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Sam Coppersmith ’82
Partner, Coppersmith Brockelman
The most important choice I made upon graduating law school wasn’t the one I worried most about. What proved to be most significant wasn’t my initial job, but rather where I went for my clerkship. While a law student, I worried a lot about types of employers, sizes of firms, and different types and styles of practices (whatever I thought that meant), but what actually affected my future the most is where I went after graduation. For me, geography was destiny.
Once you make that first choice of place, you probably will find that you have more flexibility regarding types of employers than with new locations. Even if you’re just starting out, the longer you stay, the more you belong to the community. Eventually, a relationship, community activities, business ties, children, or even inertia will keep you where you are, and at some point, you really get too old (or at least feel too old) to want to take another bar exam.
That was my experience, anyway. I originally came to Phoenix for a one-year clerkship, not intending to stay, but I never left. I even took the California Bar exam the summer before my clerkship started, which is not something one does lightly. Despite arriving on a 114° day and having a federal circuit court clerkship that had almost nothing to do with the legal community here, I wound up committing to Phoenix after only 6 months here. This was in no small part due to the fact that I was fixed up by a mutual friend with my wife, to whom I became engaged after 10 months here.
After my clerkship, I spent a couple of weeks working on a friend’s mayoral campaign and after his upset victory, served as his assistant. When that stint ended, I commenced work in a 20-lawyer firm that by Phoenix standards in those days was considered medium-sized. I then spent two years at a 6-lawyer spin-off from a larger Phoenix firm, then moved to a 14-lawyer firm. I left that firm after four years to run for Congress, and in an even bigger surprise than that Phoenix mayoral election, I won. After my service in Congress ended (it was 1994, and I’m a Democrat), I decided to start my own firm with my friend and Chief of Staff, which is where I still practice today.
My practice is centered around business and real estate transactions, for both for-profit and nonprofit businesses. My firm has a strong specialty in healthcare and employment work, and we represent a number of Arizona-based and national hospital and healthcare systems. We also represent individuals and small businesses with business, employment, white-collar defense, and commercial litigation issues.
I have worked at my own firm the longest I have held any job; we just celebrated our 19th anniversary. Having your own firm forces you to enjoy your work; there’s nobody else to blame for unhappiness, which is a powerful incentive for responsibility. It also forces you to be flexible, both in types of work and in dealing with different types of people.
What else I’ve learned is that the most important thing is working with good people. You will spend most of your time with your colleagues, and you need to enjoy being with them or days can get awfully long. Second, you need to do good work, which also you think is worth doing. Much of legal practice is work, and you need to be able to take pride in what you do. We represent a lot of nonprofit organizations and individuals, and have managed to convert our volunteer work in election law into a sometimes-paying sideline. And personal relationships matter far more than the type of work you do. I wind up doing a lot of routine stuff for people I like, and the quality of the relationships with the clients determine my levels of satisfaction much more than any abstract intellectual rigor in the work itself.
So, to extrapolate wildly from my own experience (in the typical way that almost all lawyers think their own choice is what you should do, too): Think most closely about where you’re going, not what you will do initially. Then in choosing a job, choose people you enjoy, because you’ll spend a lot of time at the office. Find work that allows you to do good, because you’ll spend too much time and effort doing it to not care about it—and if you don’t care enough, your work won’t be good enough. And finally, work for good clients, people, and institutions you like and respect and for whom you’re willing to work hard, because you will.