When I started my legal career as a law clerk to a federal judge, I quickly became aware that the lawyers who appeared before federal judges in San Francisco all had reputations. Those reputations permeated the courthouse among judges, lawyers and court staff. Opinions regarding lawyers were discussed in the judges' dining room, the second-floor cafeteria, the clerk's office and all the neighborhood watering holes. As a result, when lawyers stepped into a federal courtroom, their reputations preceded them and impacted their effectiveness. The lawyers who had "good" reputations often got the benefit of a doubt; the ones with "bad" reputations faced more difficulty persuading decisionmakers that their arguments had merit.
Every lawyer faces the same challenge and opportunity when beginning a career. None of us start out with a reputation but all of us have one long before we retire. Each of us must work to establish a reputation as a practicing attorney. Hopefully you want to be known as an excellent lawyer who is honest, trustworthy and professional. To do so, you must start immediately in your interactions with everyone whose path you cross. Whatever reputation you establish will follow you throughout your career. Good or bad, it is tough to shake a reputation once you have it. And your reputation goes a long way in determining how successful, and more importantly, how satisfied you will be in your career as a lawyer.
It is important to realize that reputation is not based on self-perception but on other people's impressions and personal experiences. How do people feel about you? Every encounter you have with someone adds or subtracts from your reputation. From day one, you will deal with clients, colleagues, lawyers on the other side, judges, court staff, mediators, arbitrators, jurors, vendors and more. Each contributes to your reputation.
Here are five things to constantly keep in mind while developing and then protecting a good reputation.
1. Ignore the misconceptions about what it takes to be a good lawyer.
Clients retain lawyers to advise them on legal problems that often are adversarial in nature. Some lawyers think adversarial is synonymous with confrontational. It is not necessarily so. Adversarial simply means representing your client on one side of an issue where there is a lawyer on the other side protecting her client.
However, new lawyers often are told they have to be aggressive, tough and even fierce. They are warned "don't let people run over you, don't let people take advantage of you," and told "never give an inch" and "winning is everything." Overly aggressive lawyers take the easy and cynical way out. Being reasonable in solving a client's problems takes a great deal more effort and thought.
Clients appreciate attorneys keeping an eye on the end result, the appropriate resolution of their legal problems at a reasonable cost. When faced with a choice between a lawyer with the reputation of someone who will fight just for the sake of the fight or a lawyer who is considered reasonable and thoughtful, more clients than not will opt for the latter. If you think I am wrong, just ask a few of your clients.
2. Keep your word.
The legal business can be a tough one. We as lawyers serve as buffers between adverse parties, guiding them to reasonable business resolutions. In doing so, there are times in every case or deal when lawyers must rely on each other's word. Documents have to be delivered on time, witnesses have to be produced, extensions should be granted, compromises will be considered, schedules will be kept and more. If people don't keep their word, the process breaks down into a morass of accusations and hostile communications, along with a boatload of unnecessary legal expenses.
If you want to live a frustrating life as a lawyer, make promises easily and then fail to keep them. You will never achieve the gold standard for a reputation where an opposing lawyer characterizes you as: "She is really a good lawyer who always does a great job for her clients. And you can trust her when says she will do something." Instead, you will be at the other end of the spectrum: "Get it in writing; you can't trust a word she says."
3. Be accurate on the facts and the law.
As advocates, we apply facts to interpretations of existing law in the most persuasive manner possible. We do so to persuade decisionmakers to find in our client's favor. To be an effective advocate, the decisionmaker must have confidence that you are stating the facts and law correctly. Among decisionmakers (judges, mediators, arbitrators, referees and jurors) you must have a reputation that you can be trusted when you say something. Once you mislead a decisionmaker, you can never establish that trust. And that type of reputation is a disservice to your clients.
A law and motion judge in San Francisco once told me something very revealing. He said my law firm had such a good reputation for trustworthiness that he told his law clerks to read our briefs first. Our briefs were not always the most persuasive, but he told his staff they could be trusted for accurate presentation of the facts and citations to all the relevant law. That reputation was invaluable and based on the firm's insistence that its lawyers be ethical and accurate in their advocacy.
4. Admit when you are wrong.
During a legal career, everyone will make a mistake — misstate a crucial fact, fail to produce a relevant document or inadvertently mislead an opposing lawyer, a court or client. What you do when you make such a mistake defines you as a lawyer. Lawyers who immediately acknowledge an error (and do whatever they can to correct it) are respected. People are reassured they can trust what you say. Lawyers who try to cover up their mistakes rarely succeed in doing so. And when the truth comes out, reputations plummet.
5. Be a human being.
As a practicing lawyer, you need not check your humanity at the door. If you do, people will remember and make your life miserable (as you probably deserve). The practice of law is very stressful. The right balance of work and life is very hard to achieve. Everyone (clients, opposing lawyers, witnesses, experts, judges, staff) have issues in their lives that add to their stress. For example, everyone (including you!) has family members who get sick, funerals that take place, children who star as butterflies in school plays, pre-paid vacations, wedding anniversaries and other personal conflicts that arise with your other legal matters. Lawyers should accommodate each other when these things occur.
Lawyers who try to take tactical advantage of other people's conflicts or issues pay a heavy price. Sometimes, you will need a favor from a fellow lawyer. If you have the reputation of someone who gives no quarter and always tries to get something before you give something, good luck getting that favor. But if you provide professional courtesy, you take a huge step towards gaining the reputation we all strive for: "Tough lawyer but a good person that can be trusted to do the right thing."
All lawyers face the same issue. What do people in the legal community think of us? When dealing with a new face, people check us out. Lawyers call lawyers; clients call clients; judges even talk to other judges. Is he honest? Can you trust him? Is she a straight shooter? The answers to these questions are based on experiences that might be 20 years old or as fresh as last week. Your reputation often makes the difference in whether you are hired, whether a decisionmaker adopts your arguments or whether you get reciprocal professional courtesy from other lawyers. More importantly, the answers to these questions determine whether you are a true professional or merely someone who has a job.
Establish a good reputation and then protect it every day. Remember, you only have one.
Timothy J. Murphy, a trial lawyer for more than 40 years, is the managing partner of the San Francisco office of Fisher & Phillips, a national law firm that limits its practice to representing management in labor and employment matters. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.