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John Desmond: Lawyers Can Serve a Greater Role as Leaders & Educators

When offices started closing down back on March 16 of 2020, John Desmond (Person Class, 1994) remembered thinking at the time that this whole thing would only last two to three weeks, maybe four weeks max.

But four weeks turned into two months, then six months, then “Here we are, a year later,” he recalled.

“Everything was a bit of shock for people, especially because nobody had ever experienced anything like this­ before.”

In fact, the closest thing Desmond could compare this with was his experience during 9/11; and the impact that crisis had on people. “I was actually on a plane at a gate that didn’t depart on the morning of 9/11. That memory will always stick with me, and that I will never forget. But this pandemic is very different.”

Desmond feels this past year has been a devastation like no other – crossing every barrier around the world. Yet he also believes there has been some invaluable lessons learned and there will be new, better ways of doing things, especially in the legal field – lasting changes that will go into the future.

For Desmond, this past year has been an incredible learning experience. Always one to look at things through the lens of a litigator, Desmond, co-division director for Dickinson Wright’s litigation practice, has been impressed by how well the profession has adapted, despite attorneys’ long-time focus of doing things mostly in person. He says that lawyers are realizing, after more than a year of virtual work, that there are many advantages to doing things remotely.

“Whether it’s an in-person deposition, hearing, client meeting, or even preparation with colleagues,” explained Desmond, “that all has changed and will stick with us. I think the ease of being able to do a deposition by video rather than traveling across the country for what may be a three-hour deposition that you have three days of travel for – it only makes sense that remote work will be a lasting change. I also see the ability to work with courts and other agencies electronically as having a lasting impact.”

Yet there are some things Desmond thinks will return to in-person work once the world transitions to a new normal.

“The biggest thing I have heard from colleagues and courts is that they miss that human contact and interaction,” shared Desmond. “I think we’ll eventually go back to having in-person hearings. There are still certain things you may lose from doing things remotely, such as picking up body language or a pause in a deposition. That in-person observation can be very helpful and meaningful in terms of assessing the credibility and character of the witness. Yet we know we can do everything remotely, if we have to, even if it’s not ideal.”

LIFE’S TWISTS AND TURNS

Desmond’s career path did not start on a legal track, especially with most of his family in the medical profession. His father was a pharmacist, who owned a drug store for 40 years in Reno, and two of his sisters ended up as physicians. But it was his sister closest in age who gave Desmond another path to consider – law school – despite the fact that she never ended up practicing as a lawyer but opted to follow another path as an English professor.

It was during high school that Desmond started honing in on the law as a career, getting a job working for a small civil litigation firm in Reno. He ended up liking it so much he worked there through his undergraduate years in college.

“It was really interesting,” said Desmond. “They gave me the opportunity to go to trial, to observe a lot of things. I was an English literature major in undergrad and ended up doing some speech and debate classes and took some classes that you would call pre-law classes. And it was really to my liking. I enjoyed working part time during high school and college for this law firm. They taught me a lot of things that I still use today.”

LAW SCHOOL BOUND

It was clear that law school was Desmond’s next career step. In looking around the country at law schools, it was WMU-Cooley Law School’s generous merit-based scholarship that motivated him to pack his bags and move from Reno, Nevada to Lansing, Michigan.

As much as Desmond loved being out west, he never looked back, even when others thought he might want to take his high GPA and finish out his J.D. nearer to home. But he liked everything WMU-Cooley offered.

“I was getting a great education and the professors were doing a great job,” explained Desmond. “I didn’t look at it as a stepping stone. I felt they provided me an opportunity through the scholarship to perform well, and if I did perform well, they paid for a lot of tuition expense, which was great.”

Following law school, Desmond did move back west, but he wasn’t certain where he wanted to practice. He made the decision to take two of the toughest exams in the United States, the California and Nevada bar exams, to keep his options open.

“I ended up taking the Nevada bar exam six months after the California bar, and thankfully passed those,” stated Desmond with a sigh of relief. “I would encourage everyone to take time on bar preparation and then take exams in states you are even thinking about practicing in. It really pays off to study and take exams when it’s fresh in your mind.”

CREATING YOUR CAREER

With the bar exam behind him, it was a ballot initiative in Nevada seeking to impose term limits for judges that caught Desmond’s interest. He became very involved in the campaign on behalf of the Nevada District Judges Association and agreed to do a one-year clerkship. Then at the conclusion of that term the district judges asked him to stay on to assist with the opposition efforts to the ballot initiative, and he did. In the meantime, the judge for whom Desmond was clerking was elected to the Nevada Supreme Court.

Yet civil work and civil litigation was his true interest. Once his clerkship ended, Desmond focused on finding a position in that area of expertise.

It didn’t take long. A job offer came in from a Las Vegas-based complex litigation firm that he had interacted with when he was clerking. That offer turned into an invigorating eight-year career with the firm.

“Working at the firm, I had the opportunity to interact with a lot of different lawyers nationally – some very high-end firms and many good litigators. The cases brought forward many opportunities for depositions, for hearings. Even in my first two years at the firm, I took over 150 depositions, which was great. I learned a lot,” said Desmond.

No matter your experience, Desmond recognizes that you need to rely on your instincts and trust your judgment to excel.

“You learn a lot just by watching and listening,” tells Desmond. “Things like spending time in the courtroom, being able to see different lawyers in action in different types of cases. Seeing different styles of arguments. It really gave me a window into the profession in terms of charting my career path.”

Desmond also learned to truly respect litigators, especially during big, lengthy cases, with thousands of exhibits.

“I really appreciated the efforts that lawyers took in presenting the case in a very digestible fashion to the jury and court,” said Desmond about his litigation colleagues. “They were able to distill a lot of complex information down in an understandable manner. That was very appealing to me. I have always enjoyed the intellectual challenge of the law, being able to parse through a lot of evidence and a lot of witnesses and present it in a way that would be meaningful to the court or to the jury. I find it fascinating.”

BIG FIRM ADVANTAGES

After working for a few other firms over his career, Desmond now works for the litigation division of the large firm of Dickinson Wright in its Reno, Nevada office. The major advantage Desmond sees in working in a large firm is the depth and breath of expertise and services the firm can offer.

“You want to give the client the best service possible, but it can be hard when you have to refer those matters out. Dickinson, being a full-service firm, I haven’t had to do that. For the most part we’ve been able to service everything within the existing expertise of the firm. That experience on a national platform has really been invaluable.”

Dickinson has a dedicated Electronically Stored Information (ESI) team and the resources to handle electronic discovery, documents and management, as well as a robust IT infrastructure, which Desmond said is another benefit to attorneys and their clients. The combination of these benefits has helped the firm weather the pandemic over the last year.

“Our litigation practice was actually up last year from 2019, which frankly, surprised me a lot,” shared Desmond. “We really didn’t miss a beat. Our productivity was up year over year in 2020 from 2019, and lawyers were engaged. I think part of it is generational. I think it’s easier for younger lawyers to adapt to that environment. There’s an expectation now that you can effectively work remotely. I don’t know that clients are going to go back to wanting to pay for you to travel across the country for a three-hour deposition.”

Desmond even sees that there will be an increase in litigation needs as businesses open more.

“Anytime, and the same was true after the 2008 financial crisis, you have an economic event like this, there seems to be pent-up demand of businesses or people who may have been thinking about pursuing a case or a dispute but didn’t due to economic and other uncertainties. I think there’s likely to be an uptick in litigation from that.”

FACULTY IMPRESSIONS

Looking back at his law school experience, Desmond remembered his time in Professor Otto Stockmeyer’s classes.

“I took Professor Stockmeyer for Contracts and ended up taking a couple other courses from him. He’s a remarkable person, both in terms of the way he taught, but also in the way he explained a methodology for how to understand things. It might have been out of fear of being called on in class, but I always prepared for that class in a way which was different than I was used to doing. It was a very effective way to prepare. I succeeded in that class and I ended up getting his book award in Contracts. But more than that, it was the way he taught and the way he approached things. It was instructive in terms of other subjects. He insisted students kept up with the reading and the classwork – he was a good task master on that. And I think that served me well – not just for other classes, but really for instruction on how to conduct yourself in practice – to just be prepared and always try to be ahead of the game.”

Desmond believes there is much to look forward to in the future. He thinks lawyers are going to have the opportunity for a greater role, more than ever in 2021.

“I think we’re going to see a shift in priorities with a lot of the different federal agencies,” explains Desmond. “We’re already starting to see that – whether it’s on environmental issues, or criminal prosecutions or white-collar issues. We will see a change there.

“I also think, from a broader sense, lawyers can really be leaders in terms of what we’ve been through this election cycle and remind people that we are a nation of laws and the importance of the rule of law. While the rule of law is an overused term in today’s media, I still think a lot of people don’t understand what it means.

“Lawyers can serve a greater role in public education to help explain the law and the basic structure of our government, and what the Constitution means, the role of the states and the federal government. Recent events have brought the issue in the spotlight, and it is creating confusion. I think lawyers can be at the forefront of educating the public on how the rule of law is intertwined with the workings of the government and the people.”

CAREER ADVICE

  • Don’t let your foot off the gas and make the bar exam your focus.
  • Get involved in activities outside of the day-to-day practice. There are many ways you can round out your career and who you are, not just as a lawyer, but as a person.
  • Always challenge yourself. Don’t be afraid to learn something new.
  • Have a good work-life balance, which includes having a routine. 

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