Saturday, October 14, 2023
Starting your legal career can be an uncertain and stressful time. Below are some tips that can help new lawyers successfully transition from law school to the legal profession.
1. Ask for help.
If you need help, ask.
Of course, do not spend your day asking hundreds of questions. Try to solve the problem first and exhaust every resource available to do so. After all, if you approach a partner and say, “I just got an assignment to research defamation law in New Jersey, and I can’t find a single case,” it will not go over well. But when you have exhausted all available resources and cannot resolve the problem, don’t be afraid to ask for help. You are doing yourself – and the firm – a great disservice by trying to figure it out yourself, only to see it become a much bigger problem later.
2. Pay attention to the details.
The little things matter. This includes, but is not limited to, ensuring that everything you write is grammatically correct, free of spelling errors, and cited properly. For example, if your brief is filled with spelling errors, how can a judge possibly trust that your arguments are credible? Focusing on the little things also means, among other things, that the legal authority you cite in a brief or memo is good law, that you follow the local court rules, that you don’t cite ten cases for a simple legal proposition, that you file in the right court or venue, that you cite the record accurately, that you meet deadlines, and that you show up to meetings on time.
If you cannot pay attention to the little things, no partner will trust you with the big things.
3. Focus on developing your writing skills.
Some, if not many, law school graduates struggle to write effectively and persuasively. This is due in substantial part to the fact that universities (and law schools) do not place sufficient emphasis on developing predictive and persuasive writing skills. It is also because writing persuasively, particularly in the legal context, is difficult. As such it takes time, practice, and repetition to continuously improve your writing skills. It also requires you to embrace the writing process, which entails writing, re-writing, and editing. In short, it is a grind.
Young lawyers often fail to appreciate the process of what it takes to be an excellent writer, re-writer, and editor. Some believe that a first or second draft is the final draft. Or their standard for what constitutes an outstanding memorandum or brief is far too low. To be a great writer, you must embrace the writing process and go through the hard thinking – the grind – to produce an excellent work product. And you must be dedicated to improving your writing skills throughout your life.
Put simply, if you don’t put in the work, you won’t receive the outcome that you want.
4. Be humble.
As a new lawyer (and as a person), you should demonstrate humility. If you act like an entitled, narcissistic jerk, you will not get very far. If you gossip about your colleagues and supervisors, you will go nowhere because no one will want to associate with you.
When you are a young lawyer, your focus should be on being an asset to the firm. This means being a team player, and being someone who will sacrifice your time and energy for the firm. Indeed, and particularly if you are working in a large firm, you will likely get assignments that you do not like, or work on cases in areas of law that you despise. For example, a partner may ask you to sacrifice your weekend to review hundreds (or thousands) of documents for relevance or privilege.
Sure, these tasks are not fun. It’s not pleasant when you plan a mini vacation with your friends or partner, only to find out that your weekend will be spent in the office. However, as stated above, your job is to be an asset to your firm and to demonstrate your value. So, deal with it by having a positive attitude and realizing that your sacrifices in the short term will have tremendous benefits in the long term.
5. Take feedback well and respond effectively to adversity.
As a young lawyer, you will make mistakes. You will fail. The worst thing that you can do in response to these realities is to get discouraged. Rather, your colleagues want to know that you can overcome adversity and persevere through challenges. They also want to know that you are a good listener, such that you can receive constructive criticism and use it to improve your work product.
Experienced lawyers will understand (within reason). But they won’t understand when you make excuses, blame others, or otherwise show a lack of accountability. That shows a lack of maturity. What they will admire is that you learn from adversity and, as a result, become a better lawyer and person.
6. Exude confidence and don’t apologize too much for mistakes.
When you make a mistake (and you will), own it. Be honest. Be committed to improving. But don’t apologize for every little thing that goes wrong. And always exude confidence. Being confident engenders trust from your colleagues; insecurity engenders concerns about your poise, ability, and competence.
7. Don’t focus too much on being successful – understand how to be successful.
Great lawyers work hard. Very hard. They know that to achieve a certain outcome, you must put in long hours, learn from failure, cope with adversity, and persevere when circumstances are less than optimal.
Put simply, they embrace the process of what it takes to be a great lawyer. Sometimes, that means working until 3:00 a.m. on consecutive days to finish a brief or motion or sacrificing a trip to the Michigan-Ohio State game to summarize hundreds of pages of deposition testimony. Yes, this is not fun. It is essential, however, to establish your value and to show that you are a reliable employee who will go the extra mile to achieve the best result possible for the firm's client.
8. Don’t over-promise or under-deliver.
Often, young lawyers represent to a partner that they can complete an assigned task by a particular deadline despite knowing that doing so will be next to impossible. Alternatively, they take on too many assignments, which leads to unnecessary stress and missed deadlines. Simply put, they are afraid to say no, for fear that they will lose the confidence of a partner. That could not be further from the truth. Partners appreciate it when you do not over-promise – provided you have a legitimate reason for doing so.
Of course, when you do take on a project, be sure not to over, not under, deliver. For example, if a partner asks you to draft a memorandum summarizing the elements of defamation, be sure to include in your memorandum the defenses against a defamation claim so that your supervisor can obtain a comprehensive understanding of defamation law.
9. Show that you have the intangibles.
A high LSAT score, outstanding critical thinking skills, and a law degree from Yale do not mean that you will be a great lawyer.
Great lawyers know how to relate to and deal with people. They are not arrogant jerks. They are empathetic. They have common sense. They know how to cooperate, work with a team, and accept constructive criticism. They persevere. They consistently perform well. They are disciplined and focused. They have good instincts and judgment. They communicate effectively. They don’t allow external factors to affect their choices and decisions. And they are the types of people that you would want to have a drink with on a Friday evening.
10. Understand that being a great lawyer first requires you to be a healthy person.
If you want to be an outstanding lawyer, you must lead a healthy life that includes balance, a strong mindset, and effective coping skills. This means, among other things, taking care of your physical and mental health, having supportive family and friends, and pursuing interests outside of the law.
Simply put, you can’t allow the law to consume you and your life.
Ultimately, remember that no one expects you to be perfect or to immediately perform at the highest level upon graduation. What they do care about is whether you are committed to continual improvement and consistency in performance and are willing to put in the work to become an asset to the firm and an attorney who accepts nothing less than excellence.