Ms. Leone is a principal in Catalyst Group, Inc. a national company that works with lawyers in developing law firms that are based upon strong core values that drive the practice. She is a national speaker and writer. She conducted the interview on October 27, 2009.
Q: Everyone always wants to know your background so why don’t you summarize it for me.
A: I am blessed to have parents that have worked hard their entire lives and expected the same of me. My parents are both first generation college graduates and are both educators. They really understood the value of an education and our responsibility to help others. I think it was only after I got out of school and started working that I realized what a privilege it was to have a good education. My family was not rich but college was a given. After graduating W. J. Keenan High School in Columbia, South Carolina, I attended Florida State University and graduated in 1991 with a degree in Economics. I then went on to law school at the University of South Carolina and graduated in 1994 with a J.D. I have been practicing law as a litigator since 1995.
Q. Did you always want to be a lawyer?
A: I come from a family that is very service oriented with my mother in education and my father in education and public service. I knew I wanted a profession that was service oriented. The practice of law fits what I wanted to do. It was important that I not only be able to help people but provide for my family. The practice of law provides all of that for me. Now that I have some fifteen years of practice I find my choice to be a perfect one for me. I am one of those lucky people who is blessed to have a passion for his profession.
Q: What type of law do you practice?
A: I primarily handle what we refer to as complex litigation cases that arise due to the negligence of someone else. Examples of these include product liability, and collisions involving tractor-trailers. I enjoy being in a courtroom but I am smart enough to realize that most cases require a lawyer that knows how to handle the case from the beginning. My practice has an equal mix of clients who come directly to me because of my reputation or who are referred by other law firms because of my experience.
Q: Does that mean you only do large, hard-to-win cases?
A: Absolutely not. I believe that everyone deserves the best from lawyers whether their claim is a small one or a complex large one. Some of my favorite cases have been those that did not have injuries to support a large verdict but rather the client was not getting a fair shake from the insurance company. That is a victory when you see a just settlement obtained.
Q: What is the most memorable case or client you have dealt with?
A: Both the video poker litigation and the Graniteville train derailment stick in my mind. At the time, lawsuits against companies and individuals that owned and/or operated video poker machines and parlors was one of the largest litigations in the state’s history. The Graniteville Train derailment was one of the most significant disasters in the history of our state. Nine people were killed, hundreds suffered personal injury and more than 5,000 were displaced. I was appointed to the Plaintiffs’ Steering committee for two class actions that assisted the people and businesses of Graniteville in receiving some measure of compensation for what they went through.
Q: What is the biggest problem facing the legal profession today?
A: Lawyers face many challenges as we move into the 21st Century. As a group, we face many obstacles in correcting the public image and perception of our profession. Attorneys that represent individuals and families must learn and utilize technology and processes to handle the demands of our practices, provide the high standards of service that clients expect and deserve, and still find time for a balance between work and our family life.
Q: Lawyers seem to take a hard hit in public perception. What do you think about today’s lawyers?
A: As a State Bar officer I have witnessed my peers volunteer countless hours to better our communities and our profession. Because of my national work I get to see lawyers from all over the country as well who care a great deal about their clients and communities.
I am proud of the lawyers I know who consistently give back to their communities as a part of their core values. If I am elected President of the SC Bar, one of my personal mandates will be to continue to help lawyers focus on assisting those citizens in need through meaningful Pro Bono programs. There are an increasing number of people out there who need legal assistance and simply can’t afford it. I think it speaks well for the character of a professional organization when its members are able to recognize this need.
Q: Who was your mentor and what important lessons did he or she teach you?
A: I am fortunate to have had as a mentor a father who was actively involved in making life better for others. His strong set of values, compassion and a passion for improving life for those around him had a great impact on me. He taught me that it is better to build by consensus than by conflict. He also taught me that you have to take a stand for what is right no matter how unpopular it is. I am very lucky to still have my father and I see him passing these same lessons on to my son.
Q: Do lawyers make too much money or not enough?
A: There are many lawyers not making more than a modest living. This is not because they are not quality lawyers but rather due to the economy or other circumstances. Most lawyers I know are very hard workers and they give up a great deal to do what they do. I think the general public would be surprised by the number of hours lawyers work for compensation. As to making too much money, I simply would say that if you make money in this profession in an honorable and ethical way that best serves your clients then your compensation is deserved.
Q: Is the profession everything you thought it would be when you graduated from law school?
A: In some respects it is more than I thought and in some respects less. What I have found is that this profession is one where through hard work and dedication you can mold your destiny.
There are opportunities today that were not available when I graduated from law school. I think the future of lawyers and law firm owners and the complexity of law as we move through this fast changing century is going to be exciting. I also think our responsibility to serve our communities and to be honorable in our practices is greater than ever.
Q: How many hours a week do you work?
A: My family would tell you 24/7 because I am doing something every day. But today’s technology allows me to be working no matter where I am. There are ups and downs to that. I probably work 60-plus hours a week (including lots of travel). My family is important to me and we have learned to balance quality time versus quantity of time. I also have them travel with me when they can and I make sure there are plenty of family events involving parents, siblings, etc.
Q: How do you manage to maintain a balanced life given that technology allows you to be on call at all hours?
A: A balanced life is one where you live in a place you like, with people you love, doing the right work, all on purpose. Technology has made it easier for me. I can take trips with my family or do things with my son and still be available. Before I couldn’t have taken off as I do. Technology, if used right, allows balance.
Q: What is your definition of success?
A: If I can know at the end my time I have been given that I have provided for my family, made a positive difference in the lives of others and set a good example for my son, then I have been a success.
Q: What is your biggest accomplishment?
A: By far my son. I will gladly talk about him to anyone, anywhere, anytime. I stand on the shoulders of my father and I hope he stands on my shoulders. I have plenty of plaques and awards but none compare to a happy family.
Q: What are you most proud of?
A: There are two things that I think will define me in my life. The first is relationships with people. Friend or foe. I think you have to work hard at that whether it is your family, your friends, peers, business connections, or others. Integrity sounds easy but requires a daily effort to make sure you are true to yourself and your values. I strive to do that.
The second is co-founding Solomon Community Group with my father. I come from a family committed to service and to start a non-profit with my father is my way of saying that “I understand.” I fund 100% of all administrative costs so that donations to the Group will go to support its mission of helping disadvantaged youth gain a helping hand up.
Q: What is the toughest decision you have had to make?
A: To grow up! I have had a great time doing what I love. I met people, received recognition and all I had to do was focus on building my practice. Then along came my wife and my son and I had to step back and force myself to become more focused on what my values were and how those values were going to define me and influence my son. Doing my job was no longer enough, service to our community to improve our profession and our community and state is required to make things better for our children. It was also the best decision I have ever made.
Q: I know that you are repeatedly asked to serve in many professional associations plus you speak and write nationally on legal topics. Can you summarize all of your work in the professional groups?
A: Well, let me see. I am the current Treasurer of the South Carolina State Bar and I hope to be its President some day. I am a member of the Richland County Bar Association, South Carolina Trial Lawyers Association, American Bar Association, Columbia Lawyers Association, National Bar Association, South Carolina Black Lawyers Association and the American Association for Justice (AAJ). I do a lot of work within the AAJ and serve as its vice-chair of its Exchange Group and Motor Vehicle Section. I have spoken at all levels of these groups state-wide and national many times on various aspects of the practice of law.
Q: What do you think your peers think of you?
A: Martindale-Hubbell provides a rating for lawyers that is based solely on the opinions of your peers, both plaintiff and defense counsel. I have held the highest rating given, AV. I have been recognized by Best Lawyers of America, South Carolina Super Lawyers and I am a member of the Million Dollar and Multi-Million Dollar Advocates Forum, a group that requires you have a verdict in these amounts. I was recently inducted into the Litigation Counsel of America, serve on the National College of Advocacy Board of Trustees and have obtained the designation of Fellow by the Association of Justice. Personally I think if you ask any lawyer who knows me they will give me a thumbs up.
Q: Is there anything I failed to ask you?
A: Isn’t this enough? I guess if I wanted to add anything in the hopes that someone is reading this trying to gain perspective on me is to know that I genuinely and sincerely believe that I am blessed daily with the chance to work with people who need help. I don’t judge people by their culture or their background. I believe justice is best served when it is served to all without exception. I expect anyone working with me to have a great deal of respect and compassion for my clients and to do less is not to meet my expectations. I recognize that my clients define me and my success on a daily basis.
Drinking and Devastation