October/November 2015: Welcome, New Lawyers!
We welcome our newly licensed attorneys to the practice of law! The swearing-in ceremonies remind me of how it felt to be a new lawyer and the value of good mentors and advice. The transition from law school to lawyer is a big change for most. Now begins learning the art of the billable hour, office etiquette, case management, handling clients and handling other lawyers. With that in mind, I offer some of my favorite advice through the years to our newest lawyers, and some reminders to the rest of us.
. Yes, of course, you expect to be told to work hard. But you should work hard strategically. Be available for that horrible assignment from the assigning partner on a Friday night. It’s not great for your family life, but you won’t have to do it every Friday night, and it comes with the territory. Make sure people know you “stepped up” and know, subtly, how hard you are working. People notice. People remember. It doesn’t hurt to send emails in the middle of the night.
But Don’t Work Too Hard
. On the other hand, there is always more work you can do. You can always have more assignments piled on your plate. If you let yourself get truly overworked, you invite mistakes, missed deadlines, dropped balls and other problems. People will remember those screw-ups much more than all the hours you worked. So once you have bitten off a good amount of work, try not to bite off more — even though it’s always available, absent a financial crisis. Then focus on doing a really great job, on time, on the assignments you’ve undertaken.
Understand What They Want
. When you get an assignment, pay attention from the very beginning. Bring a notepad and take notes. Understand what your supervisor wants you to do, and how your supervisor wants you to present that work product. You don’t want to find that you’ve wasted a lot of time producing something that’s not what they want. You look bad that way, and you cause time crunches, emergencies and billing write-offs. If you aren’t sure what your supervisor wants, ask him/her. But try to collect all your questions at once rather than bombard your supervisor with a series of emails.
Escape from Email
. You’re in an office. You can still walk down the hall and talk to someone. Do it. This will enhance the quality of your interactions, help you learn more, and build relationships that will ultimately help you. You might even have a conversation with someone and learn something that wasn’t exactly what you expected.
. Lawyers are supposed to know law and know how to find answers to legal questions. Those skills atrophy in legal practice, replaced by a general tendency to use online searches to answer every question. Don’t let that happen. When legal questions arise, approach them as a lawyer. Get legal answers through legal research. You will learn far more than those answers. It’s one of the best ways to develop your knowledge and legal skills.
. You are always being evaluated. Behave accordingly. Dress the part. Don’t do silly things generally. Everything you do or say can and will be used against you.
. Interact with everyone in a way that builds your personal brand. For that purpose, “everyone” starts with your secretary and the bicycle messenger delivering your dinner. It also includes your colleagues, paralegals and junior associates who might report to you, the partners who assign you work, and opposing counsel. Don’t complain. Don’t have fits. Don’t whine. Eventually, you develop a persona — an image and a perception of who you are — within the firm and even within the larger practice and business world. Your persona consists of the accumulated effect of all the interactions with everyone you’ve met. And once you establish your persona, it travels through walls and doesn’t go away. Once the world perceives you as negative or a whiner or “difficult,” it’s very hard to change that. Don’t let it happen in the first place. (Footnote 1)
Find a Mentor
. Law firms have mentor programs. The Louisiana State Bar Association also has a mentor program. There are many reasons to have a mentor: to learn from another’s experience (sometimes mistakes), to seek advice, to learn the unwritten rules of being a lawyer, to have a sounding board of ideas, and to see it done before you have to do it on your own. Take time to find a mentor and start building a relationship that will affect, for the better, the rest of your career.
Finally, be diligent, ethical, continue to learn, communicate regularly with your clients and you will do fine in your new role as a new lawyer. Congratulations on your tremendous accomplishment. Welcome to the Bar and good luck!
1. Joshua Stein (Oct. 5, 2012), “From the Career Files: A Dozen Suggestions for New Lawyers” [web log post], http://abovethelaw.com/2012/10/from-the-career-files-a-dozen-suggestions-for-new-lawyers/