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Top Lawyers: Portia Wood On The 5 Things You Need To Become A Top Lawyer In Your Specific Field of Law

Stay true to who you are. Being fake will cost you.

The legal field is known to be extremely competitive. Lawyers are often smart, ambitious, and highly educated. That being said, what does it take to stand out and become a “Top Lawyer” in your specific field of law? In this interview series called “5 Things You Need To Become A Top Lawyer In Your Specific Field of Law”, we are talking to top lawyers who share what it takes to excel and stand out in your industry.

As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Portia Wood.

Portia M. Wood, Esq., is a generational wealth planning attorney. Based in Los Angeles, she leads Wood Legal Group, LLP, an African American woman-owned and operated law firm specializing in estate planning, probate, and elder law that she runs with her mother and law partner, Robin Wood. They are passionately focused on helping all families grow and protect wealth by being a trusted resource for accurate information and comprehensive, culturally competent estate planning. Learn more at woodlegalgroup.com.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit more. What is the “backstory” that brought you to this particular career path in Law? Did you want to be an attorney “when you grew up”?

Hello, and thank you so much for having me as a part of your interview series. No, I did not always know that I wanted to be a lawyer. My path to the law was definitely filled with twists and turns, as well as my path to this work, as so many of the great stories are. I started out in college as a journalism major with an emphasis on public relations. In my junior year after I was hired to do an internship in New York, I was rear ended by a drunk driver and my life changed in an instant. I was no longer able go to New York; I was no longer able to pursue that at that time. I found myself in physical therapy as the result of someone else’s actions. Because I knew I needed to work that summer I was fortunate enough to have a cousin who owned their own civil rights law firm in Baltimore, and they were in the middle of a police brutality case in which an individual who was picked up for disorderly became a quadriplegic in police custody. I had the opportunity to work on that case, and through that experience I realized I really wanted to be an advocate for my community — a voice for the voiceless. I saw the law as a way to do that, so when I returned to college I took several legal courses, then the LSAT, and started law school. One might say that the rest was history; however, it was still quite windy after that. In law school I worked in the public defender’s office and then the state stories office for several years after law school.

Can you tell us a bit about the nature of your practice and what you focus on?

In our practice we focus on intergenerational wealth transfer, particularly in historically and systematically marginalized communities. We are in a state of emergency as it relates to black and brown wealth. The baby boomers hold the majority of the wealth in this country, and we are on the precipice of one of the largest wealth transfers in the history of our society. Unfortunately, most people are wildly unprepared for this silver tsunami. In the African American community specifically, 70% have no estate planning at all. This means they have no plan for what happens if we fall sick or when we pass away. There historically has been stigma in the community around planning and much of that is because of a lack of knowledge. Our goal is to help close the racial wealth gap by preserving the wealth that is already inside of communities and protecting it so that it can be leveraged and grow.

You are a successful attorney. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? What unique qualities do you have that others may not? Can you please share a story or example for each?

I think the character traits that people need in this profession — particularly when you are a lawyer who is people focused — are to actually care about the people that you represent and what you’re doing. I am passionate about protecting families because I know the power of an estate plan. I know the power of preserving what one has created because I am the beneficiary of that, and I can see how not having that protection or that estate plan continues to decimate my community. We’ve had clients who have lost homes, who have lost everything that the previous generation built because they didn’t plan, and then they came back to us for a probate that would have been 100% avoidable if they’d had a plan. Seeing that economic decimation really fuels my passion for getting in front of people and educating us as often as possible, and I think that earnest passion — genuine care for the people I represent — has been what’s helped me to be very successful.

Last, knowledge: You have to know what you’re doing. You have to be competent. You have to stay on top of ever-changing practices so that you are able to be an effective advocate for your clients.

Do you think you have had luck in your success? Can you explain what you mean?

I definitely think I’ve had luck in my career. I like to think of it as the ancestors guiding me to my true purpose. Like I said, my road to this work was not a straight path, and I needed those different experiences to educate and formulate my current process. Luck is really preparation and opportunity. If you are not prepared when the opportunity knocks, then you will not be able to capitalize on it. But if you’ve been doing the work and you’re prepared, anytime an opportunity knocks you’ll be ready.

Do you think where you went to school has any bearing on your success? How important is it for a lawyer to go to a top-tier school?

There’s such a great debate here. At the time I went to the University of Maryland, it was a top 50 school, so not a top 10, but still recognized nationally. I think that the education I received was stellar; the opportunities, the alumni network — it was incredible. Still, where you go to school will not have as much bearing on your success as how you use that education, period. Yes, Harvard has an incredible alumni network, and the Harvard name carries a lot of weight, but you can still be successful without Harvard. So doing well in school and informing yourself with internship and opportunities and networking on your own is more important than going to a top-tier school.

Based on the lessons you have learned from your experience, if you could go back in time and speak to your twenty-year-old self, what would you say? Would you do anything differently?

If I could go back to my 20-year-old self, I’d say invest more in the financial markets, take time to really cultivate good money habits early, and don’t stress out about the unknown. Live and experience and travel and see, because we only have this one life and it’s important that we make the most of it. Wealth is not just about money, but it’s the crude experiences — it’s the people we meet along the way and the things that we do that make us wealthy.

This is not easy work. What is your primary motivation and drive behind the work that you do?

I recognize the state of emergency that we are in. No one was having this conversation, and as difficult as it is and as many times as people misunderstand what I do, it is important to keep trying to get the message home to as many people as possible. That’s because once the opportunity is gone — when somebody has passed away or gotten dementia or COVID-19 and they’re no longer capable of making certain decisions — it really is too late.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

Some of the most interesting, exciting projects I have going on right now are international speaking engagements, so I’m headed to Houston and Orlando and then to to loom (which I’m very excited about) for our Wealth and Wellness Conference. That’ll be four days into loom talking money, investments, wellness — how to not just acquire money and financial success, but how to actually live long enough to enjoy it. In addition to speaking on larger platforms, I am very excited about our course. It’s a generational wealth planning course and it’s hosted by the Black Trust Fund Kids, which is a group that I founded in 2020 that has been a growing community across Clubhouse and TikTok. We are launching our first 10-week course on really reframing our mindset on money, money management, estate planning, business planning, and helping people think differently about how they generate and protect money. We would do a section on Big Momma’s house — you know, how do you leverage Big Momma’s house? Often, people just want to sell it because they think the cash is easier, but cash is not king. So we talk in one of the modules about how that property can be leveraged, and what it can be used for in a way of creating an income for the beneficiaries who are left behind. We’re talking about changing what is approximately a $2 billion loss in the probate court system annually in the United States, and if we can educate enough people, keeping all of those fees and costs with the families instead, imagine how much better off our society would be if we stopped losing what the previous generation had worked for and instead stood on their shoulders.

Where do you go from here? Where do you aim to be in the next chapter of your career?

I am incredibly excited to start educating young people. I had the opportunity to speak to a group of high schoolers in an alternative continuation school about just money: how money works, how to build money. We went through various exercises with them about the value of their dollar, the importance of investing, etc., and many of these concepts were things that they’ve never heard or been exposed to, and now I’ve received some emails that some of them have opened up brokerage accounts. A couple of them who have jobs after school are putting away some of those paychecks into an investment account and budgeting and doing all these things. Knowing that I directly impacted and changed 18 kids’ lives that day has inspired me to want to do more, so I’m looking at putting together a curriculum to offer to some of these schools in our district to start educating kids early.

Ok, fantastic. Let’s now shift to discussing some advice for aspiring lawyers. Do you work remotely? Onsite? Or Hybrid? What do you think will be the future of how law offices operate? What do you prefer? Can you please explain what you mean?

Presently we are working fully remote; prior to the pandemic, we were a hybrid, onsite as well as remote. What we found in moving remote is that our clients actually like it more; it gives them the freedom and flexibility to meet with us within their busy schedules without having to drive all the way to our offices, and it’s been an incredible experience. I miss going into the office, and I miss that camaraderie with my colleagues, but we try to recreate that through virtual meetings and keeping in touch.I don’t think we’ll go back into an office anytime soon.

How has the legal world changed since COVID? How do you think it might change in the near future? Can you explain what you mean?

COVID forced everyone to go on their toes and to pivot. Courts were closed in many jurisdictions for six months or more, and we had to really redefine what lawyering means. People started doing virtual trials and realizing that, hey, we can be far more efficient as attorneys in multiple courthouses in multiple cases in a day if we don’t have the drive time. We can be far more economical for our clients if we don’t have the additional drive times and wait times of sitting in a courtroom for hours on end waiting for your case to be called. I think COVID exposed the inefficiencies of these systems and challenged the courts to create a different model to keep justice flowing, and I’m not sure you’re going to be able to put that genie back in the bottle. So I think we will start to see more and more virtual practices; I think we’ll see more virtual hearings and less backlog in the court system. Hopefully, anyway.

Based on your experience, how can attorneys effectively leverage social media to build their practice?

Based on my experience I think you have to meet your audience where they are. If you want people to understand the incidence of personal injury law, let’s say, then teach them. Educate them through social media platforms so that they understand what their rights are. If you are an estate planning attorney like me, most people have never heard anything about estate planning except for what they’ve seen on TV, and so they don’t often think it applies to them. Creating content that helps people to understand what it is, how it impacts people in general, and how it may impact them can be really helpful in connecting with your audience and potential clients.

Excellent. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things You Need To Become A Top Lawyer In Your Specific Field of Law?” Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Trusted advisors/mentors.
  2. Study / study / study.
  3. Check your biases at the door.
  4. Don’t reinvent the wheel; ask for help.
  5. Stay true to who you are. Being fake will cost you.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!

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