The new lawyer's survival guide

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Firm Foundations

January 2011, Volume 47, No. 01

The new lawyer's survival guide 

Rebecca M. Langston

You studied hard in law school, and you passed the bar—but that doesn't mean you learned anything about being a lawyer. Make sure you know the essentials for getting your career off to a good start.

 

SIDEBAR

10 Things every trial lawyer needs
by Tom Vesper

Ask questions. As a new lawyer, I used to worry about asking stupid questions. I know I am not alone. Some of us think that the act of taking the lawyer’s oath supernaturally instills in us knowledge and skills we didn’t have before. It doesn’t.

We may be embarrassed or uncomfortable asking questions when we think we should already know the answers. But it is much worse to make a wasteful, expensive, or dispositive error when a simple question would have saved time, money, or the case.

Show humility. An attitude of superiority will make your first years of practice more difficult than necessary. Don’t let a little book knowledge get in the way of street smarts. For example, you may know your civil procedure textbook by memory, but no treatise can teach you that every judge has his or her own set of courtroom rules. And there’s no law school class on the topic of how court administrators and clerks make the legal world go around. We learn these truths only when we hit the pavement.

Again, be prepared to ask questions rather than waste your own and others’ time. Spending 30 minutes wondering whether you are required to bring a prepared order with you to a hearing creates unnecessary stress. Pick up the telephone, call the court administrator, and ask whether you need to bring one. This simple effort will save you time and energy.

Respectfully asking the staff in the clerk’s office for help checking out a court file is a much better approach than messing up a long-established system because you were too proud to ask for assistance.

Use others’ experience. Never, ever reinvent the wheel. When it comes to drafting pleadings and motions, do not underestimate the value of forms. Search your office databases, ask another attorney, post to a list server—do all of that, but do not spend time re-researching, redrafting, or reinventing a form that has been used repeatedly and successfully by another attorney.

Your supervising attorneys, associates who are a few years ahead of you, and other lawyers practicing in your area are walking encyclopedias of useful information. These lawyers have already banged their heads against the same wall you are now facing. Benefit from their experience.

But use your common sense. If the associate down the hall was sanctioned the last time she filed the motion she just forwarded to you, you probably don’t want to use it. Just because someone has done something before does not necessarily make that person an expert, so make sure the answer you get is the right one. To do that, keep asking questions until you don’t have any doubts left.

Take the right CLEs. Continuing legal education (CLE) courses on the latest hot litigation topics are interesting and useful, but a new lawyer’s time and money are best spent on those that provide nuts-and-bolts training in core litigation tasks. In a few hours, a good CLE course can teach you a skill you’ll use every day.

If you are involved in developing your state association’s CLE topics, be sure you are considering the needs of new lawyers and providing seminars geared toward them. In Mississippi, for instance, our CLE team recently offered a “Deposition Boot Camp,” a two-day program during which every element of the deposition was discussed and taught. AAJ also offers programs aimed at new lawyers, such as the “Depositions College” and the “Essentials of Civil Litigation” Trial Advocacy College.

Snag a front-row seat. Ask more experienced lawyers to let you know the next time they have a trial, and go watch them work. You’ll see firsthand how a particular judge handles the court and what the unspoken rules of conduct are.

In the same vein, ask seasoned colleagues to let you tag along to an arbitration, mediation, or expert deposition. There is no substitute for personally examining a witness, but observing a veteran is the next best thing.

Stop walking, start running

Now that you’ve mastered the basics, you’ll be ready to take it up a notch. Here are the next steps that you, as a new lawyer, should be taking to get your professional life off to the best start.

Take risks. There is a great temptation, as a new lawyer, to agree to what you do not want to agree to, allow what should not be allowed, or settle what should be tried—all bad decisions that come from fear. The fear is understandable. After all, what if you don’t know what you’re doing? What if you try and fail?

You know the answer to that already. It’s a cliché, but it’s true: If you never try, you won’t fail—but you also won’t succeed. You will never know if you have a certain skill until you try it. And even if your first attempt is a disaster, remember, you can always improve. In my experience, the judges and opposing attorneys who will take a new lawyer to task for an honest mistake are few and far between.

The practice of law is just that: practice. So get out there. Argue the motion. Try the case. Set the mediation. This job is all about trial and error. It’s all about winging it and figuring things out in the middle of the game. If you can do that, you have the makings of a good trial lawyer.

No one gets it right every time. And as a new lawyer, there are many things you don’t know how to do because you’ve never done them. If you stick only to doing what you’re confident about, you won’t do much. Asking questions and drawing from the experiences of others will give you confidence. So try, and keep trying.

Make ethics a priority. Your first years of practice are when you build your professional reputation. Decide from the start that there is no client worth sullying your good name over.

Make up your mind that you will never file a frivolous motion, no matter who asks you to. Promise yourself that whether you win or lose, you will do so honorably, ethically, and professionally. Give priority to your position as an ethical, courteous lawyer upholding the highest traditions of your profession.

Never swim alone. We do not practice law in a vacuum. Yes, we have stressful, time-consuming jobs, but we also have hobbies and children and personal relationships. We serve on church boards and parent groups. We coach youth soccer and volunteer at the local domestic violence shelter.

Your first years of law practice should help you shape what you want your life to be like. If you spend 16 hours a day in the office, drop out of church, never give back to your community, and find your personal relationships in ruin, you will never be fulfilled no matter how successful you are at your job.

It is critically important for new lawyers to develop a support network of family members, friends, professional and personal mentors, and others. Together, they will keep you on track and hold you accountable to yourself, your work, and the people and things that are important to you.

A good support system also will give you the courage to pick battles and fight them—even knowing that you might fail. You’ll learn from them too, so stay open to their perspective.

The best advice that I can give for surviving your first few years of law practice is this: Make sure that being a lawyer is what you do for a living, not who you are as a person.

Develop a teachable attitude. When you focus on watching others, asking questions, and developing new skills, learning comes naturally and easily. Professional growth is the natural consequence of learning new things. Devote yourself to constant learning.

With these tools and strategies in your survival kit, you will soon be swimming the roiling waters of law with confidence and courage. When you reach that point, and an even newer lawyer asks for your advice in drafting a form, evaluating an opportunity, or weighing an ethical dilemma, make sure you respond with encouragement and enthusiasm. By then, you’ll no doubt have your own hard-earned wisdom to share.

Rebecca M. Langston is a partner in Langston & Langston in Jackson, Mississippi. She can be reached at rebecca@langstonlawyers.com.


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