My good friend Susan Cartier Liebel is hosting blawg review this Monday and she sent out a request that several bloggers post their advice to those who are new to the profession. So here is my take on the things every new lawyer needs to know.
Dear New Lawyer,
Welcome to the practice of law. The journey you have just begun is one of the most challenging you will ever undertake. However there are great rewards along the journey. Hopefully, law school taught you how to think like a lawyer. Now you will learn how to act like a lawyer. As a third year lawyer, I am not so far removed from where you sit that I do not understand what you are going through, so I will attempt to share with you a few lessons I've learned along the way.
1. Big law has its place, but it may not be the place for you.
I still remember feeling nearly worthless when October of my third year came around and no big firm had offered me a position. For three years l had focused so heavily on getting a job in big law that I allowed that to be the barometer of my worth. I never really thought critically about whether I really wanted the big law lifestyle. When I finally got the job I thought I wanted, I felt as though my existence had been validated. I was wrong; and what followed was the worst career experience of my life. I learned a great deal at the firm, but it simply was not a good fit for me. If you find you feel the same, do not hesitate to change your path.
2. Go to court and watch, listen and learn.
Make time to go to court and learn by watching what others do. You can learn so much by seeing how the process works. By watching you will learn how the good attorneys conduct themselves and how the court system works. You will also meet the judges and begin to form relationships that will help you when you do have cases set in court. Do it.
3. Read the rules, research the law and don’t assume that more experienced lawyers are correct.
One of the most important things you can learn as a young lawyer is that the experienced lawyer does not always win. A few months ago opposing counsel in a federal court case filed a motion to dismiss against my client. When I first read the motion I thought all was lost. It was well written. It cited to cases and I immediately thought that not only was the court going to grant the motion, the client was going to sue me for malpractice. Although I thought about just handing the deed to my house over to my client, I knew I had to respond to the motion even if it was a loser. So I started to dissect the brief. There were three issues largely rooted in confusing bankruptcy law. I pulled up the citations in the brief and realized that opposing counsel had misread the law completely on all three issues. I drafted my response, filed it and low and behold, the Court ruled in my favor.
4. Look and act like a lawyer at all times.
I am not telling you to go to the gym in a suit. What I am telling you is that as a lawyer you are held to a higher standard. What’s more, your image is a big part of your brand. Never forget that. You never know where you will meet your next client or who is watching you. It should go without saying but particularly when you are in the courthouse, be well dressed even if you do not think you will be encountering a judge. For attorneys of color and women it is particularly important to be mindful of this advice even if other lawyers take a dressed down approach.
5. Exude confidence around your clients, the court and other lawyers.
There is a difference between confidence and being pompous. Know the line between the two and never cross it. Understand that you have a place at the table no matter how new you are or what your background. Even if you are not actually confident in what you know, being confident in your demeanor will go a long way.
6. Only associate with reputable attorneys.
This was my first hard lesson. It is hard to know which attorneys to stay away from as a new lawyer. Never link yourself publicly with a lawyer who has a checkered past. Be particularly careful of attorneys who suggest that you bend ethical rules or laws. If you hear a lawyer saying “I know what the ethics rules say, but this is how it really works.” Proceed with caution. No. Run the other way.
7. Ask questions when you do not know.
No one will fault you for being a young lawyer. Everyone will fault you for being an arrogant, new lawyer who thinks that they know everything. Ask the stupid questions and don’t be afraid to admit you do not know. This advice is particularly helpful when dealing with court clerks, secretaries and paralegals, but will also gain you the respect of your clients and other lawyers.
8. Believe you can do it.
I know it seems like everybody else has some secret book with the answer key and you don’t. It may also seem like there is a great deal riding on your performance. You are right about that. Sometimes you may be so overwhelmed that it may seem like you are trying to drink from a fire hose. But the reality is that everyone in the room started out just as clueless as you did. Some of the people who have been practicing for years are still just as clueless as you are. Give yourself a break and understand that if you are a good lawyer you will probably learn something new every day for the rest of your career.
9. Be honest with people
Hopefully this one does not need an explanation.