This article originally appeared on Law360.com on August 26, 2020 and was written by Nathan Hale.
Former state prosecutor Robin I. Bresky launched her own practice in Boca Raton, Florida, in 2000 and has built The Law Offices of Robin Bresky into a respected boutique firm that represents clients statewide in a full array of appeals, including civil, criminal, family, administrative law and personal injury matters, and has also expanded into trusts and estates work.
As the firm marks its 20th year in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Bresky spoke with Law360 about the impact the crisis has had on appellate practices, the challenges of running a small firm, what she learned helping to organize the Florida Bar’s first virtual annual convention, and why the firm chose trusts and estates when looking to expand the business.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Could you please describe your firm and the kind of work it does?
I started my appellate practice in 2000, so we’ve been in practice for 20 years. Currently, it’s myself and I have two full-time senior associates and a full-time of-counsel attorney. We also have two paralegals and a COO, and I have an assistant and our receptionist. So we’ve got a nice little boutique practice.
Our headquarters are in Boca Raton, Florida, and we have satellite locations by appointment only in Miami and in West Palm Beach. We’re primarily in Boca, but we service the tri-county area, and the appellate practice is statewide.
About two years ago, we started also doing estate planning and probate administration, which is handled by our of-counsel attorney.
I should also add we offer litigation support, meaning we assist attorneys and their clients, providing complex memorandum, whether it be motions that need to be drafted, any kind of issue of first impression. We do that on a routine basis as well as assist with things like motions for rehearing before a potential appeal.
We also provide support to parties needing help preserving the record during trial, if they want an appellate attorney to attend any of the proceedings during the trial phase.
How did the firm’s expansion into trusts and estates come about?
I had been interested in expanding into another area, and, quite candidly, even though we can litigate and every once in a while we do with an existing appellate client — I’m a former prosecutor, so I have a litigation background — it’s not what we do on a regular basis. And our referring attorneys are litigation attorneys, so from a business standpoint, we didn’t really want to go into another field of litigation.
Our clients often are in a different financial position or in a different position in their lives when they’re in the appellate process or finished with the appellate process, so it’s time to reevaluate those things or think about those things for the first time.
So that’s why we decided to go into estate planning. Although there may not at first blush seem to be a whole lot of synergy [with appellate work], there actually is. And we’ve had a number of litigation cases that have gone to appeal because people did not have the right [estate] planning in place.
We recognized the need for that and thought that was a good way to go.
And how about yourself personally? You mentioned you were a prosecutor. How did you end up focusing on appellate work?
I was a broadcast journalism major undergrad at the University of Florida and actually thought I was going to be a reporter.
I worked for a radio ratings company right after college and then I ended up going to law school a few years down the road. While I was in law school in Chicago, I externed with the Cook County State Attorney’s Office and they put me in the appellate division.
That’s where they put everybody who began at the State Attorney’s Office — in the appellate division. I actually think that’s a great place to start because you get a chance to read the record, learn what the trial attorneys did right, learn what they did wrong. It was a really great learning experience, and I loved it.
On a personal note, I also had started law school when my son was 9 months old and I had my second child while in law school. At the time — it was in the ’90s — they called it the “mommy track” because a lot of moms worked in the appellate division because it was a way to do litigation but not have that all-consuming lifestyle of a trial practice.
When I came down to Florida, I liked the idea of getting trial experience and it was great [working as a state prosecutor in Broward County].
I might have stuck with it if I didn’t have a family, but I was leaving before my kids got up and getting home after they went to bed, and they were little. So I decided to open my own appellate practice in 2000, and it was really a great way for me to kind of do it all as a full-time mom and a full-time attorney.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the appellate process and what do you what do you foresee in the near future for that?
Currently, I don’t really see it making the appellate process too different other than we are doing our oral arguments remotely now.
That is actually helpful for an appellate attorney, because it’s an academic discussion with the court and everything is done on the briefs. You don’t have witnesses. You don’t have documentary evidence. You’re really just having a discussion about what happened in the lower tribunal when you’re speaking with the judges and you want them to ask you questions.
We’ve had a few remote oral arguments, and we argue in front of the panel the same way we would if we were just standing there.
I do hope that we can get back to appearing in person because it is nice to be able to share the same space when you’re having these kinds of discussions, but I don’t really think it impacts the litigants in any way. I think it’s helpful for statewide practice because you’re not charging the litigants for travel time.
I do foresee a lot of appellate issues based on the Zoom hearings that the trial courts are having. It’s just my guess that we’re going to see problems with the court reporters, with the transcript maybe being a little bit more garbled.
Now they’re doing the first jury trials remotely [in state courts], I do foresee a lot of potential issues on appeal for these things. There could be some allegations of, was [a witness] by himself?
And, for example, there’s a civil rule of procedure that you have to get everybody on board to do a telephonic hearing. Well, I know now they’re just doing Zoom hearings and that’s sort of contrary to the rule that everybody has to agree. Now, the judge is just moving forward with the Zoom hearings whether everybody wants to or not in some cases. I think that’s a potential issue for appeal.
So I see a number of practical concerns and I see a number of potential first impression issues coming up in the appellate context.
Do you think the volume of appeals will change? Do you expect parties will look for other resolutions or be deterred by the current circumstances?
I did, and I was concerned about it, especially when the courts were kind of shut down at the beginning. Of course, if we don’t have any trial orders, we don’t have any appeals. But because of the proliferation of Zoom hearings, we have been extremely busy.
Right now, we’re just, thankfully, very, very busy with civil litigation cases and family law cases. These are all bench trials. I think you’re going to see less in the field of jury trials until things start coming back to normal.
But the courts seem to be even more efficient, and it’s much easier to get hearing time right now. I don’t have any hard data on this, but it appears to me that they’re turning out orders more quickly and so that is creating appellate work. So that’s where we are at this point in time, and of course, as the owner of the business, I’m appreciative of that.
I’m amazed with how well our courts have handled all of this. I think it’s amazing how the legal system has just rolled with the punches and really been able to do so much.
What have been some challenges that the pandemic has posed to running your firm, particularly as a boutique? Have you discovered any advantages compared to a larger firm?
Being an appellate firm, we’re used to independent work, and some of my attorneys are remote to begin with, so that’s really not an issue.
The bigger issue has been managing the staff. Just like for anybody else who has employees with school-aged children or young children, that has been a challenge.
We’ve brought everybody back [to the office] but given flexible schedules, and of course everybody is distant in the office and wears masks if we’re not in our own offices.
For the estate planning, the staff and the estate planning attorney have gone out to people’s cars and done roadside signings, drive-through signings.
We’re just trying to do what we can to make people comfortable. We’re doing a lot more Zoom and telephonic consultations. We also still offer in-person meetings if somebody wants to come. We ask that they wear a mask and take the proper precautions to make sure nobody’s sick. We have a fairly large conference room where we can sit at opposite ends of it and have our consultation if somebody wants to come in.
But I think there’s some good things there from the standpoint of flexibility. I’m big into the gender equality arena. I’m the past president of the Florida Association for Women Lawyers, for my local chapter and for the state, and I’m also past president of the National Conference of Women’s Bar Associations.
I like the idea that this is showing everybody that it can be done, for both women and men, to give more flexible schedules in the legal field. We’re a pretty traditional group and we’ve got to be nudged. And this is something that really wasn’t just a nudge; it was a push with COVID.
I like that from the business owner standpoint, but I still do see how it is a little bit more difficult to manage employees that are remote. We have good people and I know they’re doing the best that they can, and it’s hard to be as productive as when you’re in the office for eight hours if you’re home with kids and dogs that are pulling for your attention.
So there’s been challenges, but overall, we’re working through them, and it’s my pleasure to accommodate our team because we’re really fortunate that we have a great team and I want everybody to be happy.
From a technological standpoint, would you say you found that you were well prepared when the pandemic arrived?
We’re certainly learning. We used to have a meeting in person in the conference room every week where we would go over our deadlines — we call it a calendar meeting — and we talk about all of the cases so that everybody on the team is aware of what’s going on with our cases.
We’ve got everybody a camera, and we’re doing that now by Zoom, whether they’re in their own office or they’re working from home.
We also started holding administrative meetings on a daily basis so that we can all kind of group together.
I think that has actually made us more efficient than previously. It’s not like somebody lingering at your door waiting to ask you a question. I think we’re learning to be more efficient with this, and certainly, we’re kind of pushed into it and we’re learning to utilize the technology much better than we had previously.
What are you seeing on the estate planning side? Has that been busier, and if so, what particular kind of things are clients requesting?
Sadly, we’ve had a few cases where we need to do a probated administration because of COVID and the client was deceased, so that’s very bad.
I don’t want to be so bold to say ‘everybody,’ but it seems that people are more concerned with their mortality with this crisis. I think it’s prudent in any event for people to plan, but I think maybe this is making people do something that they might have put off a little longer. I think we’re seeing a little bit of an uptick in that regard.
You were vice chair for the Florida Bar’s convention this year and are chair for next year. How did that go and what is planned for 2021?
I will be chairing the annual convention next year and this summer was our first ever virtual, so that was a big change.
We had even better attendance than we did when we had the event in person. So the thinking is that we’ll keep some part of it available for virtual for 2021. It’ll be here in Boca Raton, and I’m very hopeful we’ll be able to have a good portion of it live again.
Did you get any notable feedback from participants, either on how it went or on the importance of maintaining an event like that at a time when people are not able to gather in person?
I think we did the best we could with it. We tried to have these social things virtually, but I think we really did miss the social connection, especially those of us involved in the leadership.
We like to get together and socialize, and so that part really was obviously missing. But the good thing is we were able to reach a broader audience. People that may not have wanted to pay to travel or to take the time out of the office could attend the substantive programming, they could attend the panel discussions, and so I think we got a lot more people involved.
If you could have lunch with any famous lawyer, living or dead, who would you choose and why?
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg because she is a role model to women in the legal profession.
–Editing by Jill Coffey.