Attorney at Law Magazine sat down with Chantel Wonder of McGlinchey Stafford PLLC to discuss her journey in the legal profession and her diverse experiences in financial services litigation and insurance defense.
AALM: Can you tell us about your journey to becoming an attorney and what motivated you to specialize in financial services litigation?
CW: My goal was always to be an attorney, but I never envisioned working in the creditor defense world when I was in college or law school. Almost by accident, I started my career as an in-house litigation attorney for Portfolio Recovery Associates, a national debt-buying company, due to the economic environment around 2010. Although this wasn’t my plan, it led me in the right direction. I was given the opportunity to dive into actual litigation as a young attorney, conducting several bench trials each year, and learned how to navigate cases and defend my clients in a practical and aggressive way.
AALM: How has your legal career evolved over time, and what are some of the most significant milestones or achievements you have accomplished?
CW: Going from in-house attorney to private practice was an interesting move because most attorneys do the opposite. I gained so much valuable litigation experience while in-house, but I wanted to expand my practice areas and experience. Being able to move into insurance defense, employment and labor, class action work, and general commercial litigation has exponentially broadened my knowledge of the law in general and the various subject matters. I have been able to keep one foot in the financial services world and keep current on the issues while taking on cases in other industries. While in-house, we took two cases all the way to the Florida Supreme Court on an important industry issue. In the past few years, I handled several consumer class actions in Florida that settled favorably for my clients.
AALM: You’ve handled various types of litigation, from debt collection to insurance defense to employment litigation. Can you share some key insights you’ve gained from these diverse experiences?
CW: Although my cases have been very different, once you have a good foundation for litigation, you can tackle any issue. While expanding into new areas, I had the benefit of working with attorneys who were specialized in the various practices and good resources for me. Still, I was never hesitant to handle a new or different issue. I enjoy the diverse nature of my practice and think the fresh perspective from one case to the next makes me a better attorney. My financial services foundation has been a great roadmap for me in any litigation, and handling new issues often helps bring new ideas to my financial services practice.
AALM: Could you share a memorable experience or case from your time handling bench trials that had a significant impact on you professionally?
CW: Learning to practice law should be like an apprenticeship, and the most valuable experience I gained as a lawyer was in the courtroom or in a deposition with other attorneys. I have had so many memorable learning experiences in the courtroom, and I think it is important, especially after the courts were shut down and everything moved to remote during COVID, for young attorneys to get that on-the-job, in-person training in front of a judge in a courtroom. Through my bench trials, I learned that judges are just people, and you have to make your presentation to them so they can learn your case. As the attorney, you are the only one who knows your client’s story and why it matters. Looking at trials as my opportunity to educate the judge on my case helped me overcome any nerves and make the best presentation of my client’s case.
AALM: What do you find most rewarding about representing clients in the financial services and insurance industries? Are there specific achievements or moments that stand out in your career?
CW: Both the financial services and insurance industries have strong impacts on our economy and businesses. New issues always arise that could help or hurt businesses, and even though a small settlement in one case might not seem important, the aggregate effect on the business world is huge. The work is rewarding because, in the end, protecting financial and insurance companies supports our local businesses and economy. I become close to the clients and invested in the outcome for their sake during every case, and it is very rewarding to obtain a good result for them at the end of the case.
AALM: You’ve also worked with homeowners associations (HOAs) and developers in the real estate context. What are some unique challenges in this area, and how do you approach them as an attorney?
CW: Florida poses many challenges for the real estate industry, and some of my most complex cases have involved claims against board members or management companies. Associations are more common in Florida than in some other states, and there are various regulations for the associations, members, and directors. Recently, the Surfside condo collapse has prompted new legislation, which may be beneficial in the long run but has created new challenges for the associations, and many buildings are in danger of being condemned. I approach these cases the same way I do any other litigation: by looking at what the challenges are for my clients and what I need to do to get the best outcome for them. I always have an overall plan for the case, but many new issues arise on a day-to-day basis in complex litigation, and I have to be ready to address them as they arise.
AALM: What do you think are the biggest challenges facing the legal profession today, and how do you see these challenges being addressed?
CW: The profession is demanding and can be very stressful. Attorneys are more focused on the quality of their lives than working all the time, which is a positive development for the industry. The profession is having some growing pains as attorneys try to find a balance between the two. I think law firms are seeing this change, and many are adapting to it by encouraging attorneys to take care of themselves, adjusting their demands or expectations, and focusing on the quality of the work. I have focused on the balance between personal and work life – having time for my personal life allows me to stay fresh and provide the best defense for my clients when I am working.
AALM: What advice do you have for someone who is looking to become an attorney?
CW: The first five years are the hardest. If you can make it past the new attorney stage, where every case seems like a (sometimes unwelcome) learning experience, everything will fall into place and feel much more natural. Eventually, it will become second nature and you can actually enjoy how fast-paced and interesting it can be!
AALM: What is something your colleagues would be surprised to learn about you?
CW: When I graduated from law school and was studying to take the bar exam, I wanted to work as an attorney for the JAG. I ran in the mornings with the Marines to train!
AALM: Anything else to add?
CW: In my free time, I love to cook, do yoga, hang out with my boyfriend, three cats, and four nieces and nephews, and travel. I have been to 11 countries; my favorite is a tie between Turkey and England.
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