The Young Lawyer’s Survival Guide

The Young Lawyer’s Survival Guide

Alexander Melvin

You just graduated from law school and are starting your first job as a full-fledged esquire. No matter the area of law, your thoughts are likely racing, “I’ve passed the bar and I’m licensed, but what now? Am I really ready for this? They never taught me this in law school!”

Indeed, most lawyers starting out are not adept wizards of legal practice. Yet you will be expected to perform the duties of a professional where money, property, freedom, and peoples’ livelihood will be in your hands. You swore an oath, after all.

But here is some comforting news. It is completely natural to be anxious. There would be something wrong if you were not at least a little nervous. However, fear not! This guide includes tips and tricks from highly experienced attorneys who started out exactly like you. I spoke with three attorneys from my firm and this is what they shared.

Define Your Career Track

Patrick Delaney

First, define your plan. Your reasoning should be based on purpose, not money. Attorney Patrick Delaney, a partner at RumbergerKirk, has argued cases in courts at every level in Florida, including before the Florida Supreme Court. He recommends presenting yourself with a goal which could be as simple as “I want to argue in the Supreme Court.” From there, see what routes you can take in your career that will get you to your goal. If arguing before the Supreme Court of your state is your goal, look into jobs at the Attorney General’s office. Or, if the Attorney General’s office is hiring attorneys with more experience, find out where these more experienced attorneys have been working so you can follow their path.

Maybe you want to be somewhere specific like in-house counsel for a particular company, or you desire a legal career in the entertainment industry, intellectual property or maritime law. The possibilities can be overwhelming, but setting a goal at the start can help immensely. Your plan may include mentoring opportunities or working under a specific attorney to learn a specialized field of practice. For example, a newly-minted lawyer desires to become a trial-attorney handling high profile and complex litigation cases. There is no way this lawyer is going to be put on a case like the Depp v. Heard trial right out of the gate. So how can a young lawyer become adept at conducting trials and open the door to these opportunities? If your desire is to become comfortable in a courtroom and with public speaking, beginning your career in an area that allows you large amounts of exposure to trials may be the way to start. This could include working as a public defender or an assistant state attorney garnering trial experience and then applying the trial skills you have learned in the next phase of your career. Whatever your goal, going in with a plan and honing in on where you want to be will help streamline the path to the achievement of that goal.

Practical Tips and Tricks

As a new lawyer, law firms understand that you have much to learn and will invest in your professional development, helping you to grow into an experienced attorney.

Sally Culley

Attorney Sally Culley has gained a wealth of experience since starting her legal career in 1996. In addition to practicing in the areas of employment, commercial litigation and insurance coverage, Sally serves as the administrative partner for RumbergerKirk’s Orlando office. She knows what is expected of young lawyers and what type of work an associate can do to not just survive, but thrive.

According to Sally, new lawyers spend their first few years learning and building competence. She advises new attorneys to expect to work hard, learn, and take ownership of projects. In addition, show interest in your work, be aware of time management, and do not be afraid to ask questions. Your primary goal at the end of each day is to produce quality work for your clients.

What if you are completely unfamiliar with the area of practice you have entered? How can you impress your supervisors? One practical tip Sally shared is to study the email your supervising partner sends. Email can be an instruction manual on how to get a job done, how to communicate with clients and opposing counsel, and how to negotiate. You can learn a great deal of valuable information by observing how your supervising partner communicates. Look at what is discussed, what motions are sent, and observe how the people who have come before you operate in their field of practice. The first time you prepare a particular motion, review previous motions which may be similar to the issue you are handling. Use these motions to assist in research, legal writing, and to gain an understanding of what your supervising partner is expecting for the final product. All partners and supervisors are going to be different, but if you can determine what their style is and use it, you will be on the right track to meeting and exceeding their expectations.

Larry Smith

Additionally, young lawyers will be wise to be adaptable, advises Larry Smith, a trial attorney of more than 30 years who is Of Counsel at RumbergerKirk. Young lawyers can expect to experience a variety of clients and workloads from different partners. The key is to be able to adapt to and learn skills that will serve a range of clients and partners.

Building a relationship with a mentor can also be a crucial step in advancement in your career notes Larry. One way to do so is by expressing a willingness and desire to be mentored. Mentors can provide great tips and strategies and provide insights from someone who is not your direct supervisor, but may be just as experienced.

Just Say “YES!”

Gaining a wide variety of experience is a key factor to developing into a competent practicing attorney. How does one get this? The answer is exposure. Young associates should be willing and ready to say “yes” when the work presents itself, advises Patrick. By being open to new opportunities and saying yes, you broaden your chances to handle different types of cases. If a partner or a supervisor needs a hand in drafting an article, offer to help. If a motion is needed in an area of law that is new to you, inquire about writing it. Not only will you be recognized for a helpful work ethic, but you will also benefit by showing that you are genuinely interested in learning and growing in your field.

Pitfalls to Avoid

Although exposure to different types of work will prove invaluable, mistakes will also be inevitable. That said, there are some common mistakes you will want to avoid from the start.

One common mistake is copying motions, memorandums, or letters without paying attention to details. While it is not always practical to reinvent the wheel each time, you should be preparing your work product with the same attention to detail and case law as if starting from scratch. After all, your name and bar number will likely be on these documents. Common mistakes by new associates may include placing the wrong parties on a motion, using incorrect dates, or utilizing old case law that no longer applies. Pay attention to detail! Once you have finished drafting your work, double check it, triple check it, and quadruple check it. You do not want to show your client, supervisor, opposing counsel, or potentially a judge that you are not diligent in your work.

Another common issue partners or supervisors face is dealing with questions that could have been answered through research. Attorneys are inherently busy and strapped for time between hearings, meetings, deposition preparation, and even trials. While you should not be afraid to ask questions, make sure that you have done your due diligence before asking. Research the issue you’ve come across and see what you can find. If you are unable to find the answer, present your questions to a supervisor with the research that you have done. Not only will this give them a chance to see that you have made an effort, but it will also give them a starting point on where to find an answer if they are also unsure. On the other hand, being paralyzed to ask a question is also a mistake. If your first attempts at finding an answer have been unsuccessful, you don’t want to find yourself billing a client for hours of research while an experienced partner may have been able to speed up the process. Your supervising attorney will want you to ask questions if you don’t know the answer; just make sure you tried to figure it out on your own first.

Finally, frequent job hopping or changing firms within a short period of time is a red flag for firms looking to hire attorneys. A track record of changes every two to three years will convey to an employer that you are either not willing to make a commitment or are unable to hold down a job. If you have a plan in mind as recommended, at least pick a firm that you are interested in staying at long-term.

Bills, Billing and “Billables”

While it is not likely that you will have a class on billing practices during law school, understanding billing practices is crucial, particularly in civil practice. Tracking time is the financial foundation of a law firm. Here are a few things to keep in mind with regard to billing.

First, account for your time accurately. Because you are just starting out in your career, your firm and supervising attorney will likely expect you to take longer on assignments than a more seasoned attorney. Partners will want to know that you are accounting for everything that you do. And, at the end of the day, your bills will be managed appropriately for what is considered a reasonable amount of time spent on an assignment, so do not cut yourself short! Write down everything and leave it to the partner to decide if anything needs to be amended.

Be sure to set a timer or note the time when you start working on a particular matter — and do not wait too long to write it down. Associates often forget to include calls with opposing counsel, discussions with clients, or time spent on emails they sent throughout the day. If you sent an email to a client providing a case update, log into your system what that email was regarding and who you sent it to immediately after sending it. Do not wait, or you will forget what you billed for and be left having to go through old notes which may be inaccurate.

Finally, be sure to review the billing practices or policies of your clients. For instance, many clients will not pay for attorneys to do administrative tasks that should be done by support staff. These could include the act of filing a motion with the court or coordinating deposition times with opposing counsel. Administrative duties should be delegated to your legal assistant so you can focus on the legal issues that the client wants addressed. All clients will have different procedures, so be sure to have an understanding before beginning work on a matter.

Confidence and Preparation

Veteran attorneys will tell you that you may never be one-hundred percent confident when appearing for a hearing and making an argument. The practice of law is, after all, a never-ending learning process. Although a certain degree of anxiety is something you will likely experience no matter where you are in your career, take comfort in knowing that this is absolutely normal.

Sally shares that after 27 years in practice, she can still feel jitters because of the weight of responsibility an attorney carries, especially when the stakes are high. Preparation is a lawyer’s best tool. Be prepared by knowing your subject matter, the judge and/or audience you will be addressing, and be ready for questions. Throughout your career, you will win some arguments and lose some, but when you do lose, you want to know that you’ve done your best for your client. As Patrick said, “we all have bad days, but don’t let a bad day prevent you from having what could be a great career.”

This article was originally published in the Trial Advocate, Volume 43, No 1, a publication of the Florida Defense Lawyers Association, and is republished here with permission.