Success requires you to be fired up about something. The things that I am fired up about is helping youth discover their dreams, protecting people’s rights and providing a safe space to minority leaders. In my experience, we are told at a young age that we are only able to pick one dream career, but I was passionate about so many different ideas and projects. In my youth, I was an “ideas” person which means I was the one who was trying to find a way to make complex problems happen in an efficient way. That passion became how I helped other people in the law profession as a mentor and just in general. Yesterday, I found an old compliment card from a law school event I hosted. the card said “Neena is the most genuine person at UA Law.” I always wanted to help people, and that is what came off as genuine to people. However, for me, this was just the real me they were seeing. When you chase your passion, people will see the good things in you even when you struggle to see them in yourself.
The legal field is known to be extremely competitive. Lawyers are often smart, ambitious, and highly educated. That being said, what does it take to stand out and become a “Top Lawyer” in your specific field of law? In this interview series called “5 Things You Need To Become A Top Lawyer In Your Specific Field of Law”, we are talking to top lawyers who share what it takes to excel and stand out in your industry.
As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Neena R. Speer, Esq.
Neena R. Speer is an attorney, author, speaker, and truth dealer. She runs her own solo law firm specializing in trademarks and intellectual property law, criminal defense, and probate law and is an Amazon Bestseller. Most of all, Neena loves sharing her experiences as a law student, a Black Indian minority in the law field, and her journey failing her first bar exam. When she’s not writing, speaking, or helping her clients, you can find her at Starbucks, where the baristas know her to drink order by heart.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit more. What is the “backstory” that brought you to this particular career path in Law? Did you want to be an attorney “when you grew up”?
Have you ever met a child who knew that they wanted to be a lawyer in the 8th grade? What about a child that knew that they wanted to launch a non-profit when they were 8 years old? Well, 8 years after I graduated HS, I was able to realize both of those dreams! Looking back on it, I remember two stories that led me to where I am today. The first story was when I realized that people who are in the apartments across the street from where I went to school were not allowed to go where I went because of some silly district line. That made me distraught for some reason when I was in the 8th grade. I knew after that I wanted to be able to change laws or rules that made no sense. When rules stand in the way of people being afforded equal opportunities, I had to fight that system.
The second story is far more interesting to hear from a lawyer who has been practicing for three years now and had a bit of success. I failed my bar exam the first time I took it. However, that’s not really the story. Two weeks after I failed (and cried), I got accepted into the Black Upstart accelerator program for black entrepreneurs. I was awarded a full scholarship to attend, all I had to do was figure out how I was going to get to North Carolina. The crazy part is, I applied to that program at 4:00 A.M. while I was on a late-night social media scroll. I did not even open a browser, I just applied via Instagram thanks to a sponsored ad! I was so excited to go there and make a name for myself as a black entrepreneur with my non-profit business.
Much to my chagrin, I learned that a non-profit is not exactly entrepreneurship. I had less than 24 hours to come up with an entirely new idea to pitch to three big investors and I felt like I failed the bar all over again. I remember crying to my mom and her telling me “If it doesn’t work out the way you want, it means something better awaits you.” So, I got out of my feelings, and I marched down and asked once again about another idea for entrepreneurship. This idea went over well. Now, I didn’t win the pitch competition, but what I learned then is that if I could take a failed idea and come up with something even better in less than 24 hours, then I would try to take the bar again but this time, my motivator would be the people I could help in the black business sector to get some clarity on some key terms and strategies for ultimate brand protection. That became my mantra and my brand when I decided to come back and chase that 8th grade dream in 2017 and finally accomplish it in 2018. Every day since has been an amazing learning process where I discovered the meaning behind the words “the practice of law.” It is truly something you get better at with time and continued dedication to learn even when you hit a wall.
Can you tell us a bit about the nature of your practice and what you focus on?
I specialize in brand protection which means I help small business owners and major companies consider the benefits of trademarks, copyrights, customized contracts, non-profit and business formation, and consulting in general. However, some of my inclusive legal services are my general law practice areas, criminal defense, family law and probate work. These areas help me focus on the needs of the individuals that I serve which can extend far beyond just business. Worrying is not something that I want my clients to do by themselves because there are always people willing to help and listen to their side of the story.
You are a successful attorney. Which three-character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? What unique qualities do you have that others may not? Can you please share a story or example for each?
The first character trait that was the most instrumental to my success is unyielding self-love. Two girls stopped me in the gym one day to tell me I was “so pretty.” Let me just say, I was thinking the same about them and they were in way better shape than me. I used to be all dismissive of those compliments when they said it, but I just smiled and thanked them. After my workout, I had a body positivity photo shoot. Do not quit chasing your goals, even if you feel like no one is appreciating you or that it’s taking you too long. Just remember, people take notice.
The second trait is thankfulness. There are so many who poured into me when I was nervous about my first criminal jury trial that believed in me including my client. When I heard my client said they thanked God that they appointed me on this case, I cried in my car because despite everything going wrong and doubt creeping in, God still gave me this caring heart. Flash forward to now, just by pushing through on that case, the felony was dismissed, and my nerves made me a better advocate after all.
Finally, the third characteristic is having no entitlements. God took my “perceived failures” of a failed bar exam, almost flunked out of law school, couldn’t even find a job, had to work at Doordash, bottom 50% of her law class, never launched a law firm before, first generation lawyer, buried in law school student loans, low LSAT score, and even lost my law school scholarship, and said to me “I qualify the called. I don’t call the qualified. I take broken pieces to show people that no measure of entitlement will bestow upon you the blessings only God can give” So, I say to you who saw the gifts God placed in me and leaned in…ashé and thank you.
Do you think you have had luck in your success? Can you explain what you mean?
I believe that there is no such thing as luck; I believe there are people who recognize the good qualities in you when you lean in to becoming your best self no matter where you are or who is watching. Many times, I have been the beneficiary of amazing blessings like Starbucks throwing me a graduation party or the janitorial staff at my law school saving up to buy me a pair of earrings for graduation. I do not count any of these things as luck because I believe that when you operate with the belief that everybody is important no matter their status, people gravitate towards wanting to help you and see you succeed. Many people have referred me business just because of who I was in high school, or college even! I believe the reason for that is that people remember how you made them feel, and that goes a long way in this business. Even if we do not mean to harm people, we can do so by just treating them like the help only. I call people who make it hard to work at Starbucks or help clean up my local law school, stargazers. There are so many people focused on getting the “stars” that they miss the people who are content and wise right around them. So, no, I do not think it is luck but the decision to see the people around me as future wise counsel on a day where your normal friends do not answer the phone and you just need someone to talk to.
Do you think where you went to school has any bearing on your success? How important is it for a lawyer to go to a top-tier school?
I don’t really think of rank when it comes to school. I am more so trying to find a space where I can create safety or there is support there to help me or others like me when we encounter obstacles that usually create barriers for minority or diverse candidates. If you read up about the school that I attended, then you know that the bar passage rate is soaring, but when you compare it to the minority students bar passage rate then they still have work to do to provide proper support for minority and diverse candidates. On the other hand, where I attended undergrad at Howard University, the rank was quite low, but the preparation for law school and the opportunities for minority candidates were much higher. Post-graduation from Howard University, most graduates were able to find something to help monetize their future and the connections that would allow them to move up in their future success.
I believe rank is a representation of the number of resources a school has but not how all the resources are evenly applied to all students. I think in the U.S. legal system, there is still more work to do. However, if I were to just rely on rank, I would have never had the opportunity to grow my skills necessary to launch my law firm like I did. I think success largely depends on good fortune, unforeseen blessings and the efforts we put into finding our purpose.
Based on the lessons you have learned from your experience, if you could go back in time and speak to your twenty-year-old self, what would you say? Would you do anything differently?
Honestly, I would probably tell my 20-year-old self that starting a business is not that intimidating. I hesitated in going all in when I first started in 2018 because I thought that running a business was supposed to be scary but, nobody has mastered this business thing completely. We are all still learning how to find our path and make a difference in this world. We are so hard on ourselves because we do not know how to do everything, but we forget that learning from failures is the best teacher.
Failure is what made me insecure when I first started because I thought people were supposed to be the best in their class to deserve big opportunities. I later learned that the best opportunities are given to those who are in the right place at the right time no matter their experience level. Imagine if I had decided to start a law firm from the very beginning. My life might have been altered because I would have prepared for a future where I supported myself. Unfortunately, I let fear guide me and thus I felt like I tried everything to get a job until the only option I had was to start a business. It took a while for me to see that a business was an opportunity for me to take advantage of my goals and vision as opposed to working for someone else’s bottom line. That is very empowering today. I wish my 20-year-old self knew that because she would have planned how to run this law firm successfully straight out of Howard!
This is not easy work. What is your primary motivation and drive behind the work that you do?
So, my first motive was that I needed to be able to pay my healthcare bills because finding a job was hard, at least for me. However, after my first year, I saw that the reason why I enjoyed my job was that I had the opportunity every day to reinvent myself and find new ways to help the world with my law license. I went to law school to become a criminal defense attorney for the federal public defender’s office. Instead, my first client turned out to be a child support case who just wanted a visitation schedule that made sense for her child and a regular payment schedule. When I put it like that, my job doesn’t sound so hard. However, there are certain rules and mannerisms that are expected in front of a judge. I was fluent in that language and that allowed me to communicate and look for solutions based on the law.
I never once said in law school, I want to help people in child support or custody! However, I did say I want to help people protect their rights and listen to their unique needs. That first case helped me understand that there are many areas of law including family, criminal defense, intellectual property and probate law where people have problems. I can solve them by trying to help them maneuver a confusing system.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
Right now, I am working on a new online course for people who have experienced failure and need a mindset reset. I have done this activity with pre-law students and adults, and I have finally seen the benefit of helping people address their insecurities and failures and see them as learning opportunities and inspiring stories. I failed the bar and almost flunked out of law school. There was a lot of insecurity wrapped up in just those two facts when I decided to practice law. However, one day, I decided that I did not want to be a part of groups or communities where we could not talk about our failures in a safe space. So, I created one for me and others to discuss the things that they were insecure about and find solutions.
The last session I did was in front of pre-law students and after that session, I was asked to do a workshop at a university classroom of one of the students who were inspired. That made me think about an opportunity to take that project to the next level. I had created something that helps other people break free from the limiting belief that failure is something that we should be ashamed of or that disqualifies us from better opportunities.
Failure became my way in for me for people who got lost in the sea of social media where people celebrate wins and hide losses. I’m excited because for me this is a new area of business that most people won’t be able to help in because I believe the emotions can be overwhelming to some people. In my case, I have a unique ability to listen to others in a way where they can share the hard things and help them seek solutions. When I leave this earth, I want to know that I used all the talents that I was given to help people, and this is a project that I am thrilled about!
Where do you go from here? Where do you aim to be in the next chapter of your career?
I have decided that I want to be able to travel more and experience more of my life and I decided that that means I need to develop automation systems and impeccable customer service processes that will make what I do something I can teach to a team of people that will support my business.
I have done the solo lawyer thing for a while, and I am finally open to being able to allow a team of people to have the same opportunities that I was given and teach them skills that would help them advance in the same career industry. I am focusing my efforts on teaching because I believe as you move up in the leadership levels, you are charged with passing on your knowledge to people who come after you so that progress does not end with you.
Without sharing anything confidential, can you please share your most successful “war story”? Can you share the funniest?
My most successful “war story” would have to be not being able to find a job after law school. As a proud graduate of Howard University, I left thinking that any company would be fortunate to have my work ethic and vision. I sought out jobs during law school with the desire for remote work opportunities as a part of my hiring package. I had heard from people who have worked in federal jobs that telework was a “thing” and that they were able to set their hours by arriving earlier so they could leave earlier. I liked the sound of that, so I told all my job interview hiring staff that I wanted an opportunity to telework because at the time, I was caregiving for my dad at times when my mom needed help. I also wanted to be able to pursue my other interests such as speaking, traveling, and spending time with my family and friends that were across the globe. I remember being laughed at for asking for remote work opportunities.
Then, the pandemic hit and all the companies including Judges’ offices and law firms started allowing people to essentially work from home. I realized that nobody knew how to work Zoom or set up virtual appointments or even create a Google voice number for their businesses. When I started my law firm because I couldn’t find a job that would allow me the flexibility to take care of my family, I learned how to do everything remotely before the pandemic required it. Thus, when the pandemic hit, I only had to adjust slightly to prepare my law firm to become more virtual. It’s a war story to me because young people have been demanding for work life balance in the workplace for a long time. However, nobody gave it to us until a pandemic occurred.
The interesting part is that we were supposed to use technology to optimize business efficiency a long time ago. Young people don’t work normal day time hours anymore; they work late at night or mid-afternoon. Working from home creates a safe place for them to be able to develop solutions without a hierarchy of office politics or daytime hours. That is not something that people were ready for before the pandemic that was my priority, and I developed a system that allowed me to connect with my clients more efficiently. I solved legal issues without having to have a formal office or big fancy building. It has been hard to convince people that we deserve personal time and that had to stop with taking jobs that would never prioritize that and instead creating my own.
My funniest “war story” would be that I used to be my own secretary! That means I would answer the incoming calls as Neena R. Speer Law Firm and try my best to direct the call to Neena i.e., me at her earliest convenience. I was a living, breathing version or wearing many hats in my law firm. The funny part is that nobody could tell the difference between the person they talked to on the phone and the person that they saw in the Zoom meeting. Sometimes when they would ask who was answering the phone, I would say it was a family friend! The reason why I think it is funny is because when most people start a business, someone must do the admin work. Most times, you can’t afford to hire someone to help you. Thus, I soon learned that automation and text templates were necessary to guide people to our intake forms so that we could address their problems without me having to put on my secretary disguise. It was fun for a while to answer the phone whenever people needed help. However, helping people must have a good system and spending hours on a phone call that no one paid for is not all it is cracked up to be. It is possible to be overwhelmed and unproductive when you do not block your time and access to you more efficiently. I have decided that I do not want to go back to being my own secretary, but it’s nice to that my acting skills from high school do come in handy.
Ok, fantastic. Let’s now shift to discussing some advice for aspiring lawyers. Do you work remotely? Onsite? Or Hybrid? What do you think will be the future of how law offices operate? What do you prefer? Can you please explain what you mean?
I work remotely as well as in-person trials and hearings. Some judges are still using Zoom meetings which, for me, is a good thing because sometimes meetings only last 15 minutes and we can save time and money because shorter hearings that are an hour away can be too inaccessible. With Zoom, more clients have the opportunity to attend, and more judges are able to get through their list of cases quickly. I prefer virtual meetings when it is something quick and still prefer in-person trials or hearings when they require evidence or testimony. I believe the profession of law is to be respected and the courtroom still requires a level of civility that Zoom does not offer due to technological restrictions.
How has the legal world changed since COVID? How do you think it might change in the near future? Can you explain what you mean?
I believe the legal work has become slower in efficiency especially when it comes to clients being heard in a timely manner. I think that people use COVID-19 fears to get out of court or to delay action because it is easy to make excuses when there is a pandemic that is causing fear across the world. This social unrest also changed the expectation of people who were once happy to work 60 hours a week with no breaks to start demanding personal time and expectations of work/life balance to their employers more openly. It also changed people’s fear of leaving their jobs because they decided to be their own bosses. They realized it was better than waiting for their employer to decide if they were worth protecting during this global crisis. This means that more people will likely follow in the footsteps of the “great resignation” and force employers to change the cultures of their work environments if they want to keep quality candidates.
We often hear about the importance of networking and getting referrals. Is this still true today? Has the nature of networking changed or has its importance changed? Can you explain what you mean?
I can only say, from experience, that networking is the reason why I have a law firm in the first place. That means that the people I met long ago enabled me to find referrals, gain knowledge and perfect my craft with mentorship. I even had opportunities for leaders that helped set me up for success. I believe mentors are your valuable asset one can have in the legal profession and those mentors can become sponsors that advocate for you. The best example of this for me was when a current judge, while he was still a lawyer, took me to meet every black or white judge he knew in my county and introduced me as a new lawyer looking for work. That is the power of networking, and I would not have gotten the appointed cases, or the opportunities had it not been for more people that did that for me versus my own sincere efforts.
Based on your experience, how can attorneys effectively leverage social media to build their practice?
If attorneys understood that social media was an educational tool instead of monetizing every like or dm, they would seize the opportunity to build social proof of their own expertise. Social media was never a place to just post pictures or tell people to book your services. It is a place to showcase your excellence in a way that people recognize you as an expert. Social media is an authority positioning tool. If used correctly, you can influence people to make. If you are ever in doubt, use social media as a research tool to include those you want to serve in your engagement strategy by asking for input with polls and surveys.
Excellent. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things You Need To Become A Top Lawyer In Your Specific Field of Law?” Please share a story or an example for each.
- PASSION: Success requires you to be fired up about something. The things that I am fired up about is helping youth discover their dreams, protecting people’s rights and providing a safe space to minority leaders. In my experience, we are told at a young age that we are only able to pick one dream career, but I was passionate about so many different ideas and projects. In my youth, I was an “ideas” person which means I was the one who was trying to find a way to make complex problems happen in an efficient way. That passion became how I helped other people in the law profession as a mentor and just in general. Yesterday, I found an old compliment card from a law school event I hosted. the card said “Neena is the most genuine person at UA Law.” I always wanted to help people, and that is what came off as genuine to people. However, for me, this was just the real me they were seeing. When you chase your passion, people will see the good things in you even when you struggle to see them in yourself.
- PREPARATION: Simple prep before an interview about college history or company history can be a determining factor. For me, it was reading up on the difference between a federal public defender and a state public defender my 1L year. I never knew what a federal public defender did until 24 hours before my first legal internship interview. The way I sold myself was very untraditional. I told my future boss about how I had built trust with parents as a summer camp counselor and drew an analogy between that and building trust with future clients. That, for me, was a perfect understanding of what it meant to be a defense attorney to build trust to make a proper defense for our clients. Reading a 100+ page article until 2:00 A.M. helped me understand that you do not have to know everything to make a good impression, you just need to know the skills the job requires.
- PERSONALITY: You know how many times a week I hear people say “you’re so refreshing” when they see me being my authentic self? One time, I was in Starbucks, and they had this gigantic Starbucks cup on display. I’m talking about a life-size cup! I asked this man behind me if he wouldn’t mind taking a picture of me pretending to drink out of the cup. He was so moved by the conversation and odd request, that he too decided that he too wanted to take a picture with the cup. I remember thinking then that I had the ability, with my personality, to influence people to do the things that other people may think is strange, but I think makes you special. Using that same charismatic approach, I decided to create a space where my clients and even the people closest to me can celebrate their weirdness as opposed to hiding it. That led to clients that felt at home and people that saw a person that they can confide in with their wildest dreams.
- PERSEVERANCE: One of my camp kids asked me if I believed in “giving up.” I said right away, “yes I do.” However, I do not believe we give up on our dreams. In fact, when it’s a true dream of yours and not one someone else has, then there is nothing that will stop you from continuing to chase that dream. We usually find ourselves when we discover a passion or a reason for being. I believe that dreams are not something that are unattainable; dreams are a human right and nobody who wants to be a lawyer, or even a top lawyer one day, can shake that feeling of longing that comes with a dream that only they are meant to fulfill. We may run away from our passions, but our passions always find a way to re-surface. Because I know that, I refuse to give up in the face of failure or unforeseen obstacles. That is what led me to become a lawyer with her own law firm when I could not find a job.
- PATIENCE: Working hard can make you feel like you are entitled to success. However, most times we work and wait on it. Don’t put pressure on yourself to RUSH SUCCESS. Instead treat it like CHESS. The board stays the same, but the moves require patience and strategy. The ones who move too fast miss the steps required to WIN THE GAME. It took me an extra year to pass the bar exam, and I was not ecstatic to have to go back and redo that anxiety-producing exam that has stressed out many lawyers. However, I woke up at 5:00 A.M. and went to Starbucks to work on my multiple-choice questions, essays, and my strategy for remembering what I needed to defeat this exam every day I could. Waiting for the results for a second time felt like it would take forever. When I found out I passed, it wasn’t because I stayed up all night waiting for the results to drop. One of my friends who also struggled to pass the bar at first texted me “congratulations, you passed!” For me, I knew that passing the bar was not just about seeing my name on a list, it was about being ready to use the license that I would have one day. When I passed the bar, I was ready to start my law firm. That is what it means to be patient and secure that even if I had to take the exam again, I knew I was destined to be a lawyer.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
I would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with CaShawn Thompson, the founder of “Black Girls are Magic.” I recently did a “Trademark That Thursdays®” episode on what it would be like to lose ownership of your brand to a person who trademarked a part of your business brand before you could protect it. I would love to ask her what she learned that she wished other people who are black creators could use to become powerhouses in the creation industry for black empowerment and success. I think about that story a lot as a reason why I wanted to get into Intellectual Property. I want to work with more minority female-owned businesses, and it would help me discover what the real problem is when trying to protect your business and launch a new idea. Most minority business owners are unfairly impacted by lack of protections for their businesses, but CaShawn still managed to protect “Black Girls are Magic” and that’s hard to do nowadays because of how similar the phrasing is. I think it would be cool to talk to someone who did not give up trying to protect a part of her brand.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!