GPSolo Magazine - July/August 2004
What A Small Firm Wants From A Young Lawyer
Although certain of the associates in my firm will disagree, I still consider myself a “young lawyer,” even though I recently turned 37. Having worked as a new associate in a five-lawyer firm, a senior associate in a ten-lawyer firm, a shareholder in my current 26-attorney firm, and for many years as a volunteer in the General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Division, I have come to recognize certain attributes that lead a young lawyer to succeed in the small firm setting.
A plan for success. People who plan succeed. A young lawyer who recognizes that a small firm is a business dependent on the entrepreneurial skills of its attorneys, even its new lawyers, will likely succeed in that environment. A key for any business to succeed is a written business plan. See yourself as a “business unit” within the larger business of the firm. Prepare for yourself a written business plan that includes components for networking and community involvement for the purpose of bringing new clients to the firm and education to build your skills. Few things will impress the partners in your firm more than a written plan setting forth the actions you intend to take to increase the firm’s bottom line.
A passion for the practice. Clients are often suspicious that lawyers see them as either dollar signs or problems to be solved. After years in the practice, too many lawyers get jaded, too many get tired. An advantage that younger lawyers often have over “seasoned” veterans is the ability to convey what I call a “passion for the practice and love for the law.” Clients love to see that enthusiasm, and in my experience it can make up for the lack of gray hair. This enthusiasm is also infective and will be valued by other attorneys in the firm.
Confidence and competence. You need to convey to clients and the attorneys assigning you work a feeling of confidence and competence. This is different from being egotistical, knowing all the answers, or setting yourself apart because you went to a great law school or have the initials “Esq” after your name. Instead, take the time to understand the problem at hand, present the attitude that you will work as long and as hard as it takes to find a solution instead of looking for the easy answer or shortcut (the easy answer is usually wrong or not complete), and then deliver a strong, polished work product. You will demonstrate your competence, and they will be confident in your abilities. That is critical because, in a small firm, the senior attorneys want—probably need—to give you a large amount of responsibility as soon as possible. Also, when you do not know the answer, do not bluff your way through it. Tell them, “I will find the answer.”
Thinking for yourself, outside the box. Too many young lawyers are assigned a project and come back quickly with too many questions they should have been able to answer for themselves, or a narrow, “safe” answer. In a small firm, we do not have the time nor do many clients have the resources for numerous research conferences or internal memos. You need to think all the way through the issues, and when you discover problems or roadblocks, propose alternative solutions rather than reciting the problems. Do not just submit a memo giving the “point/counterpoint” from a litany of cases. Instead, draft the section of the brief addressing the facts and advocating the client’s position.
Business development. It is the life-blood of a small firm. Make it a priority. Do it early (in your career and in the day) and late (in the day). Just do it. I still represent the first client I brought in during my first year of practice. You will become an invaluable resource at your firm if you demonstrate that you are able to generate good, paying clients as well as doing the work others pass to you. Join alumni associations, volunteer organizations, bar associations, and religious groups. Spend substantial time with groups that contain significant numbers of likely consumers of legal services in the practice area you seek to develop rather than attending the hottest nightclub. Groups with large numbers of older individuals are often best for two reasons: (1) Persons in their twenties have less need and ability to pay for legal services; and (2) if you are energetic, dynamic, and willing to work hard for the organization, its members will likely believe you will represent them as their lawyer in the same manner.
Final thoughts. Be yourself. Have a sense of humor. In dealing with clients, always remember: Act human, not like a lawyer. Listen. Be respectful. People hire people, not lawyers or law firms. It has been said that nothing is accomplished in this world without effort, unremittingly repeated. This sentiment certainly applies to work in a small law firm.
Christopher R. Kaup is an attorney with Tiffany & Bosco, P.A., in Phoenix, Arizona. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.