YourABA July 2011 Masthead

Young lawyers: Advice on rising above your peers in this still-struggling economy

Recent law school graduates hoping to see improvements in legal hiring had little to celebrate when the National Association for Law Placement released its June report, indicating the worst job market since 1996, when the legal profession was still recovering from the recession of the late 1980s.

For the lucky 87 percent that found employment nine months after graduation last year, keeping their jobs is top of mind. To help young lawyers better understand what they should and should not be doing on the job, Betsy Collins, a partner in the Mobile, Ala., office of Burr & Forman LLP, recently released a free podcast from the Section of Litigation, “Advice for Young Lawyers.”

Drawing from 25 years of law practice and from the sage advice given to her when she was starting out, Collins offers several practical strategies to help ensure a thriving career in this still-struggling economy.

Several of Collins’ tips focus on how young attorneys can best impress their supervising lawyers:

  • “When a partner asks you for a draft, don’t take that too literally,” says Collins, explaining that young lawyers should turn in work that is as complete as possible. “Partners don’t really want drafts. They don’t want a document with a lot of blanks that leaves a lot to be filled in.”
  • “Think creatively,” advises Collins, comparing a young attorney’s research on a difficult question to a mouse in a maze. “If you hit a dead end, try to find another way to the cheese.” Taking such self-directed initiative will be appreciated by busy supervisors.
  • Don’t ever ask a partner a question that you could easily find out on your own.
  • Be a good communicator by staying in regular touch with the supervisor for whom you are doing work. “Make sure they know what you are doing, but don’t drive them crazy with every detail.”
  • When conducting research on the Internet for a brief, “Don’t just take a soundbite. You need to read the case and know what the case says before you cite it.”
  • When working with a partner or other supervising attorney, check the cases they cite in their briefs—actually pull those cases and read them. “You’ll be shocked at how many times you find something in those cases that works for you, or that the partner has incorrectly stated what those cases said.”
  • Do not make inexcusable, careless mistakes such as citing overruled law. “This will get you into so much trouble in so many ways—with the partner you’re working for, with the client, with the court,” warns Collins. “The only thing you really have when starting out is your credibility, and if you lose it, it’s really hard to get back.”

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Other tips center around developing personal and professional skills:

  • “You need to learn to dictate legal work, instead of just composing on the keyboard or with a pen,” advises Collins, explaining that it helps lawyers learn to organize their thoughts in an oral fashion.
  • When doing research using the Internet, take the time to hit those hyperlinks embedded in the documents you pull, and spend time reviewing what’s cited in those documents. “You’ll learn some law that you might not have known, and you’ll pick up new things.”
  • “Don’t just write in parentheticals,” says Collins. “You need to learn how to analogize similar cases, and be able to explain to the court why the case law you’re citing is analogous to your own case, and why that suggests that it should apply.”
  • And, related to the prior tip: “Always understand the procedural posture of a case that you’re relying on. A decision may be less than meaningful if the procedural posture of a case is different than your own.”
  • Build rapport with the opposing counsel. Having a good relationship can make a difference if you find yourself in a lurch with a particular deadline or if you have a particular need.

Advice for Young Lawyers” is part of the Section of Litigation Sound Advice audio library.

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