Butler is proud to spotlight one of its rising Associates, Bret Freeman. His success as an attorney is attributed to his avidity for learning, zest for life, and love of people. For Bret being a great lawyer is not just about putting in the hard work, it’s about giving value to the things that matter most: the people.
Before pursuing law you had a successful career as an HR professional. What drew you to the legal field, and how has your experience working in HR contributed to your career as a lawyer?
Good question. You know how we have a dream to do one thing and then life kind of takes us in a different direction? I always had the desire to advise and offer some sort of counsel, but I knew I didn’t want to be a therapist or anything like that. So, in undergrad, I planned to go to law school. I took all of the formal logic courses offered to prepare for the LSAT. I even sat for the LSAT. However, when I moved to Florida for the first time after graduating, I was burned out and decided to work for a while instead. I thought something in the HR world would suit me since I worked for my cousin who owned several staffing agencies in the summer while in college. That led me to my first HR job working for the Seminole Tribe of Florida. An opportunity opened up for me to recruit and advise on their hiring issues. Eventually, that led to me also participating in some employment litigation matters. I really liked those parts of the job.
I got my Master’s degree in HR hoping that it would give me more access to those types of assignments. It did, and for the next 17 years, I moved up within the companies I worked for. As I moved up in HR in larger corporations, I worked closely with our lawyers on employment litigation issues. That led to me getting more involved in conversations dealing with the legal side of employment and the more nuanced pain points. In fact, before I left the HR arena I was preparing position statements for my employer and appearing before the Ohio Civil Rights Commission to argue their positions at mediations. Once I did that a few times, I knew that law was what I wanted to do.
I began attending law school part-time at the University of Akron while working full time as a Chief HR Officer. I oversaw five departments consisting of roughly 45 people. That was difficult to do. That taught me that if I was going to pursue law, I needed to be fully committed. So, when my husband was offered a teaching attending position with USF and the Morsani School of Medicine at Moffitt, we decided I would go to school full time as a law student once we relocated to Tampa. After graduating and passing the bar, a good friend of mine and Partner at Butler, Ryan Hilton, mentioned opportunities here at Butler. I was offered a role and I took it!
I feel incredibly lucky working with Tim Engelbrecht. He has given me many opportunities to showcase the skills I gained in my prior life in HR. I felt comfortable building relationships and having “higher level” conversations with clients early on. He allowed me to do so. That’s helped me build client trust. I guess my path into law is best described through the natural ebbs and flows of life and pursuing things that I like. Having the courage to go after what I liked and finding ways to utilize the skills I already had, is the story of how my HR path transformed me into an attorney.
You’ve been with the firm for three years and have become an integral member of your team. What is key to building strong work relationships and becoming a team player that others can depend on?
I think being authentic is key. Getting to know others and allowing them to know me has helped me to build stronger relationships with my teammates. This is a high-stress industry. There are always big deadlines to meet and pressure to get things done. Sometimes things get lost in translation or there are miscommunications with those with who we work closest. Often times those misunderstandings come from not knowing each other well enough. We’re all working toward the same goal so giving people the benefit of the doubt when things break down is crucial. That said, when something goes wrong or there is a miscommunication, I am a fervent believer in picking up the phone and talking it out. I have found it usually clears most things up and creates a stronger bond between me and the other person. That makes working so closely under tight deadlines and high stress much more manageable.
I also think it’s crucial to know a little about my teammate’s lives away from work as well. What does their life outside of work look like? How are their kids, spouse, pets, etc… Just asking people about themselves is a great way to show appreciation for the work they do. Learning who they are and not just what they do is something I think we all want from our teammates. Taking time to have conversations that have nothing to do with work is important. Not only does it help to build and maintain a strong team, but it also makes me understand that I’m working for and with people I care about.
You recently stepped into a new leadership role at the Firm as a member of the Diversity & Inclusion Committee. Why is diversity so important to a firm’s culture and success?
I see myself more as a contributor than a leader. I am grateful for the opportunity to learn from the leaders in our firm what leadership looks like at Butler. I believe diversity should be important to every firm. This is the key to remaining financially viable. Our clients see that diversity is important. They want to work with firms that feel similarly. For that reason, it’s critical that we make diversity a priority. The world has changed and unfortunately, the legal industry is among those industries that have tended to be a bit of a slow-moving ship. Getting ahead of that curve positions us for even greater success in the future. Beyond that, it’s just the right thing to do. There are so many different voices with valuable points of view in the world today. It makes for a stronger and richer workforce if we have an organizational culture that can relate, understand and engage in those conversations.
The Diversity Committee does such an amazing job of doing this. Janice Buchman and the rest of the committee are always finding creative ways to showcase our current diversity as well as introduce new topics. The Diverse Dishes is one popular example. Whether it involves race, gender, sexual orientation, identity, culture, disabilities, or any other diversity topic, I am amazed at the firm’s refreshing and forward-thinking willingness to embrace and educate its employees.
Your husband, Tim, is a prominent doctor in the Tampa Bay area and you’re a successful attorney at Butler. With such busy schedules, what are some of your favorite things to do to unwind after a long day?
In 2020 we broke ground on a backyard project to build an outdoor living space. When we have a chance, we like to grill out and spend time watching TV in the pool or hot tub. That space has been the primary way to unwind in 2020 since almost everything else was closed. It was my sanity at times.
At the end of 2019, my husband and I decided we would take one big trip a year. Unfortunately, because of the pandemic, we had to cancel the 2020 trip we planned in Portugal and Spain. So, this year we’re planning to take a cruise to Italy, the Adriatic Sea and Greece. Beyond that, we like to host game nights and spend time with friends and family as much as possible. We’re also big “foodies” and enjoy trying the “hot” new restaurants around Tampa Bay. Since our careers are both so demanding, we look for things to remind us of why we work so hard.
That reminds me of something I read on Butler’s website before I started working here. It said, “We work to live, not live to work”. While there are times when that is not always possible, it’s a goal that the firm has and is committed to working towards. I try to keep that at the forefront of my mind.
Many people discovered new hobbies or took on new home projects to help cope with the recent pandemic. What fun and new endeavors helped you get through?
Our home project. In January 2020 the pool builders put a 10-foot muddy hole in my backyard just before the pandemic’s shut down started.
Since I have two very active Labrador Retriever children, that hole was about as scary for me as a hurricane heading toward a trailer park. Luckily, construction tradespeople were deemed, essential workers. They worked day in and out to finish the project. Everything wrapped up last April.
I also took up the hobby of online shopping. You see, I discovered this new app called Amazon.com. I guess you can call it my new vice. I have also done more reading. Because of all the social upheaval in 2020, I have tried to find books that teach me something about the issues that we are facing in America right now.
A great book that I am looking at now is called “The Color of Law”. It talks about the history of legislated segregation in property law and how it contributed to over-policing of minority areas.