Some months ago, Stephanie West Allen requested that fellow bloggers write a “letter to a young lawyer.” Susan Carter Liebel has recently renewed the request and I am delighted to join in, at last.
To the new attorney:
Welcome to the practice! You’ve learned much over the last three years of law school, and you may be somewhat dismayed to discover that your learning is just beginning. It’s a cliche to say that law school merely teaches you to think like a lawyer, but you’re about to find that there’s quite a bit of truth there.
I’d like to offer you a roadmap of sorts… A short list of foundations that underlie a successful practice. Think of these as guideposts.
1. Each time a client entrusts you with a matter, you’ve been granted a sacred trust. You will have hundreds of clients — perhaps thousands — over the course of your career. Some may be sophisticated legal consumers, but others will bring to you the only legal matter they’ve ever had. Whichever camp your client falls into, it is your responsibility to treat the matter as if it’s the most important matter this client will ever have. That isn’t to say that each client should in effect run your practice (you’d never get anything done), but when a client trusts you enough to request your representation, be aware and respectful of the trust… And earn it.
2. Remember that the other lawyers in your firm who ask you to do work are your clients. Act accordingly.
3. It’s called legal “practice” for a reason. You’re bright and accomplished, and you’re accustomed to knowing it all. You’re about to enter a phase in your life in which you’re likely to feel that you know very little. It’s your opportunity to practice the skills you learned in school, to read the law and to think deeply about it. You’re going to make mistakes, no doubt. It’s your duty to learn from each mistake and to make each one only once. Ask intelligent questions and study the lawyers you admire. A mentor is invaluable, and here’s a secret: your mentor will learn as much from you as you learn from your mentor.
4. Begin your business development activities now. Especially when you’re just beginning to practice, when you know so little about how the law really functions, it’s hard to imagine that you’re going to be responsible for bringing clients in. Whether that need arises immediately (as of course it will if you’re a sole practitioner) or in a matters of years, you need to lay the groundwork today. Keep up with your classmates from college and law school. They may be at the bottom of a corporate rung today, but they (like you) will advance, and the confidence they develop in you over time will position you well to turn a social relationship into a business relationship. The best marketing flows from superior legal skills plus masterful interpersonal relationships. Remember that you need to develop both.
5. Set goals for your career and adjust as appropriate. Two errors plague lawyers: advancing in practice without having a plan and sticking to a plan even after it’s quit being the right plan. Spend time determining what you want your life to look like both professionally and personally. That knowledge will guide your steps as you decide where to practice, whether to stay there or leave, whether to pursue or accept a partnership offer, and much more. However, be sure that the plan you’re following really fits you. There’s little worse than climbing to the top of the ladder only to discover that you’ve scaled the wrong wall.
6. Develop your leadership skills — you’re going to need them. You may not view yourself as a leader right now, but you’re going to find yourself in a leadership role sooner than you recognize. Learn how to discipline yourself, how to communicate what’s right, how to stick to your vision and to motivate others to join in the effort, how to convey your presence as a leader. You’re going to find yourself on a board, in a courtroom, leading a team of lawyers, or bringing your legal skill to a matter of importance in your community. Learn how a leader behaves and seek opportunities to practice.
7. Integrate your personal and professional aspects. You will be most effective in the office when you’re rested and the demands of your personal life are sufficiently met. It’s unrealistic to imagine that you will always be able to meet those standards, but you must strive to do so. “Work/life balance” doesn’t mean dividing your time or energy 50/50: it means knowing how to devote your time and attention where you need to, when you need to, according to your values. Sometimes you’ll have to disappoint friends or family, and sometimes you’ll have to disappoint colleagues or clients. Learn how to balance competing demands to wring the most out of every moment you have, without wringing yourself out.
8. Give back. You may feel overwhelmed when you think of the debt you’ve accumulated while pursuing your degrees. Never forget that you’re among the most privileged people in the world, whether you’re at the highest paid law firm or the lowest paid public service agency. Find ways to contribute to your profession and to society. You will be richer for all you give.
There’s much more to say and learn… And you’re in for the ride of your life. Welcome to practice! Go as far and as fast as you can, in service to your clients, your community, your profession, and yourself and your family.