Lawyer-Alum profile: Peter Farrell (Legal Studies ‘98, Suffolk Law ‘03)

Peter Farrell
Senior Associate
Smith & Brink, P.C.

What’s your current position and primary practice field(s)?
I am a Senior Associate at Smith & Brink, P.C., a civil litigation firm located in Braintree, Massachusetts.  My practice focuses on insurance defense which can involve two general types of clients: the insurance company itself or its insureds.  I am a trial lawyer.  I am in various courts 2-3 times per week. 

How did you get here – what led you to this field and practice setting?
Well, that’s a funny one.  I actually applied to UMass as a Legal Studies major and left with that degree.  I knew what I wanted and went for it.  I only wavered once and took a few Education classes and thought about teaching high school History and Social Studies.

Describe a typical day/week – what are the kinds of tasks you engage in on a regular basis?
A typical work week involves a lot (and I mean a lot) of doing a lot of things at once and constantly trying to be good at all of them.  Court appearances usually start at 9:00 a.m.  Most courts I appear in are an hour or more from home.  There is a lot of driving! The day starts early and there is really no way around that.  If I am in court, depending on the appearance, it can be five minutes or three to four hours, including travel time.  A typical day is prioritized by being responsive to clients.  If there is one thing you must absolutely be good at, it is being responsive.  I answer a ton of email and am on the phone, usually at the same time.  A lot of litigation is paper intensive and involves responding to discovery including interrogatories or questions from your opponent in addition to Requests for Production of Documents.  Both of these are pretty typical.  I work on some component of discovery every day.  I also take a lot of examinations under oath, much akin to a deposition, but a little different.  I have an extensive motion practice as well, including drafting oppositions to various motions that come up.  As a defense attorney, I am becoming more and more a fan of dispositive motions like Motions for Summary Judgment.  After all, if it saves me time and effort, why not give it a shot.  Some people ask me what I do for a living.  I joke and tell them I am an attorney, social worker, teacher, counselor, advisor, professional fireman, problem solver, fixer, contractor and demolition expert.  That pretty much sums up being a defense lawyer. 

How many hours/week do you work? How’s that work/life balance thing working out for you?
There is nothing more important than your family.  Let me repeat that one – there is nothing more important than your family, and more importantly your children.  I met my wife at our beloved UMass.  We have two beautiful identical twin 3 ½ year-olds, Madeline and Molly.  The reality is I work 50-60 hours per week.  The billable hour pressure is tremendous and is very, very real.  Do not let anyone tell you otherwise.  I think as a lawyer every facet of your professional life should be a “work in progress.”  I know that balancing work/life is a constant struggle for me personally and for my family.  The hours are long and arduous. When I’m on trial, my entire family is too; it is battle stations, all hands on deck and my wife is the General.  I’m really thankful for that.  When the going gets tough, I remember the simple adage that hangs in our house:  “Never get too busy making a living to forget to make a life.” 

What do you like most about what you do? 
I like getting out, networking, speaking engagements, meeting new people and really getting to know them.  After all, you are human beings first and always; business always comes a distant second.  I also enjoy teaching and supervising whenever I have the opportunity with other young people.  Someone did it for me and brought me along to where I am today.  It is my way of paying it forward.  I still keep in touch with my mentors to this day.

What do you wish you could change?
That is a tough question. I will do my best to answer it honestly.  Sometimes there are unreasonable demands placed upon you as an attorney for an instantaneous response. That is patently unreasonable.  My advice is to be firm and stand up for yourself early and often. It is important to stay connected and on top of the “pulse” of your client’s world.  But, as radical as it may sound, I would outlaw smart phones and blackberries. My hope for the future is the abolition of the billable hour and to make it as extinct as the dinosaur. I think the business of lawyering and representing clients would be better served by the adoption of a culture shift to an alternative, value-added billing arrangement that is mutually agreeable between lawyer and client.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I would like to be teamed up with a great group of lawyers doing it our way: working hard but maintaining a zest for everything life has to offer.  I would love to have my own practice.

Where did you go to law school? What’s your favorite memory from law school?
I attended Suffolk University Law School in the Evening Division. I am living proof the evening program can be done – and I am better for it.  My favorite memory is having a bird’s eye view of Tom Brady and the Patriots from the 6th floor balcony of the law school over looking Tremont Street during the Super Bowl parade.  Some professors held class and forbade students from attending…then someone pulled the fire alarm.  I certainly don’t condone that, but in hindsight, it was pretty brilliant.

What did you major in at UMass?  How has it been helpful to you your law career?
I majored in Legal Studies and minored in Political Science.  I was fortunate enough to be picked for the pilot program of the internship between the Department of Legal Studies and the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination in the Spring of 1997.  There were six of us who commuted to Springfield every day and took a seminar class one night a week.  That experience launched my legal career and I continue to build on that experience to this day. 

What’s your favorite UMass memory?
Any time with the Minuteman Marching Band…period.  Joining the band was the best decision of my life to that point.  People ask me in interviews to tell me one extraordinary thing about myself that does not appear on my resume.  I tell them I played my trumpet for the President of the United States, Bill Clinton.  UMass made that happen and it was awesome.  And of course, I met my wife, Amy (’00), also a trumpet player. We finally got together after I graduated when I returned to my roots.  We attended a house party at a mutual friend’s house in Dalton, MA in January 1999.  The rest as they say is history.

Did you take time before, during or after college?  If so, what did you do?
I took a year off between college and law school, partially because I had problems with the LSAT, not because I did not study.  I have a learning disability and the test was very difficult for me to overcome.  I eventually did and proved to the naysayers that the LSAT is not a predictor of how you will do in law school or on the bar exam.  I ended up graduating early from night school, worked for a federal judge, and passed the bar on the first shot.  It can be done – and you can do it.  During that year “off,” I was fortunate to work as a Litigation Paralegal at Burns & Levinson, LLP of Boston.  It was a great experience.  I have fond memories and colleagues I keep in touch with to this day.

What non-law experiences have ended up being surprisingly useful to you in your legal career?
Music and playing the trumpet.  It is a fact that out of a 400 person marching band, only 7% or so will receive a degree from the Music Department.  The rest (soon to be alumni) are lawyers, bankers, management professionals, engineers, doctors, physical therapists, social workers, teachers…you get the point.  The network is vast and gratifying because everyone is such a huge advocate and cheerleader for UMass.  I get more referral business from people I know from UMass than from any other source of referrals.  The other non-law experience that is surprisingly useful is mentoring young people and seeing them succeed.  There is no better remedy to recharge your batteries.

Any choices along your career path that you particularly regret or are especially grateful for? 
I have no regrets.  In hindsight, it would have been helpful to have taken more classes in business to have a better working knowledge of economics and finance.  In law school, I should have taken (at a minimum) a survey class in Intellectual Property, patents, trademarks and copyrights.
I am grateful I had the opportunity to accelerate my law school studies and graduate early.  Anything that can be done to get a jump on the workforce is a great plan.

If you couldn’t be a lawyer any more, what would you do? (Or: what’s your second career going to be? Or maybe even, what was your first career?)
I would love to teach and open a bed and breakfast in the mountains of New Hampshire.

If you feel comfortable sharing, tell us something about your finances: How much debt did you take on for law school? How much (rough estimates are fine) do your currently make? How long do you expect to be paying off your debt?  How has your debt impacted your career and life choices?
I took out enough student loans to cover only my tuition and worked to make a living while going to school at night.  Some people call this going to law school “part-time.” I think calling a night student a part-time student is somewhat offensive.  There is nothing part-time about law school.  It is a lifestyle that you have to be willing to adopt, along with a very large debt.  I encourage people to go to law school all the time, but I also tell them the reality of the “economics of lawyering.”  There are too many lawyers. There are many senior lawyers looking for work and applying for jobs typically filled by first year lawyers.  Wages are stagnant. In most cases, student loan payments range from $300.00 to $500.00 a month on top of the educational loans owed by your spouse.  I suggest talking about the amount of debt you want to take on, what you can manage and ways to cut and control spending.  Throw out your credit cards and pay cash for everything.  I estimate I will be paying my law school loans until I am approximately 50 years old.  I am 36.  The debt is very real and impacts our monthly budget.  There are some things we would like to do, but cannot do because of our student loan debt.

How do you respond when someone asks your advice about whether to go to law school?
I encourage them to go, but ask why they want to go.  If you cannot summarize in fifty words or less why you want to go, I would suggest looking to do something else, like starting your own business.  If you are in it for the money, you need to re-evaluate your goals.  If you are in it to help people, I will hire you tomorrow.  That is what our profession is about; maybe we’ve lost our way.

If you could have dinner with any lawyer, real or fictional, living or dead, who would it be and why?
Abraham Lincoln.  In two hundred seventy two words and three minutes, (and uncanny brevity) Lincoln’s vision set forth in his Gettysburg Address still rises above the rest of any other historical writing that “…government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”  Lincoln is the epitome of perseverance in time of incredible adversity.  Not many people have the ability to make such an impact long after they are gone.  He is inspiring.