After passing the bar exam, new lawyers probably don’t want (more) unsolicited advice—but it might be what they need. In more than 20 years writing about the legal profession, I’ve seen countless ways attorneys make mistakes. I’ve seen just as many examples of how they’ve succeeded.
For the third year in a row, we asked experienced members of the bar to offer their thoughts to rookie lawyers. This year’s batch includes sage thoughts about humility, fees, more humility, mentors, hard work, diversity, telling the truth, finding a job, saying yes to requests for help, saying no to others—and a little more humility. We hope you find it useful.
You’re Going to Fail.
You just passed what may have felt like the biggest test of your life, but at some point you will fall short as an attorney. You may not connect with a client in an important way. Your argument may fall flat before the court, or opposing counsel may show you why we are all “practicing” law. All of those things may happen in the same case, on the same day. Every attorney has been brought back to earth at some point or another. The key is what you do next.
I hope whatever your story of “failure” is, it serves to make you better.
A few years ago I tried a case in a remote part of the state. My client and I were the only people in the courtroom who didn’t know everyone else. I lost—in every way. My objections were overruled, my arguments fell on deaf ears and ultimately the plaintiff received everything she requested from the court. I was livid. On the way home, I called my mother, my friends and everyone else I could think of to vent.
About a year later, I went to the same county and a jury did exactly what I asked them to do. By that time, however, I’d realized my worth wasn’t tied up in my verdict. I was certainly happy about the outcome, but it didn’t warrant calling all of my contacts to announce my victory. I didn’t let the ghosts of trials past overwhelm my thoughts and actions when I returned. It wasn’t in my or my client’s interest to let that baggage affect my conduct going forward.
As much as we try, none of us are perfect. Please keep that in mind every step of the way on this new journey. Just because you are an attorney does not mean you have all of the answers. You may find the people who know the most about navigating the turbulent waters of your first few years of practice don’t have the largest offices. They may work in an interior cubicle but have a relationship with the person in the clerk’s office of the remote courthouse where you need to file an answer by the end of the day. People who work to support you behind the scenes are often worth their weight in gold. Treat them accordingly. They can help you avoid pitfalls you would otherwise encounter. Most of all, be humble. You haven’t made it this far without the support and encouragement of lots of people; you will continue to need others to become the best attorney you can be.
When you make mistakes, own up to them. See above: you are not, and do not have to be, perfect. Most of us who have been in this profession for any length of time can point to someone they know who lost their job not because of making a mistake, but trying hide the fact they made one.
You’ll never forget those hard-learned lessons. You may end up becoming an expert in the area in which you initially failed. It’s also possible what you perceive initially as a failure ends up taking you to a good place you never expected. You’ve already taken the first step by passing the bar. I’ve found my place in this profession and I’m confident and you will as well.
Bianca Motley Broom, Miles Mediation and Arbitration Services
You Know Nothing.
Congratulations! You’ve worked hard for several years to earn your degree and pass the bar. You’re a member of a (still) vaunted and esteemed profession. We are proud to have you with us. Now comes the hard part—practice. The practice of law is ever-changing, puzzling, frustrating, and satisfying in equal measure. Below are a few things I wish I’d known when I started.
1) Know what you don’t know: I think Socrates opined that he was the smartest man in Athens because he knew what he did not know. That’s your job now. Be humble enough to realize you’re brand new to the profession, and even if you were top of your class, you know nothing. Ask questions and be curious. Then ask more questions.
2) Read, Read, Read: You’ve been to law school, and you’re a good reader. The reading never ends. Law is always changing, and your job is to be on top of those changes. Subscribe to legal daily reports, read substantive articles about your practice area, and even peruse legal social media. Point being—your job is to know more than your client, and to do that, you need to read all the time.
3) Be Kind: Lawyers have a reputation (probably deserved in some instances) of being mean and nasty. And some are. But you need not be. You’re a member of a profession now, so act like it. Be kind to other practitioners, to judges, to your support staff, to clerks, to administrators, and to each other. Being a lawyer is hard enough; you don’t need to make it worse by being a jerk.
Good luck. Work hard. Be humble. You’ll be great.
Cary Burke, Polsinelli
Law Is a Service Profession.
As a lawyer, you thus must meet the needs of your clients and you must promote the legal profession. Sounds easy enough, but I encourage you to stretch yourself to optimize your service to your clients and to the profession.
Your clients come to you with their problems, and they need your expert help. You owe them an honest appraisal of the situation and a sound proposal for a solution, if available. If no solution is available, you must compassionately explain that to your client, which is often harder than proposing a solution. You also have an obligation to give your client a reasonable estimate of the cost of your proposed solution. If the problem is beyond your grasp, you also have an obligation to send your client or prospective client to someone else with the necessary skills. In other words, give them what you would want if you were in their position.
As a professional, you have an obligation to treat your clients, your colleagues, and other lawyers respectfully. You also have an obligation to train others within the profession. To this end, make time for young attorneys and make time for people that have questions. These interactions will make you smarter and more relevant.
As you move through your long and meaningful career of service, you must understand that your progress will not always be linear, predictable, or even fair. You will, almost undoubtedly, experience twists and turns along the way. You may make a mistake or lose a big case. Always own your mistakes and make sure you learn what you can from the negative experiences.
You may also miss a promotion despite doing everything right, or you may witness your colleagues experience such inequities. These types of setbacks happen. They unfortunately happen with more frequency to women and minority attorneys. You must take these setbacks in stride but you must also recognize and call out the inequities in a productive way. Watch your own biases and help others recognize their own. Try to surround yourself with attorneys who think, look, act, and feel differently than you. Although you may be very comfortable working with people of the same race, gender, and socioeconomic background as you, this comfort will limit your field of vision and will limit your ability to influence bias within the profession.
In summary, stretch to be of service every day of your career. Stretch to learn from your own career setbacks. Stretch to recognize your own bias and the bias within the profession. If you do these things, you will do well, even if a few twists and turns in your legal career are inevitable, and you will make the legal profession better.
Tina McKeon, Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton
Think About Fees, the Truth and Your Family.
Although there will be many erudite and very philosophic suggestions made to new lawyers, here are some more practical recommendations for the newly-minted attorney who will not become an associate at a firm.
Don’t be afraid to just hang out a shingle and start from scratch. Many very successful lawyers have done just that.
Three essential volumes for new lawyers out there on their own are these: Davis and Shulman’s “Civil Practice,” Daniel’s “Criminal Trial Practice” and McConaughey’s “Divorce, Alimony and Child Custody.”
Never be afraid or embarrassed to ask another lawyer how he or she would do something. All good lawyers will help other lawyers, no matter the length of time the inquiring lawyer has been in practice.
Not all judges passed the bar exam on the first try.
Always get a fee agreement in writing, and make it clear what you are agreeing to do and for what fee.
The retainer you receive will often be the only fee you will get. Adjust accordingly.
Don’t be afraid to turn down a legal matter if it just doesn’t feel right, but don’t turn away difficult cases just because the matter is new to you, novel or complex. You learn a lot from experience, win or lose.
Not all clients will tell you the truth. Unfortunately, that’s also true of some lawyers. It’s important that you not be one of the latter.
When things are slow or when you can make time, check the websites and go watch oral arguments in the Georgia appellate courts. Again, you will learn a great deal from experience, even if it’s someone else’s experience.
Join the local bar association, and while you’re at it, join the Chamber of Commerce. It’s meant for people who want to grow a business—and the private practice of law is most certainly a business.
When the case is done, write the client a letter to say, “Thank you for choosing me as your attorney.” Goodwill doesn’t grow on trees.
Don’t neglect your family just to make money.
Dick Donovan, District Attorney, Paulding Judicial Circuit
Switch From ‘Student’ to ‘Viable Job Candidate.’
Finishing law school and passing the bar are both huge accomplishments. You should be very proud of yourself. Now, however, the next major challenge is putting yourself out there and finding the right job for your interests and skill set. As you begin to network with your peers, remember that many of them still think of you as being in the “law school” box. In their minds, you are still a student who is attending classes and worried about final exams. So, it is important to re-define your identity as a legal professional. Make sure you continue to stress 1) what type of law you are interested in, and 2) the legal environment in which you want to work. Make your professional intentions clear! That way, your peers will stop thinking of you as a “student” and begin to consider you as a “viable job candidate.”
Megan Hodgkiss, Hodgkiss Consulting
Work Hard and Say Yes—a Lot.
Learning the substantive law in your specific field can seem daunting enough. Add learning how to navigate the firm structure—while probably tackling billable hour expectations—and you may feel in over your head. Rest assured that every young attorney once felt this way.
Here is a partial list of tips that will help you succeed and help your firm succeed as well—goals you’ll find go together.
(1) Get in early and stay late. When partners see you before and after regular hours and on the weekends, they know you care enough to do the best work possible.
(2) Keep your partner/senior attorney updated on your projects. When you are busy, it is easy to get lost with your head down and forget to communicate with your higher-ups. It is essential to keep them updated—especially when their immediate attention is needed.
(3) Think outside the box, and go beyond your assignment. If you are asked to write a motion or brief, and you come across a new theory that should be propounded to the court, by all means speak up. Be creative.
(4) Proofread, proofread, proofread. This cannot be overstated. If you give a senior attorney work product which is full of typos or errors, he or she will not trust you with bigger projects.
(5) The Golden Rule. Treat the firm staff, other attorneys, and all others you encounter with respect. Take an interest in your coworkers and those who work for you. Not only is this the right thing, it will make your career much more enjoyable. This rule includes opposing counsel.
(6) Give back to your community. It’s important to see beyond the almighty billable hour. Beyond making our profession more fulfilling, this again will set you apart to the senior attorneys and partners as someone who sees the big picture.
(7) Take on extra duties or roles when asked—and even not when asked. Say yes to requests—and when you see a need to be tackled, volunteer to handle it. These will come back to you tenfold and, again, will show those supervising you that you are a team player, and one looking out for the success of the firm.
(8) Keep your word, say you’re sorry when necessary, and admit to mistakes. Stay organized and on task so that you deliver your work as promised. When life or litigation emergencies get in the way, speak up soon and apologize if needed. (This excludes certain assignments, of course, such as answers or motions; those have deadlines that cannot be negotiated).
Immediately divulge a mistake. You will learn that, mercifully, there are but a few mistakes that cannot be fixed. You will also be pleasantly surprised that what you think is an emergency may very well not be.
(9) Know the value of client interaction. If you are entrusted to interact with clients, treat it as an invaluable gift. Learn about how your clients prefer to communicate, and check with the lead attorney before directly engaging with clients, unless specifically instructed otherwise.
(10) Know when to ask questions. Even if you’re so overwhelmed that you don’t know what questions to ask, it’s important to speak up and ask for some guidance. Be conscientious of others’ time and their commitments, and perhaps ask to set aside 10 to 15 minutes during someone’s day. Rest assured that the supervising attorney will appreciate your initiative in fully understanding the assignment so that the best possible product will result.
Lindsay A. Forlines, with W. Dan McGrew, Weathington McGrew
Beware of Taking Everything That Comes in the Door.
For almost every new attorney, the first year of practice is defined by a litany of new and stressful situations. Opportunities for genuine collaboration and confidence-building experiences may often seem few and far between.
There is a great way, however, for new associates to put those experiences to good use: be intentional about your professional development. Instead of allowing the challenges to overwhelm or discourage you, treat those situations as an opportunity to grow. It is never too early, even as a first-year attorney, to start setting goals that will move you closer towards your career aspirations. In addition to building upon your legal skills, consider setting goals in a range of development areas, such as practice management, community involvement, client care, and the business of law.
If you plan on starting your own practice, be mindful of the cases you take. You may feel like you cannot or should not turn away any business—but to take everything that comes through the door is a mistake. The wrong cases can sink you both time-wise and financially. If you need help in your practice, you can always reach out and co-counsel with more senior attorneys; but remember, no one will want to waste their time on a bad case.
Every stage of your career, not just your first year of practice, will pose new and difficult challenges. But if you approach those experiences with clear and strong intentions, you will develop the kind of success-conscious mindset that will serve you well throughout your legal career. The definition of success in the law is having a practice that is professionally, financially, and personally fulfilling. You have the opportunity to serve the type of clients you enjoy while having a balanced personal life.
Jennifer Gore-Cuthbert, The Atlanta Personal Injury Law Group
Drew Amoroso, How to Be An Invaluable Associate Program
Don’t Be Afraid to Ask Questions.
If you are working in a firm, in addition to asking questions of the attorney you are working for, ask the secretaries and paralegals questions. They may not be attorneys, but they know which case file has a similar pleading and are happy to share their institutional knowledge with someone who recognizes their skills and respects them.
If you are going solo, you will be surprised and delighted by how many attorneys are willing to answer your questions kindly and thoroughly. When I was first starting out here in Georgia, I would ask attorneys I knew questions. Because I didn’t know that many attorneys, the answer was often that I should speak with some other person. I called and emailed many, many attorneys with a message that started out, “So and so suggested I talk to you.” The vast majority of these wonderful men and women took the time to talk to an unknown young attorney and give detailed advice. I may have been a bother, but they didn’t make me feel that way.
Surprisingly soon you will find yourself able to answer questions for others. Then remember all the wonderful people who helped you and take the time to answer someone else’s question. Answer it even when you are busy. Answer it even when it is the third question in a row. There is a wonderful tradition of lawyers helping other lawyers and it is worth being part of.
Sarah E. Siedentopf, The Law Offices of Sarah Siedentopf
Hope Your Firm Reclaims the Lost Art of Mentoring.
It seems like only yesterday, in October 1998 (before the internet, if you can believe it), I (Christine) nervously walked up to the Louisiana Supreme Court’s doors in New Orleans to see if I passed the bar exam. Talk about pressure! If you passed, which I did, you then went back to your firm, gave them the good news and were sent to celebrate in the French Quarter for the rest of the day. What a great tradition!
Traditions—the practice of law is steeped in them. But it seems that the tradition of mentoring junior attorneys with “hands on” experience has gone by the wayside due to the financial constraints of late. As we welcome the 2017 class of attorneys to the Georgia bar, we seasoned members should be mindful that we play a critical role in the professional development and retention of our junior attorneys.
Similar to most relationships involving human beings, developing a mentor-mentee relationship is not an easy task. Although larger national firms have organized programs, for most of us it comes down to the relationships we build with junior attorneys throughout the course of our practice.
The word on the streets of Atlanta (and I am sure elsewhere in Georgia) from junior associates is that they want the opportunity to handle more responsibility, but the attorneys they are working for are handling the “good stuff” on their own because the task will not support billing for two lawyers. While all attorneys should appreciate the necessity for efficient billing, we still need to make a concerted effort to develop well rounded associates.
All this comes down to really is common sense—take the time to talk with your associates or junior counsel, hold them accountable for successes and failures, and provide them meaningful opportunities to mature and feedback on the same.
For example, in litigation, allow your associate to assist on the case from start to finish to foster accountability and responsibility. Allow associates to participate in calls with clients so that they can learn effective techniques in communicating with clients. If you have depositions in your cases, allow your associate to attend (even if you cannot bill for it) and, when the timing is right, have them defend or take a deposition. In smaller litigation matters, the facts are the facts—thus, a deposition is an excellent opportunity for a young lawyer to spread his or her wings. If you have an arbitration or a trial, do not let your associate sit on the sidelines—let them participate and take a witness.
Associates should also participate in preparing budgets and billing so they can learn the business side of the practice of law. Although a client might not always read your work product, you can rest assured they will read your bills. Teaching associates early on that the practice of law is essentially akin to running your own business benefits all parties.
Yes, it undoubtedly takes more time and effort to take such a pro-active approach and it is not always successful. However, when you find that associate that always has your back and you have theirs it is truly a special bond.
Christine Tenley and Nina Maja Bergmar, Stites & Harbison