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Florida Bar members discuss benefits of bringing their dog to work

For animal lovers, there is nothing like being welcomed home after a long day’s work by a dog wagging its tail at your feet. Dogs have assisted human beings for centuries, including protecting the homestead, hunting, and serving as loyal companions. Some Florida Bar members have created a bridge between home and office for their furry best friends, and are proud to bring their beloved canines to work.

Here are a few of their stories:

Pure Therapy
Aristotle’s only fault is that he counter-surfs. If you leave food in the kitchen, the standard parti-color poodle will find it. For animal lovers like Joel Feldman of Feldman and Schneiderman, P.L., in Boca Raton, that means you sometimes must hide meals in the microwave or the bread box when your back is turned. But for the small-firm lawyer, his beloved canine — who is a certified therapy dog — has unprecedented qualities that no human can emulate. Totle (which is the dog’s Yiddish pet name) reports to Feldman’s workplace to accomplish a worthy goal of his own: calming people down.

“He is a tremendous asset for my law firm. We are a boutique family law firm. About 95 percent of our cases are divorce and post-divorce related matters. First-time appointments are always nervous,” Feldman says. “Aristotle helps set a tone that we are sensitive to the emotional trauma of divorces and custody disputes. He helps show that we are compassionate and have lives outside the office.”

Sandy Foxs Daxx But Feldman notes Aristotle helps opposing counsel relax the most. “People naturally want to pet him,” he says. The sweet-natured animal enjoys having his paws rubbed, and when you stop, he’ll go lay down, and you wouldn’t know he’s there after that.

The 5 and ½-year-old poodle, in his quiet way, has helped “lower the temperature” on stress for five years, and Feldman has never had a problem or complaint. The intelligent dog will obediently walk off-leash beside his master, and is comfortable around children and older people. When Feldman’s mother was in a nursing home, Aristotle’s job was to interact with the elderly during social functions. For the wheelchair-bound, Aristotle is tall enough to rest his head on their laps to be petted. The working dog’s demeanor is appropriate for high-conflict situations at the law firm, unlike Feldman’s stay-at-home dachshund, who gets riled up easily at the sight of other dogs and barks at people on bicycles. During family-law mediations, Aristotle’s friendly presence alone is enough to keep people calm when there’s a lot of emotional overlay in addition to the legal issues.

“It helps that my office building is like a house,” Feldman says, adding the dog invariably becomes a topic of conversation, which helps build rapport among opposing counsel and clients. Just recently, a client working on a prenuptial agreement came to Feldman’s office accompanied by her papillon dog. And Aristotle often reminds the hardworking lawyer to leave his desk once in a while to get some exercise. For anyone who thinks dogs are better left at home, Feldman disagrees.

“I certainly don’t lose business because I have a dog in the office,” Feldman says, adding the hypoallergenic poodle keeps people with allergies at ease.

“One of the other plusses is that he’s fully trained on attorney-client privilege,” Feldman jokes. “He doesn’t tell anybody anything he hears at the office. He will never reveal anything.”

Queen of the Office
For longtime practicing lawyer Paul Labiner of Boca Raton, there are a few things he’s learned about managing a firm over the last 26-plus years, and one of them is this: “The energy and the love that a four-legged animal brings, whether to an office or a home, is just incredible,” he says.

Shayna Paul and Brandon Labiner “My office is truly an extension of my own home, so people feel comfortable. It doesn’t have to be this sterile environment that I grew up with in the legal profession.”

What makes Labiner’s office more inviting? A female Goldendoodle who sits on the stairs like the queen of the office, overlooking the day-to-day activities of a staff of 12. To everyone’s delight, Shayna — whose Hebrew name means “beautiful” — is always ready for walks with employees who require some fresh air and exercise.

“They all love her,” Labiner says. “They don’t even ask me, they just take her out, and I have no problem with it. I love the fact my personnel can have a little mental health break for themselves.”

The hypoallergenic office companion is the lawyer’s second goldendoodle after his first one, Roxy, passed away. Like Shayna, Roxy happily greeted clients.

“I find 99.9 percent of the time, most of the clients are comfortable and amenable to having a dog present,” Labiner explains. “There may have been one or two occasions when new clients weren’t enamored with animals, so I just put her away.”

Shayna usually can be found snoozing on the carpeted floors. When she’s not observing employees from the stairway, she finds a quiet spot to take a nap in Labiner’s office or that of his son, Brandon. Her calming presence eases the sort of tension that can build in workplaces.

“We live in a stressful environment and we have a stressful profession, so anything we can do to mitigate that — I think it’s helpful,” Labiner explains. The seasoned professional has watched the day-to-day practice of law become more business-casual in the workplace over the years, and says wearing suits and ties to the office every day has become passé.

He adds, “As attorneys, we certainly want to maintain a professional attitude, but what I’ve found is that if you make your office like your home, it’s much more inviting to clients, new and old.”

A Halloween to Remember
On Halloween night, Mary Nardi grabbed some candy and leashed up her parti-color poodle, Louie, for an evening at the office. She was expecting a high-stress client from out of town to hash out some details before trial the following day.

Mary Nardis Louie Going into divorce proceedings, the client was highly anxious and emotional. At the offices of Nardi and Nardi, P.A., in Maitland, he soon relaxed while interacting with Louie. On Nardi’s office floor, the client threw a ball for the young poodle and began reminiscing about the much-loved dog he shared with his wife, which she kept, during the dissolving marriage. He began thinking more rationally, and while crunching a few Halloween candies with Louie as a distraction, gradually started making decisions that were not based on fear or anger.

Meanwhile, a lightbulb went off in the lawyer’s head: Therapy dogs truly have a positive emotional impact. Nardi and her client settled the case before trial. Louie was in behavioral training at the time, but would become certified by the national Alliance of Therapy Dogs.

“I realized early on that he had a special knack or gift,” she says about her talented poodle. “The dog can go up to somebody and lean on them, and they feel that presence and that connection. It really seems to reduce their cortisol level, and allows them to use the executive function of their brain, which allows them to make decisions.

“He was present during a mediation last week, and the people loved it,” she adds. “They were very calm and were able to settle their case, and the attorney involved didn’t think they’d be able to.”

For more than 20 years in the legal profession, Nardi has observed that calm people can have rational conversations. Louie is trained to help people get to that point. He sits next to whoever needs him the most, Nardi explained.

One of Nardi’s clients, who appears to suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome, was sitting through a three-hour settlement conference when she began to break down. The tears started flowing, and under the table, Louie lay on the distressed woman’s feet as though “grounding her.” Nardi, who is the vice president of Companions for Courage — a nonprofit organization comprised of volunteers who use therapy animals to comfort children in courtrooms — says her dog isn’t “just any dog.” He has credentials. When he’s not working, Louie can be found on her office floor taking a nap. But he has a good nose. He usually knows who has food, and may wander into the halls if someone is having lunch at their desk. The poodle is introduced to visitors at her law firm slowly, and for anyone with a fear of dogs, Louie goes into the back room with the door shut.

When it comes to stressed-out lawyers, Nardi is on board with the Bar’s effort to help lawyers nurture their own personal wellness.

“Attorneys are under a lot of stress. I know that other mental health issues — addiction issues — are a problem in our profession, and raising awareness is the first step in helping with that,” she asserts. “I think it’s a positive thing for the Bar to be vocal about it, and make sure lawyers know it’s OK to get help.”

Chiweenie Greetings
Roy Alterman of the Office of Roy Alterman, P.A., in Palm Bay, has two horses, three big dogs, and two cats at his house.

Roy Alterman and Marley But when he comes to work in the morning, his paralegal’s chiweenie is all set to put in a day’s work as the greeting committee at the front door. At Alterman’s elder law practice, a little bell rings at the entrance when clients arrive. The little dog quietly runs out to welcome them, and people often say, “Oh, look at the cute little dog!” Most clients are in their 60s to late 90s, from all nationalities, and 99 percent have a positive reaction to the diminutive canine — who has the habit of jumping into people’s laps without an invitation.

Marley, the long-haired Chihuahua/dachshund mix, has been reporting to work with her master, Karen Greeley, since she was 7 weeks old. At only 8 lbs., the cheerful animal has an influence on stress reduction, Alterman says.

“A lot of clients come here for trust administration or probate after their family members die. They come in pretty depressed,” Alterman explains. “And then the little dog greets them, and jumps up in their lap, gives them a little lick in the face. Their frowns go to smiles. And they’re OK when they’re here. It changes a lot of people’s short-term perspective, or their mood, you know?”

From the waiting room, Alterman leads clients into a conference room for an interview. They close the doors. Many times, the dog comes in with them, and sits in either the client’s lap or sits in a chair next to the lawyer. Mostly, she picks the chair she wants. Sometimes curls up. Sometimes sits up and looks over the table like a client.

“Things are serious in a law office, but she takes the edge off a lot,” Alterman observes. The attorney has been practicing since 1999, and once worked in a Ft. Lauderdale law firm in which a cat resided. Litigation is stressful and the atmosphere can be tense — with everyone taking their work and themselves very seriously. During meetings, the cat would enter the room and stroll by in its nonchalant, slow, relaxed manner.

“And the room would just let out a sigh of relief,” Alterman says, adding Marley seems to have the same effect.

Greeley’s lighthearted furry friend has one quirk: going through women’s handbags if they are left on the floor. If someone finds the dog distracting during a meeting, Greeley will whisk Marley away. However, Alterman ran a poll among his clients to make sure having a dog in the office was acceptable, and 97 percent agreed it was. For any lawyer considering adding a canine companion into the folds of their law practices, Alterman says it’s healthy for staff to get a break and take the dog out for short walks. But maybe it’s not for everybody, Alterman suggests, except for boutique firms like his.

“Anything that improves your quality of life that doesn’t disturb your practice is a positive. It does change your demeanor or the tenor in your voice a lot to see this little, tiny thing. If it was a big dog, I suppose it wouldn’t make much difference,” Alterman says.

After considering the value of having a dog in the workplace, Alterman adds, “There’s a peace in their eyes that makes you think much differently.”

Source: The Florida Bar News