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It’s graduation season — time for third-year law students to don caps and gowns, grudgingly pose for camera-toting relatives, and celebrate never, ever having to take another class — at least until their bar course begins. In the unlikely event that I’m asked to deliver a commencement speech, I offer these words of advice: Ladies and gentlemen of the class of 2000: You probably think you’ve got it made. You’ve landed a job at a firm that pays six figures, plus a generous bonus. You have a big summer stipend, and your bar course and moving expenses are paid for. What more could you want? A good watch. If I could offer you only one tip for the future, a good watch would be it. Once you start, you’ll be judged on how many hours you give to the firm and its clients. The partners you report to will know whether your work product is garbage, but to everyone else you’ll just be a number on the associate billing reports that circulate within the partnership every month. So don’t shortchange yourself with a watch that might run fast or stop suddenly. A bad timepiece could jeopardize your career. Enjoy the beauty of your youth. After several years with the firm, your mirror will reflect a flabby middle, a pallid complexion, and dark circles under the eyes. Then you’ll see old photos of yourself and recall how great you once looked. Don’t worry about your future with the firm. You might make partner if you toil long hours and offer great sacrifices, but then again, you might not. Worrying about the brass ring is as effective as trying to answer a Fed Courts exam question by chewing your pen. Some things are just beyond your control. Do one thing every month that scares you — like appearing in court or giving a presentation to a group of prospective clients. Don’t be reckless with your time sheets. Some creative billing is necessary and expected, but don’t get carried away. Keep track of court deadlines. If you don’t have an ailing grandmother, invent one. You never know when you’ll need a good excuse to get away. Don’t waste your time fretting that other associates get better assignments. Sometimes you’ll be handed more interesting work; other times, you’ll be stuck with tedious tasks far beneath you. Some day you’ll get to delegate, too. Before then, your idealism will become a distant memory. You’ll moan to yourself, “Isn’t there more to life? Shouldn’t I be helping real people?” That’s when it’s time to do pro bono. Keep up with at least one popular TV show about lawyers, such as “Law & Order,” “Ally McBeal,” or “The Practice.” It will give you something to chat about at cocktail parties. Treasure the rare compliments you receive for your assignments. Don’t feel insulted when a partner drenches your writing with a hundred red-ink edits. Don’t get mad when a partner or opposing counsel is condescending. It’s part of the natural pecking order. Your day to act like a jerk will come. Proofread everything. Keep copies of memorandums and e-mail about your assignments. You never know when a partner might scold you for failing to do something that he thought he told you to do. Don’t feel like a failure if you eventually decide that you don’t want to spend the rest of your life at a big firm. Making partner is not the only way to succeed with a law degree. There’s always the Supreme Court. Respect your elders — particularly those on the management committee. Be kind to your back. If the firm will not provide you with a good office chair, buy one yourself. Your back is worth more than any sweat bonus you’ll ever receive. Stay in touch with the friends you had before law school. Force yourself to get out and meet new people — or else you’ll wind up married to a lawyer who’s never free for dinner. Don’t be smug about what you’ve achieved. You may have a high-paying job with a prestigious firm, but that doesn’t mean you actually know anything. Use mouthwash. No one likes coffee breath. Develop a hobby, like skydiving, mountain biking, or square dancing. It’ll distinguish you from your peers and provide an excuse to leave the office early. Read the legal employment ads, even when you’re not looking for a new job. It’s always good to have options. Be nice to your support staff, even when they infuriate you. They know a lot more than you think. And they put up with a lot of aggravation, too — for a lot less money. Refrain from legalese like “heretofore,” “pursuant,” and “above referenced.” Don’t use 60 words when six will do. Burn your dictaphone. Much bad legal writing can be attributed to the repetitive stream-of-consciousness ramblings that are spawned by dictation. Frame some good pictures of your parents, siblings, and significant other. As of September, you never know when you’ll see them again. Be civil to your fellow associates. They’re the only ones who really know what you’re going through. And they’re far more likely than your significant other to sympathize with your griping. Live within your means. Don’t let a big mortgage or credit card debt shackle you to a job you hate. Run off and join the circus. Or take your kids to see it. At least once, gulp hard and say no when someone asks you to stay late to complete a project that can really wait for the next morning. If you don’t set limits, they’ll walk all over you. Wear sensible shoes. Or better yet, wear sneakers and change at the office. You don’t have to work in New York, Silicon Valley, or Washington, D.C., to succeed. If you consider the cost of living, associate salaries go much further in Cleveland and Houston. Accept certain inalienable truths: The legal profession will become less collegial. Clients will squawk about their bills. There will always be lawyer jokes. You will get old. And when you do, you’ll fondly remember how glorious the profession once was and how attorneys treated each other with the utmost respect. One final piece of advice — don’t buy sunscreen. You won’t need it. Most of you won’t have time to venture outside during daylight hours. Besides, a tan is a sure sign that you’re not working hard enough. Ted Allen is associate legal editor at Legal Times . He acknowledges that he has borrowed heavily from Mary Schmich’s famous June 1997 “sunscreen” column in the Chicago Tribune , which later was circulated on the Internet and misidentified as a commencement speech by Kurt Vonnegut.

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