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Top Lawyers: Wendy Hernandez of Hernandez Family Law On The 5 Things You Need To Become A Top Lawyer In Your Specific Field of Law

An Interview with Eric L. Pines

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 Wendy Hernandez.

Wendy Hernandez is a Phoenix family law attorney, founder of the Hernandez Family Law Firm, divorce coach and creator of Command the Courtroom. Having tried over 1,000 cases during her 26 years as a litigator, Wendy is a courtroom warrior who has tackled every type of family law matter — from divorce to child custody and everything in between. In addition to providing full-service representation for Arizona clients, Wendy is passionate about coaching individuals representing themselves on how to navigate the family law courtroom on their own through her popular YouTube channel, Command the Courtroom.

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”?

The desire to become a lawyer “came to me” when I was 12 years old. There was no life-defining moment that motivated me to study law. I trusted the calling, followed it, and 40 years later, here I am!

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

I’m a family law attorney, so that means I handle divorce cases and cases involving children (custody, parenting time and child support). Some of the cases I handle are purely financial (i.e., dividing assets/liabilities), while others involve arriving at a result that is in the best interests of children. Many cases involve both of these things.

Regardless of the type of case I handle, I always want to do it in a way that serves the highest good of all, while preserving the dignity of the parties and their children. I understand, especially when children are involved, that the more conflict that happens, the more likely the children are to experience trauma, something I would never wish upon anyone.

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?

The three character traits that were most instrumental to my success are:

Perseverance (in spite of hardship).

I obtained my undergraduate degree from Arizona State University, and I graduated with one of the highest GPAs of all the students in my particular college of study. I was used to being “on top,” and what I didn’t realize when I went to law school at The University of Notre Dame, was that all of the students there would be “cream of the crop,” too. Because I came from a blue collar background, I didn’t have the exposure that other students had had to lawyers and white-collar professionals in general. As a result, I allowed myself to become easily intimidated and a little “psyched out,” which I believe lead me to being an average student while in law school.

Despite the fact that I got mostly “C’s” in law school, I never thought about quitting. I remained committed to my lifelong desire to become a lawyer. Over the years, I’ve learned from my mistakes, becoming wiser with each one. My law school struggle and numerous mistakes (made while “practicing” law) have made me an empathetic, understanding attorney, one who is not afraid to fail to get better.

Trust (in my own worthiness and in the process).

Not only was I an average student during law school, but I actually failed my first bar exam! That was an ego crusher, but it was also one of the best things that ever happened to me in my life.

Because I couldn’t work as a lawyer for my first year out of law school, I went to work as a temp legal secretary/paralegal. The “boss” at my second temp assignment loved me so much, he kept me on for almost a year while I studied to re-take the bar exam. During that year, I had the rare opportunity to learn from some of the most respected and skilled litigators in the Phoenix metro area.

I received expert instruction on being an excellent lawyer, as well as on what it was like to transcribe documents, file documents, compile disclosure, prepare discovery, create trial notebooks and more. The lawyers at my temp assignment helped me regain confidence in my own abilities. I attribute the entire experience of failing the bar/working as a temp with equipping me to someday run a law firm of my own, one where excellence and service of others are the core values.

Curiosity (about the world and about how to be, do and “get” better)

Although I haven’t been formally educated in about a quarter of a century, I still make it a practice to learn. I go to conferences, and I learn from experts in the area of communication, conflict resolution, and human relationships. I am constantly evolving and acquiring new skills, even if unrelated to law. My desire to master new skills helps me become a better attorney.

As an example, in the last 6 years, I’ve learned how to be a silversmith. I love making beautiful jewelry, and when I’m in my studio creating, I’m also usually working out some of my most challenging case situations. Silversmithing has helped me to realize in life, just as with silver, that even through heat and pressure, something beautiful and amazing can emerge if you trust!

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

I’ve experienced events in my professional path that ended up being fortuitous, even if I didn’t think those things were “lucky” at the time. One of those events was failing my first bar exam. Had I not failed that bar exam, I never would have worked as a temp which means I never would have had exposure to that amazing group of attorneys who were excellent, ethical, and encouraging. These lawyers had the biggest influence on my belief in my ability to become a successful attorney.

Although it’s difficult not to make judgments about situations as they are occurring in real time, the fact is a person never knows whether certain events are good, bad, lucky or unlucky. On its face, failing a bar exam didn’t seem like it was a very good thing for me. As I reflect on my failure of that exam after many years, that is possibly one of the biggest strokes of luck I ever experienced in my life.

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?

At the time I attended Notre Dame Law School, it was one of the most highly rated law schools in the nation. I received a top-notch education from some of the country’s most respected and brilliant professors. However, because the student competition was fierce at Notre Dame (and because my self-esteem was flailing), I struggled to be “average” while there.

My average grades interfered with my ability to obtain one of those “big firm” jobs coveted by many law students. In the end, it all worked out because I now realize I would not have thrived while working in a larger firm.

My success is partly attributable to the great education I received. Even more important to my success than a top-tier school, however, was my willingness to work hard, do my best and serve others. I believe if a person strives to do those three things, success is inevitable.

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?

I would tell myself to live in the moment and stop worrying about things I can’t control. I would have spent more time savoring the beauty of my physical surroundings (there’s always beauty everywhere), as well as the people in my life. I would take more risks. I would know that my life is evolving exactly the way it should, even when it feels like things are going wrong. I would talk to myself with more kindness and love (vs. beating myself up for not being “good enough”). I would know that even if I was “only” a “C” student (while in law school), if personal and romantic relationships didn’t work out, if there were smarter and prettier people than I, I was and will always be “enough.”

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

By nature, I’m a creative, right-brained person. As a lawyer, I’ve had to “train” myself into thinking with the left, more logical, side of the brain. When I can look at a challenging dilemma with creativity and curiosity, it makes solving that dilemma “fun.” When I can combine my creative problem-solving skills with transforming lives, that’s where things get really exciting. Even better than that? Knowing I was able to help someone change not only their lives, but the lives of their children and quite possibly the lives of their children’s children. Now that is motivating!

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

Several years ago, I noticed that many of the parties I was “up against” in the courtroom were self-represented. Because these people weren’t educated in nor about the law, many of them were crashing and burning in front of a judge. As a result, I often saw judges issuing orders that were based upon incomplete information. Many of these orders (in my opinion) did not serve the best interests of the children.

As a result, I decided to start putting out short, informational videos on YouTube to help unrepresented people going through the family court process. I named my channel “Command the Courtroom.” I didn’t really have any expectations about the channel’s future success. The only thing I wanted to do is to help the people who needed it the most.

Unexpectedly, Command the Courtroom took off, and my videos now have millions of views. I’ve created several online programs, and I’m currently working on a book.

I’m passionate about the work I’ve done under the “Command the Courtroom” brand because I’m able to reach people not only across the nation, but also across the world. There’s nothing better than hearing from someone in Australia that one of my videos gave them hope in their darkest moments. In coming year, I’m expanding the brand even more to reach a greater audience, both nationally and globally.

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

Not only am I working on growing Command the Courtroom, but I’d love to create live events and speak at conferences to educate and inspire individuals who are going through the family court process. I am currently working on my first book, but I have several books inside me. In coming years, I want to share my hard-fought legal experience because I do believe it is important to put it out there for the people who need it. That is one way I can give back for all the “luck” I’ve experienced during my life.

As my law firm continues to grow, I am actively working on becoming a better leader. I want to lead with integrity and intention. I want to mentor the other attorneys in my firm and create a terrific place to work!

Without sharing anything confidential, can you please share your most successful “war story”? Can you share the funniest?

Most Successful

When I first started my law firm, I had a divorce case against a very seasoned and “big name” attorney. I was terrified of him and of losing the case for my client. As a result, I worked really hard on that case, a case which eventually went to trial. I was probably not very graceful in the courtroom at that point in my career, but the facts that my client and I presented persuaded the judge to rule 100% in our favor. As my client and I were walking out of the courtroom, I overheard the senior attorney telling his client, “We just got our a** kicked.” That felt great to hear as a young, terrified newbie.

Funniest — Most Entertaining/Interesting

When I started out as a prosecutor, one of my cases was an aggravated assault case in which the allegation was that the defendant, a lactating woman who had been placed under arrest, had squirted a uniformed police officer with breast milk. There were lots of questions about how many feet a woman could actually squirt breast milk and as a result, we obtained an “expert opinion” to talk about breast milk trajectory and all things lactation-related. That case was certainly one of the most entertaining I’ve ever had!

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?

I work mostly remotely, something I never had done before the pandemic. I’m the type of person who needs quiet, undisturbed time to do my best work, so remote work has been amazing for my productivity. I do miss interacting with people besides my husband and daughter daily, something I realize when I’m around my entire team; there’s lots of laughing, sharing and bonding when we are together.

I think the future of law offices will be hybrid-remote, something I prefer. I do believe teams need to see each other in person to become/remain connected with one another. However, I also believe the ability to work at home wearing slippers and sweats is a huge perk for most people. For people with young children (like me), the flexibility of hybrid remote work enables someone to be able to drop off at and pick up from school, be home when the child is sick and generally have more family-work life balance.

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?

Prior to COVID, I always thought my ability to expand my team was limited because I had limited office space. My thinking was that I couldn’t hire more people because I didn’t have anywhere to put everyone.

Once the pandemic hit, we went remote for a good 1.5 years.

With the advent of COVID, the divorce rate skyrocketed, and I got busier than ever. To serve my clients at the highest level, I absolutely needed to hire a larger team. Because my team was working remotely, my new hires came on remotely, too. Space didn’t matter. We had strategies in place to communicate and stay connected, and I went a year without meeting some of the people on my team in person!

What I now know is that law firms can serve clients at a high level even remotely. Not all meetings need to be in person. Clients can save time and money by leveraging technology where it makes sense to do so. Additionally, when I do go into the courtroom today, the judicial divisions are mostly digitized which makes cases with 100’s of exhibits easier to navigate (in addition to saving trees)!

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

The main social media platform I use is YouTube (Command the Courtroom). Because I post videos and am comfortable allowing my “real person” (vs. a lawyer robot person) to come through, people watch my videos and come to think of me as a friend and ally. As a result, oftentimes, I consult with people who want to retain me before meeting me in person because they already know, like and trust me.

Oftentimes lawyers forget to relate to others as real, down-to-earth humans because of the legalese were taught to speak in school. The best way to connect and relate to others is to forget that legalese and talk to your potential clients like you would talk to a friend or sibling. Know what is keeping them up at night and relate to them via social media with that knowledge in mind.

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. Empathy.

When people are going through a divorce or child custody dispute, they are in some of the biggest emotional pain they’ve ever experienced. Although most lawyers aren’t also mental health professionals, it goes a long way towards developing a relationship of trust with the client if a lawyer attempts to put him/herself in the client’s shoes.

There have been times in the past when I’ve felt like that empathy piece was detracting from “real” work I needed to do (i.e., pushing paper). In cases where I was unwilling to take the time to put myself in the client’s shoes (and let the client know I had done that), the attorney-client relationship bond was weak. The client didn’t feel as though I wanted to understand them. The client didn’t fully trust me because they didn’t feel heard.

Taking the time to try and understand your client will be worth it. If you can get your client to feel like you hear them, they will listen to your advice when it matters the most to their case.

2. Being a good listener.

Lawyers like to talk — sometimes too much. I think a lawyer should be listening more then they’re talking — always.

I once mentored a young lawyer who couldn’t figure out why she couldn’t get clients to hire her. I sat in on a few of her consultations, and I observed her dominating the entire conversation, making assumptions, and interrupting the client. My perception was that the potential clients didn’t feel as though they had been able to have their voices heard and this was leading them to make a different choice about who to hire.

3. Understanding the real motivation(s) behind your client’s case goals.

Many times clients make requests to resolve cases that seem unreasonable and irrational. When this situation arises, I try to understand the real reasons for the clients’ stated goals. In 9 out of 10 cases, the emotion driving the requests is fear, whether it be fear of not having enough money in the future or fear about losing the kids forever. If I can get a grasp of the underlying fear, I can better address the clients’ concerns and help talk them through whether the fears are well-founded. In many cases, those fears aren’t likely to come to fruition, and knowing this fact allows the client to move through the case with more ease.

4. Acknowledging their struggles when delivering news they probably will not like.

This is something that took me many years to learn. I used to deliver “bad news” or “hard truths” to clients without much diplomacy (although I was always kind). I kind of just told things like they were. When I used to approach things that way, clients would not react well at all. In several cases, I got fired because clients didn’t think I was on their side.

I have now figured out if I first validate my client by acknowledging their struggles, traumas, and past experiences, they feel like you understand them (which leads to more trust). Once I sense the client knows I “get” them (and that I have their back), I will tell them what they may not want to hear but need to hear. I always reassure my clients that I will deliver the truth to them because (a) it is my job and (b) I would be doing a disservice to them by lying about the reality of a situation. I also remind them I am 100% on their side even if it doesn’t feel like it at times.

In recent years, as I’ve become more skilled at this process, I have experienced clients who can accept less-than-great news much better.

5. Be that lawyer you are by nature, not the lawyer your client thinks you should be.

Clients often come to me and tell me they want a “bulldog” lawyer. When I was less confident in my skills, I used to try to be that bulldog despite the fact it is not at all who I am as a person. As a result, in many of those cases, the relationships between me and my clients did not work out because I was not really being the person they wanted in an attorney. In short, I wasn’t being my authentic self.

I have since realized that an attorney can be extremely effective without being a bulldog. That is who I am. Now, when clients come to me asking me to be a bulldog, I usually let them know that I am not a bulldog, but I am a great attorney. I tell them if they really want a bulldog, they would probably be best served by another attorney.

Since I’ve stopped trying to be an attorney I’m not just for a client, most of my clients and I are good matches who share great mutual respect for one another.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might see this. :-)

I’d love to have a private breakfast or lunch with Brendon Burchard, one of the world’s top high-performance coaches. Brendon comes from humble beginnings but has become a master at teaching others how to make the world a better place by sharing their knowledge. Brendon’s teachings span many areas — too many to name here. Based on my exposure to Brendon (via his conferences, books, programs and high-performance coaching program), he is highly evolved (and always learning), and I would love to get inside of his brain during a one-on-one with him. His teachings have already changed my life, but I’m willing to bet even one hour with him would take me to a different level!

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

About the Interviewer: Eric L. Pines is a nationally recognized federal employment lawyer, mediator, and attorney business coach. He represents federal employees and acts as in-house counsel for over fifty thousand federal employees through his work as a federal employee labor union representative. A formal federal employee himself, Mr. Pines began his federal employment law career as in-house counsel for AFGE Local 1923 which is in Social Security Administration’s headquarters and is the largest federal union local in the world. He presently serves as AFGE 1923’s Chief Counsel as well as in-house counsel for all FEMA bargaining unit employees and numerous Department of Defense and Veteran Affairs unions.

While he and his firm specialize in representing federal employees from all federal agencies and in reference to virtually all federal employee matters, his firm has placed special attention on representing Veteran Affairs doctors and nurses hired under the authority of Title. He and his firm have a particular passion in representing disabled federal employees with their requests for medical and religious reasonable accommodations when those accommodations are warranted under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (ADA). He also represents them with their requests for Federal Employee Disability Retirement (OPM) when an accommodation would not be possible.

Mr. Pines has also served as a mediator for numerous federal agencies including serving a year as the Library of Congress’ in-house EEO Mediator. He has also served as an expert witness in federal court for federal employee matters. He has also worked as an EEO technical writer drafting hundreds of Final Agency Decisions for the federal sector.

Mr. Pines’ firm is headquartered in Houston, Texas and has offices in Baltimore, Maryland and Atlanta, Georgia. His first passion is his wife and five children. He plays classical and rock guitar and enjoys playing ice hockey, running, and biking. Please visit his websites at www.pinesfederal.com and www.toughinjurylawyers.com. He can also be reached at eric@pinesfederal.com.

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Eric L. Pines

Eric L. Pines is a nationally recognized federal employment lawyer, mediator, and attorney business coach