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Last week I went to the graduation ceremonies at Hofstra University School of Law, and all of the graduation speeches got me to thinking about the audience for this column. A year ago at this time (or maybe a few years ago), most of you were wearing a cap and gown, and you were listening to graduation speeches that were inspiring, if not memorable. (Do you remember who spoke? Do you remember what they said?) Maybe it didn’t dawn on you then, but you will probably never wear another black robe unless you become a judge, and you will probably never hear another law school graduation speech unless your own kids one day graduate from law school. This might not concern you much, but maybe it should. Every few years you ought to get a new dose of fresh thoughts about how to be a better lawyer. Graduation speeches are ideally a source of inspiration, but at a minimum should serve as a kind of booster shot to ward off apathy and resignation. Since nobody else has volunteered for the job, I’ve decided to step up to the podium to say a few words. I present herewith my first post-graduation speech, which collects in one place the most useful things people have told me over the years about practicing law. Basically, I’m directing this speech to relatively new lawyers who are struggling to make a name for themselves in this rough budget-cutting economy. I’m especially addressing lawyers who want to carve out a reputation by taking their skills to the next level. How can you “graduate” to the next stage of your legal career? In a few short months, the law students who were wearing caps and gowns in recent weeks will become a new crop of first year associates, and the current first year associates will move on to become second year associates, and so on down the line. And as soon as that happens, your firm isn’t going to need you to do your old job anymore because somebody else will be taking your place. Your firm will be counting on you to take on more responsibility, show more initiative, and produce more sophisticated work than you have done up to now. You’ve got to move up or move out. Moving up in the world will require a quantum leap in your level of competence. How can you accomplish that? Here are a few ideas: • Learn all you can about each matter. You may be at the bottom of the totem pole, but try to see each assignment as if you were at the top. Don’t be satisfied just to find out the minimum you need to know to complete an assignment. A legal issue and a billing number will get the job done in the short run but won’t improve your skills in the long run. Find out as much as you can about each matter. If partners and senior associates don’t have time to tell you about a matter in the office, invite them out to discuss it over lunch. (Odds are they’ll wind up offering to pay the check anyway.) If they don’t have time for lunch, dig into the file on your own and read some of the key documents — things like pleadings, motions, and memos to the file in litigation, or draft contracts, letters of intent, and correspondence in transactions. The more you know about the matters you work on, the more you will understand how partners and other supervisory lawyers handle matters. You need learn that because one day you may be trying to make partner. • Act as if you’re the only lawyer on the case. After the Berlin Wall fell and East Germany united with West Germany, the former East Germans had a problem: They seldom showed initiative. They had gotten so used to doing only what they were told to do and nothing more that they had trouble fitting into an entrepreneurial western society. Don’t let that happen to you. You may think you are doing well because you follow instructions to the letter and complete your assignments competently, but now you have to graduate to a level where you take much more initiative. When you get a new assignment, act as if you’re the only lawyer on the case. Don’t just think about what the partner might want to hear. Think about how you would approach the assignment if there were no partner. Think about how your assignment fits into the big picture, how the results of your work will affect the case, what the next steps will be after you complete your assignment. • When you get a good idea, act on it. When I was a brand new associate at a large firm, a corner office partner assigned me to handle a civil rights claim on behalf of a prisoner. That weekend, I took my wife on a weekend vacation and realized we would be driving near the prison where my client was locked up. I decided to go visit him. I didn’t ask the partner’s permission, I just did it. When I got back to the office, the partner was very pleased. “Your initiative was perfect,” he said, and that favorable comment showed up in my next evaluation. I also remember the advice given to me by a more senior associate. He was a very self-confident kind of guy who had taken a year off after law school to travel around South America. While he was reviewing documents to help a partner prepare a motion, this guy came across the names of several third-party witnesses that he thought we should depose. Instead of going to the partner to ask what the partner thought, he drafted the subpoenas and document requests and took them to the partner, ready to go. That knocked the partner’s socks off, and this guy later became one of the leading young partners at the firm. “When you get a good idea,” he said, “just do it,” stomping his foot on the floor for emphasis. “When you tell the partner that you have an idea and you’ve already drafted the necessary documents, the partner knows that you know how to manage a case.” These lessons have stuck with me. When you get a good idea that goes beyond the strict bounds of your assignment, just do it. Get the papers ready to go, and then show them to the partner to get the necessary authority. Sure, it’s a risk — some partners don’t want you to lift a finger without their OK — but with most partners, showing initiative can pay off in a big way. • Always be courteous to the support staff. A lawyer who visited my class one day told us about a memorable experience she had during her clerkship with a federal judge. The judge’s secretary had to leave chambers for a few minutes to run an errand, so she asked the law clerks to “take care of the chambers” while she was out. The phone rang a few times while the secretary was gone but the law clerks did not answer it. When the secretary returned, she asked if there were any messages. “Oh, we didn’t answer the phone,” the law clerks said. “That’s not part of our job.” The secretary was furious and told the judge. The judge called the law clerks into his chambers and sat them down. “Listen,” said the judge, “law clerks stay here for a year and then move on. It’s easy to replace law clerks. But a good secretary may stay for a long time, and she’s hard to replace. From now on, when my secretary asks you for a small favor, you do it. Now go out and apologize to her and don’t let it happen again.” That’s just one example of the importance of getting along with members of the support staff. Secretaries may not have any discretion about what arguments to make in a brief or what clauses to include in a contract, but they have a lot of discretion about whose work to do first and how fast to do it. Make sure you are always polite to the support staff. If you’re rude to them, your work might stay on the bottom of the pile for a long time, and it’s hard to look competent when you miss a deadline. Congratulations on graduating to the next level in your legal career, whatever that may be. Just remember that you have to keep graduating every year, year after year. And that’s not just pomp and circumstance — that’s your job. Roy Simon is a professor of law and teaches legal ethics at Hofstra University School of Law.

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