As a young partner at a law firm, I have had many positive mentoring experiences, both as a mentor and mentee. I have benefitted learning from more experienced lawyers and have tried to pass along what I have learned for the benefit of my firm and profession. It can be a challenge learning to be both a good lawyer and a happy lawyer.
While being good at what you do is critically important for personal and shared success, it is at least as important to enjoy what you do and have those around you share in that enjoyment. These things enhance the workplace culture, which in turn allows a firm to attract and retain talent, which in turn builds on itself like a rolling snowball. For this to work well, mentoring is critical. In this vein, the following are some of the most important lessons I have learned and have tried to pass along.
1. Constructively Learn from Your Mistakes
Lawyers make mistakes. We are only human. As a young lawyer, it is important that you put your mistakes in the proper perspective when they happen. Maintaining the right perspective can be difficult while you are still gaining experience. The key is that you have to be careful to neither beat yourself up too much or too little.
You need to have a little of what I call a “pucker factor,” a sense that the mistake matters and appropriate concern for the fact a mistake was made. If you do not have at least that, then you don’t care enough about your work. Too much of a care-free attitude as a lawyer makes you a liability to your firm and your clients.
At the other end of the spectrum is too much self-loathing over your mistakes. Being too caught up in your own mistake is dangerous because it can be paralyzing. Life and law moves on, and you have to be able to put your mistakes behind you. But before you put it behind you, learn from it to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Taking the time to learn from your mistakes is critical in order to avoid repeating them. Obviously, making a one-time mistake is much preferable to making a habit out of it. Making checklists from your mistakes is a great way to make sure you do not repeat them.
As you get to be a more senior lawyer, it becomes important to keep the mistakes of other more junior lawyers in a similar perspective, differentiating between first time mistakes and patterns of mistakes. Then treat each accordingly as you begin to manage and mentor younger lawyers yourself.
2. Run Toward a Fire, not Away From it.
There are generally two kinds of lawyers. Those that will run towards a fire and help you put it out, and those that will run away out of fear of getting burned. One of the best reputations to have as a lawyer is that of a firefighter, someone who is willing to jump into any situation and help solve a client’s problem. Regularly making excuses for why you cannot help severely limits your ability to develop as a lawyer. You miss out on opportunities to learn new skills and on opportunities to forge relationships of trust both in your firm and with your clients. Getting those opportunities starts with a willingness to dig in and be at least a little fearless as a lawyer.
3. KNOW When AND HOW TO CritiquE
Excellent critical thinking is a defining skill for lawyers. Most of law school is designed to foster that skill, and great young lawyers are critical thinking machines. However, while critiquing and analyzing ideas is one thing, critiquing people is something quite different. It is important to understand the difference and to be careful before you turn your critical thinking machine on another person. The art of politely providing personal critiques in not something law schools spend nearly as much time on, and the result is a bevy of antisocial lawyers.
The simplest solution to avoid using your critical thinking skills on your hapless colleagues is to learn to bite your tongue. Not all critiques need to be voiced. If it is something being offered merely to look smart, it can be foregone for civility. But this solution only gets you so far because critiquing other lawyers in the form of constructive feedback is actually part of the job.
For that, I recommend the “praise sandwich.” That is what an old friend called it, and it’s also a rather simple approach. If you are going to critique someone, you first say something positive, then provide your critique, and then finish with again something positive. See what I did there? Ok, it’s not revolutionary nor a panacea, but it works. Using positive feedback together with the constructive feedback makes the negative seem more even-handed and less harsh. You know, more civil. For example, “Good job turning the draft brief around so quickly. Next time, please make sure you proof it a little more thoroughly. It had a few too many typos. It’s a good brief though. Thanks.” The goal here is to not be a jerk, while also not being passive aggressive by always avoiding constructive feedback.
4. Don’t Just Identify Problems, Offer Solutions
As a lawyer, you get paid to worry about other people’s problems. As you worry, you identify problems, which is the basic issue-spotting skill we all learned in law school. But, it should never stop there. Regardless of whether you spot an issue for a client or for the law partners you work for, each time you need to be giving your opinion by offering a solution and recommended course of action.
It is important to remember that you get paid for your opinion so you need to offer it, even if someone disagrees with you. Being afraid that you will be disagreed with by someone more experienced should never prevent you from offering it. Often the more junior attorney is closer to facts because of document review and closer to the law from fresh legal research. This can make your opinion quite valuable.
Of course, you also need to know when to stop pushing your opinion. The rule of thumb that I was taught was to not press it more than three times with a more senior attorney. At some point, you have to cede to experience, and if you cannot convince someone of your position the first three times, you will not on the fourth or fifth time. At that point, you are better served conceding the point and moving on to the next issue.
These are all lessons that I have learned from my various mentors and ones which I try to pass along. Each of them are important to becoming a better lawyer and to building a better environment and culture to practice law.
Ryan Koppelman is a patent litigation partner at Alston & Bird in Silicon Valley.