to office supplies, to bookshelves to files and piles of pieces of paper piled up on my desk…they reorganized it all and delivered a better system. It only took a couple of days – may be the better part of a week to get through it all. It was probably $1,500 and well worth it! Since then, I’ve made some small changes – and may need their help again at some point (laughing)… I’ve got a pile full of papers on my desk right now. But, mostly, I have kept those same systems in place. Their assistance – and the decision to prioritize the organization of my physical workspace really helped clear my mind. It made a big difference in my productivity and peace of mind.
M.G.: Wow, I love this info! This tip has not come up yet in our other interviews, so I imagine this insight might be of significant interest to readers.
M.G.: Recently, we’ve had several attorneys who have mentioned their struggle with time management. Do you have any tried and true strategies which have helped you in this area?
E.O.: Time Management is definitely a work in progress. A couple of things I’ve adopted along the way are setting specific days and times to meet with clients. I wouldn’t say I have fully embraced time-blocking – although I’m working to refine that now as part of an assignment with a group I attend (virtually) with other attorneys. I usually have my Monday mornings blocked off. I tend to really need Monday mornings to focus and regroup after the weekend (with my girls) – to plan and prioritize the demands of the week ahead. I have established Wednesday as my networking and professional development kind of day. So, I usually don’t schedule meetings with clients on Wednesdays unless there’s a particular, urgent need. Early on, even back in college and law school, I realized I got most of my best work done on Friday nights of all things. By the way, that’s the best time to be in the law library…because nobody’s there. (Laughing) So (Friday night) was when I used to do my legal research and homework at the law library…back in the dark ages with BOOKS! Some people talk about (planning for the week ahead) on Sunday nights or over the weekend, but I’ve learned that’s just not me. Also, to walk into a 9 am Monday morning meeting… that’s not my preference, and my clients just wouldn’t be getting the best of me. It’s not my thing.
M.G.: What advice would you give someone either just starting out or just finishing law school?
E.O.: Take some business classes. They don’t have to be college-level business classes – but someone new to our profession will likely need some knowledge in this area. Whether you take a class through (a legal services company), the SBA, community college, CLE’s, whatever, decide on a place offering a business class – the business of practicing law – and sign up. It’s so great when you get your first client in your own firm, for example, but having a structure in place and a base of business knowledge to establish a process is a tremendous asset and a real advantage. It’s something I am still struggling to learn now despite being in practice for years. I wish I had taken a business class in college, but no one told me to do this. I think it’s really useful, important information to have as an attorney.