NBTA Member Juggles American Practice with Life and Work in Greece
How can a full time practicing trial lawyer live and work in another county for five months and keep his litigation practice going? “That's what I agonized over," said John W. deGravelles, a partner in the Baton Rouge, Louisiana civil litigation firm of deGravelles, Palmintier, Holthaus and Fruge' and a member certified by NBTA as a civil trial advocate since October of 1995.
John W. deGravelles ( Civil , 1999) receives a Fulbrite scholarship to teach law school in Thessaloniki, Greece.
NBLSC Member Juggles American Practice with Life and Work in Greece
"When I received the Fulbright Scholarship to teach at the law school in Thessaloniki, Greece, I wanted badly to participate but knew that it would require a great deal of advanced planning along with the help and sacrifice of my staff and law partners."
DeGravelles was named a Fulbright Scholar in March of 2001 to teach international aspects of maritime law and lecture on the American judicial system at the University of Thessaloniki Aristotle School of Law during the fall semester of 2001 (September, 2001 through January, 2002). "That's when I really began to get serious in my planning," deGravelles said. "I knew that I would have to settle or continue any cases set for trial that my partners could not handle. I also knew that I would have to set in place a stable and efficient means for daily communication with my office."
"We've had him out of the office for several weeks at a time," said Jimmie Murvin, deGravelles' paralegal for over 20 years. "But for five months? It made us nervous!" DeGravelles developed s system of regular communication through Internet e-mail, daily phone conferences and an international cell phone for emergencies. "It worked great," said Jodi Fryoux, the legal assistant charged with deGravelles' calendar. "I would call Johnny every day and connect him with old and new clients, other lawyers and even court conferences. In some cases, they didn't even know he was calling from Greece."
"I could review and respond to my daily mail by phone dictation but important pleadings and correspondence were simply scanned and e-mailed for my review and response." deGravelles commented.
John and his wife Jan deGravelles found leaving the US in the wake of the events of September 11 very difficult. "Leaving your family for five months is difficult in the best of times," Jan deGravelles stated. "But after the terrorist attack, we wondered whether our place was here." "It was a hard decision," John said, "but especially considering the express goal of Fulbright to encourage international understanding and cooperation, we felt there was no better time to go."
Once there, deGravelles found that his work at the university was both exciting and rewarding. "The faculty and students at The University of Thessaloniki Law School are first rate," deGravelles stated. "It was a pleasure to be a part of it. I learned at least as much as I taught." deGravelles found students especially interested in the U.S. trial system. "It is ironic that although Greece is a birthplace of trial by jury, it is simply not used at all here in civil cases and has a very limited role in criminal cases. I found that, like in the U.S., there are many misconceptions about how our jury system works."
John and Jan lived in an apartment in central Thessaloniki, a city of some 1,500,000 people. "We have never lived in a big city, let alone one in another country," Jan said. "It was not practical to have a car and we soon learned the bus system and how to get around. We did a lot of walking too." The deGravelles tried to learn the language but found it difficult. "Learning Greek in a few months while you are teaching and running a law practice long distance is not a realistic goal. We learned a few phrases but thankfully, most people here speak English and we really had no problems." The students in deGravelles' class were post graduate students who were tested in English proficiency before being admitted to the program.
The deGravelles found the people in Greece warm and open. "They are a great people and while they don't mind engaging you in political discussions, they love Americans," deGravelles said. "We were treated with extreme kindness," Jan deGravelles stated. "We made life-long friends."
deGravelles' interest in juggling careers cam early. "Years ago, I realized that by broadening your activities beyond your firm and practice, you not only make life more interesting and enriching but you actually help your clients in the long run." In addition to a full time civil litigation practice focusing on maritime, medical malpractice, toxic tort and products liability, deGravelles is a member of the adjunct faculty at LSU Law School where he teaches Advanced Litigation and Tulane University Law School's summer program in Rhodes, Greece where he teaches Maritime Torts. "I became interested in Fulbright after talking to my friend Judge Steve Plotkin of the Louisiana Court of Appeal, Fourth Circuit, who was awarded a Fulbright to teach at the law school in Spohia, Bulgaria. Steve let me know that Fulbright Scholarships are given to practitioners as well as full time academics and he encouraged me to try."
deGravelles' first experiment with a "dual life" came in 1999 when he agreed to serve as a pro tempore judge of the Baton Rouge City Court to serve out the unexpired term of a retiring judge. "I knew that it would be a challenge to be judge, lawyer and teacher all at one time, but I decided to give it a try. It was hard but always interesting." DeGravelles is also a past president of the Louisiana Trial Lawyers Association (1992-1993), past president of The Louisiana Chapter of The American Board of Trial Advocates (1998) an a past member of the Board of Directors of American Trial Lawyer's Association (1999).
When asked about other outside activities, deGravelles said, "I do have time for hobbies, believe it or not. I live out my rock and roll want-a-be fantasy by playing guitar in a local band. I also love to jog." deGravelles' son Neale is a freshman at LSU Law School and his daughter Kate has just graduated from LSU and is in the process of applying to law school. "I think our kids have seen that practicing law can be fun and far reaching," deGravelles said.