Meet This Month's LAWYER OF ATLANTIC COUNTY #LOAC
Modeled after the infamous HUMANS OF NEW YORK (#HONY) Site, the ACBA Young Lawyers Division started LAWYERS OF ATLANTIC COUNTY (#LOAC) to to get to know our members on a more personal level. Each month, the ACBA Young Lawyers Division Executive Board chooses a different attorney to be featured here as the Lawyer of Atlantic County. Attorneys are nominated by their peers; any attorney who is nominated but not chosen to be featured in a given month will automatically be put back into the running for each subsequent month until featured. Interview questions typically focus on the attorney's professional and life experiences.
Honorable L. Anthony Gibson, J.S.C. (Ret.)
Special Counsel July 9, 2016
By: Inna Pokrovnichka, Esq., Director of Finance
On July 5, 2016 I had the pleasure of interviewing the YLD July Lawyer of Atlantic County, L. Anthony Gibson, J.S.C. (Ret.). Judge Gibson has been a member of the New Jersey and Federal Bar for over fifty years, having spent twenty-three of those years as a Superior Court Judge, during which he served not only in the Law and Chancery Divisions, but was also temporarily assigned to the Appellate Division. On two of the occasions that the New Jersey Law Journal surveyed attorneys throughout the state to evaluate sitting judges while Judge Gibson was still on the bench, he was the highest rated trial judge in the State. Judge Gibson retired from the bench on August 1, 2000 and became counsel to the Youngblood, Corcoran firm (now Youngblood, Franklin, Sampoli & Coombs) and at the same time began an Alternative Dispute Resolution practice which he continues today. Judge Gibson is the father of six children, including two sons who followed in his footsteps in choosing a legal career, J. Christopher Gibson, who is a Superior Court Judge, and Michael Gibson, a Partner with D’Arcy Johnson Day. I asked each of them to describe their father in one sentence.
Christopher Gibson said, “He is the quintessential jurist, the best example of all that is good in our profession; never forgetting that behind every lawyer is a client with rights worthy of consideration and that every person in the courtroom deserves respect.”
Michael Gibson said, “My father is the most astute, prepared and conscientious man that I have ever met but what I appreciate the most is his sense of family; to me he’s Dad and he is the best one I know.”
Judge Gibson, why did you decide to go to law school?
Certainly, I did not follow what would be considered the more traditional path today. Since neither of my parents had a college education, just going to college was a big deal so deciding to attend law school was like signing up for a trip to the moon. Basically, attending law school wasn’t a goal that I would have considered realistic. However, when I was about to graduate from college and trying to decide what I wanted to do with my life, I wasn’t particularly happy with the choices that were out there; they just didn’t seem to fit me all that well. The result was that I decided to apply to law school. That said, even after applying and getting accepted, I wasn’t sure that I was going to go to law school because I really didn’t have the money. Student loans were not as readily available as they are now; although the cost was a lot less then. Fortunately, during the summer after my senior year at Rutgers I found out that I had been awarded a full tuition scholarship to University of Pennsylvania Law School so I thought, I can’t not go. Once I got there I loved it.
Tell me about your impressive legal career.
After graduating from Penn I received a judicial clerkship with Judge Anthony Cafiero, who was then the Assignment Judge for Vicinage 1. Judge Cafiero was a wonderful man and truly a mentor. After my clerkship I was hired by an Atlantic City litigation firm where I worked for a couple of years and learned a lot. However, very early on I was interested in trying to develop my own law practice, even though I was very young. In retrospect, it may have been a little foolish at the time to think that I could actually do it. That said, I did it and fortunately, it worked very well. For starters, I decided to open an office here on the mainland and at that time there were no lawyers out here except for a small firm in Pleasantville. Clearly, the hub of the professional world at that time was Atlantic City. In any event, my private practice was very successful and it kept me busy up to the time I was nominated to become a judge. When I was sworn in 1977 I was only 38 years old. Prior to going on the bench, however, I formed a partnership with two other young lawyers who were friends of mine, Daryl Todd and Charlie Previti. Our firm was called Gibson, Previti and Todd and it was first located in Northfield and then Linwood. Prior to that Daryl and Charlie were each partners in separate Atlantic City firms.
Later, your partners went on the bench as well.
Yes, we were probably the only law firm where every partner in the firm became a Superior Court Judge.
Based on your own experience, what advice would you give to young attorneys who would like to start a solo practice?
To begin with you have to recognize that the landscape for operating a solo practice today is not as safe a choice as it has been historically, although even when I did it, it certainly wasn’t the traditional way to go. So there are risks for sure. But, what advice? I would say that you have to make sure that you have a client base that is reliable and is sufficiently broad that you can safely project that you will have enough of an income stream to make a living and support an office. For one, you will be taking on a lot of expenses that you are not used to having. So you really have to think it out. That said, it can be done and be very rewarding. When I did it I was fortunate in that I had a client that I was doing a lot of work for and which I had brought into the firm where I was then working. That client kept urging me to come and work for their company, in-house, which I really didn’t want to do. What I eventually did agree to do, however, was to leave the firm and work for them, but not fulltime. As a result, I did all of their legal work for a set fee, but at the same time, was able to build my own practice. Admittedly, however, those types of circumstances don’t come along that often.
How did you get appointed to the bench?
Interestingly, I was only 37 when I was first nominated and, like today, lawyers of that age are not typically in the pool of attorneys that political leaders look to for candidates for judgeships. However, at the time there was a strong rivalry between the Democratic and Republican organizations as to who the next appointee was going to be and those rivalries were bitter enough that neither party was prepared to concede who would get the next appointment. Although it was a Republican appointment there was a Democratic Governor at the time and the person who the Republicans were proposing was unacceptable to the Democratic leadership. As a result nobody got appointed for a year or two and the vacancy for the judgeship remained. As a consequence, both sides started looking for someone who would meet the approval of both the Democrats and Republicans. Apparently, there weren’t a lot of people on that list so they finally worked their way down to me. Basically, I think I got the nomination because I was one of the very few lawyers who was seen as qualified and who didn’t have enemies in either camp. I was never particularly active politically but I was well known enough to attract the attention of the people that were proposing the nominee and I am fairly certain that it was not just my legal skills but also my lack of a strong political background that helped get me on the bench to begin with. Admittedly, however, that was a very unusual situation.
Tell me about your judicial career.
I started out in the Law Division. There were only two full-time judges in the Law Division at that time so I had a lot on my plate. I continued with that role for a few years and was successful doing what I did and as a consequence, I was fortunate enough to get the attention of the Chief Justice who then appointed me to the Chancery bench. At that time, I was still very young and I had only been on the bench for four years, so it was quite a big deal for me. When you sit in the Chancery Division (now General Equity) you act as both the fact-finder as well as the arbiter of the law and that combination creates an added dimension to the power of your position. However, I always felt that Judges should use that power very delicately and that is what I tried to do. As a small example, I never used a gavel in my court room to maintain order, except for the first week or so after I got on the bench and even then I only did it because I thought that’s what I was supposed to do. Instead, I tried to rule through leadership and persuasion. In other words, I tried to use my power more subtly so that when I made my rulings they were rendered not simply because I had the ability to impose them on people but rather as part of my effort to persuade them that what I was doing was fair and made the most sense under the circumstances. That’s what I still try to do today in my ADR work.
Do you recall any challenges you faced as a young lawyer?
Mainly, financial challenges. When you decide to go out on your own as young lawyer, as I did, and you know that how well you do impacts on your ability to support your family, there can be a lot of anxiety that comes with that. That was particularly true for me because when I started out I did not begin with much. I had only an office, a small library, a typewriter, an adding machine and me. At that point, I didn’t even have a secretary. As a result I did all of my own typing, except that my wife helped me out one day a week when she would go into the office and do some of my typing while my mom took care of our little baby. So my start was a pretty skimpy operation and one that I would certainly not recommend to anybody today. Fortunately, it worked for me at the time. Little by little, my practice grew and I was soon able to bring on a secretary part-time and then full-time, and eventually the practice grew so that I could bring on two partners and eventually associates.
What we do as lawyers is that we offer a service and that service includes not only our competence in terms of our knowledge of the law, but it also involves integrity, trustworthiness and reliability.
What advice would you give to young lawyers just starting out?
A couple of things. One is to be very sensitive to your reputation. You build your reputation every day of your life; it’s an investment. Achieving a well-deserved positive reputation is not only the right thing is to do as a person, it’s also the smart thing to do as a professional. What we do as lawyers is that we offer a service and that service includes not only our competence in terms of our knowledge of the law, but it also involves integrity, trustworthiness and reliability. Those are the qualities that you must embrace and that other people need to get to know you by because that’s who you are as a person and that’s how you need to live. So my advice to young lawyers is to behave in a way so that everything you do helps you build that reputation every day of your life, whether you are in your office, in court, out on the soccer field or out for an evening with friends. It may sound corny but who you are as a person is what sells you as a lawyer. It also helps you sleep better.
Advice number two for young lawyers is not to be afraid to recognize what you don’t know.
You said a couple of things. What is your second piece of advice for young lawyers?
Advice number two for young lawyers is not to be afraid to recognize what you don’t know. If you try to act like you know everything, you are not going to serve your clients well and you are probably going to get yourself and them in trouble. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help from people who do know. I did that as a young lawyer and it was an extremely valuable part of my growth as a professional.
You just have to have somebody or maybe several people you trust and have enough of a relationship with to get on the phone and say “I am working on such and such a problem which I am not used to dealing with and I want to make sure that I am not missing anything.”
I have had the pleasure of having you as a mentor for going on six years. How important is it for young attorneys to have a mentor?
I may be biased because I enjoy doing it but I think it’s critical. Of course, you don’t always have the luxury of having a designated mentor. But you don’t have to. You just have to have somebody or maybe several people you trust and have enough of a relationship with to get on the phone and say “I am working on such and such a problem which I am not used to dealing with and I want to make sure that I am not missing anything.” It doesn’t have to be somebody in the firm you are working with; it could be somebody outside of your firm. For me, there were there were three separate lawyers that I relied on that had different specialties and who I called for help on different subjects. It was a great comfort.
Who was the most important mentor in your personal and professional life?
In my personal life it was my parents and my extended family. In my professional life I would say Judge Anthony Cafiero, the Judge with whom I clerked after law school. He was my most important mentor because of who he was as human being and how he treated people and how he cared about all of the litigants that came before him. His example of compassion and his dedication to getting it right was the model that I wanted to follow professionally.
Your name and your reputation are your currency and the more that they are out there and known in a positive way, the more support they are going to achieve.
Would you recommend that young attorneys join professional organizations?
Absolutely. It’s another networking tool and among other things it allows you to connect with lots of lawyers and other professionals who are networking as well. Your name and your reputation are your currency and the more that they are out there and known in a positive way, the more support they are going to achieve. Of course, ideally you pick up a client or get a client referral but even when the result is more subtle, it can still be helpful. A lawyer may not refer you a case but somebody he or she knows may ask them about you. For example, a potential client may tell another professional that they are considering retaining you and you want that professional to be able to honestly say “yes, he or she is terrific, bright and reliable.” That result comes from reputation and from networking. So whether you get direct referrals or just positive support for your name, networking is critical.
That was one of the most emotional and powerful decision making moments I ever faced as a judge. It had nothing to do with money, it had nothing to do with the high visibility cases or the high priced lawyers that often appeared before me. It just had to do with the lives of three human beings; a mother, a father and a child.
What was the most difficult decision you made when you were on the bench?
Leaving aside the intellectual challenges that were part of the various complex cases that came my way, in terms of the impact on me personally, I remember one case that was, on its face, relatively simple. I was still sitting in the Law Division and I was assigned a matrimonial case and covering for one of the family court judges who had a conflict. It was a dispute over visitation for a 5 or 6 year old child in which the father, who was the non-custodial parent, was trying to get increased time and the mother was resisting because, among other things, she was claiming that the father was abusive. The hearing took a couple of days during which the father’s lawyer kept going on and on trying to attack the mother’s credibility. Finally, at one point after two difficult days of testimony the mother began to breakdown on the stand and was having trouble composing herself. She then suddenly became quiet, ignored the next question that was posed to her, slowly turned to me and in a barely audible voice said, “Judge, please take this child away from me. If you don’t take her away he will never stop fighting us and in the end he will destroy me and her. I love her too much to risk that. Please, Judge, just take my child away from me.” The courtroom suddenly became silent, both lawyers were dumbfounded and we all just sat there for a minute as she sobbed quietly. I then called a recess and brought the lawyers back into chambers. After we talked it over, I worked out a settlement that both sides were satisfied with, having first made it clear that I certainly wasn’t going to take the child away from her mother. Once the lawyers left my chambers and before we went out to put the settlement on the record, I was alone with my court reporter and he looked over to me and said, “So you wanted to be a judge.” That was one of the most emotional and powerful decision making moments I ever faced as a judge. It had nothing to do with money, it had nothing to do with the high visibility cases or the high priced lawyers that often appeared before me. It just had to do with the lives of three human beings; a mother, a father and a child.
Out of all of the positions you have held, which one was your favorite?
It was being the Presiding Judge of the Chancery Division, where I sat for 19 years. That position allowed me to oversee a wide variety of legal and equitable disputes. One of my most interesting and challenging experiences related to how the development of casino gaming in New Jersey and, of course, in Atlantic County, impacted on the legal system. Casino gaming was approved in the late 1970’s and the first casino opened shortly thereafter. The litigation that was then generated by the development of casino gaming and the opening of our first casinos in Atlantic City was enormous because, among other things, it brought a huge amount of money into the area and with that money came multiple disputes such as claims over competing property rights and fights over key casino people and all of the related issues that went with it. At the same time, the people that were involved in the development of the casinos were able to bring in very prominent lawyers, which they did, not just from New Jersey but from all over the country. The result was that I got a chance to litigate some very interesting high stake cases with some highly talented lawyers. And that was just part of it. It was just a wonderful spot to be.
I think that what makes the practice of law as attractive and as rewarding as it is, is our ability to truly help people and to have a positive impact on their lives.
What do you like most about the practice of law?
I think that what makes the practice of law as attractive and as rewarding as it is, is our ability to truly help people and to have a positive impact on their lives. That’s also the way I think we have to measure our success as lawyers. Unfortunately, I see some young people going into law that don’t necessarily focus on that. The impression I get is that some chose the law primarily as a vehicle to make a lot of money or for the power that they think it brings to them. I think those people burnout over time. They continue to practice law and to do what they do but they start to lose much of their energy because for one thing, making money is actually relatively easy compared to the rest of it. It’s being able to make things right for your clients and to do it with integrity that is the more challenging goal. The fact that you have the power to make things right as a lawyer and that you can help people that need help and whose lives will be better because of what you have done, that is what energizes you and gives you the sense of reward that can keep us going as lawyers. Once again, to some that may sound a bit corny but that’s what keeps me going when I could have retired from doing this a long time ago.
Being willing to invest some of yourself in making sure that what you do has a positive impact on the people you deal with, not just in terms of getting the legal issues right, but just as importantly, understanding the human dynamics that motivate people when they get into the legal disputes that ultimately drive litigation.
What is the most challenging part of the practice of law?
Making sure you do it right. Making sure you invest the time to get it right. Making sure that you listen and understand. Being willing to invest some of yourself in making sure that what you do has a positive impact on the people you deal with, not just in terms of getting the legal issues right, but just as importantly, understanding the human dynamics that motivate people when they get into the legal disputes that ultimately drive litigation. In my opinion most disputes and the litigation that often follows them are driven by something more than just money, even though money is most often at stake, and that is the perceived challenge to the personal integrity of the people involved. If you don’t understand how that dynamic impacts on litigation, that is, how disputes are so often driven by a litigant’s perception of how the claims threaten his or her own sense of worth, you are really not fully understanding what drives the train that propels so many cases.
So for young lawyers, I would say that what they have to do is recognize and remember how critical an understanding of the human component of the practice is to being a good lawyer.
As a young attorney, how do you learn to tap into those human dynamics? How do you develop this skill?
First of all, you have to start training for that about 20 years before you get to law school. It’s your life experience. It’s your understanding of human nature. It’s about caring about what other people feel and having some stake in making things right for them and for yourself. If you don’t come into law school with those instincts, you are not going to learn them in some ICLE course. That said, we all know how to help people. So for young lawyers, I would say that what they have to do is recognize and remember how critical an understanding of the human component of the practice is to being a good lawyer. Lawyers are not like some computer that can simply spit out the right legal answer and then have everything else fall into place. You are a human being who needs to understand what the person you are representing is going through and that involves more than simply coming up with the correct answer to a legal question. Nor is this a dynamic that applies only to individual clients. Corporate clients are people too.
Tell me about your family.
My family is truly one of the wonderful gifts I have been given in life. I have been married for 50 years to my wonderful wife Lynn and we have 6 children, 3 girls and 3 boys, and each of them is the apple of my eye. As you know, two of my sons became lawyers, one of whom is a Superior Court judge. And that’s just my immediate family. I also come from a very large extended family. I came from a family of 5. My mom came from a family of 11 and my dad came from a family of 8. Growing up with all of that plus our immediate family was our life and it still is.
As you mentioned, two of your sons followed in your footsteps and chose a legal career. What was your reaction when they told you that they would like to go to law school and pursue a legal career?
What is it going to cost me? No, I am kidding. My reaction was certainly joy but also a little surprise, although I wasn’t totally surprised. I was always very careful, or tried to be, with all of my children not to have them feel that they needed to follow in my footsteps in order to be a success in life. I wanted them to make their own choices and follow their own path wherever that lead them. For example, if either Chris or Mike were part of this conversation now and you asked them whether their father ever advised them that they should become lawyers I am fairly sure that they would quickly say “no”. That said, I never told them not to become a lawyer. I tried to simply set an example.
How do you spend your free time?
Most of my recreational time is family time. Photography is my only real hobby although I do love boating and spend a lot of time with that. But most of my recreation time still revolves around my family.
I asked the legal professionals who have benefited most from Judge Gibson’s advice, his sons Michael and Christopher, to share the best professional advice their father gave them.
Christopher Gibson said, “The best professional advice my Dad gave me as a lawyer was to always be the lawyer who offered solutions to the problems before the court, not one who only identifies problems. As a judge, his best advice, both in words and by example was to always be prepared, especially when conducting oral argument, and to summarize for the lawyers what I understand their argument to be, whether I agree with it or not, to ensure that by the time a lawyer leaves the courtroom, regardless of whether they win or lose, they’ll know that I understood their position, that I took their argument seriously and that they were given a fair chance to succeed on the merits of their argument.”
Michael Gibson said, “When it comes to professional advice, I would say with my Dad’s approach is less about advice and more about guidance. I think that it has been important for him that each of his children find their own path, their own style, and their own voice. His role has been to guide us on our way. One of the lessons that I have learned from my Dad which has helped me professionally is the importance of communication. One of the unique things about my Dad is his ability to communicate no matter the audience. He has always stressed the art of listening and the importance it has in communication not only professionally but personally as well. I have always been impressed with how he listens and asks questions that provoke thought and further analysis. He offers perspective which ironically is great advice. “
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Lawyers of Atlantic County
was created in 2015 by the Atlantic County Bar Association Young Lawyers Division