- What should you keep in mind when just getting started as a lawyer?
The first year of practice can be intimidating. There is a steep learning curve, and we don’t always have the luxury of a collegial atmosphere with the tools and resources that law school provided. As I navigated my first year of practice with a small firm, I learned some tips and tricks that solo practitioners and small firm attorneys use to manage their time and business better. A well-managed practice allows attorneys to focus on the important things, and continue to grow. Below, I have shared some tips that I picked up, and some secrets I learned from those wiser than me. I hope you find them as useful as I did.
1. Be Organized
In everything you do. In solo or small firm practice, we often do not have the luxury of preorganized systems, including calendaring, computer files, paper files, resources, articles etc. Develop systems early on in your practice. Have a consistent system for naming and creating file folders for each client. This will come in handy when you are searching for a document in a crunch for time. Similarly, develop a system of calendaring appointments, court dates, filing dates, and self-imposed deadlines and reminders, and make sure it is backed up. I find it useful to maintain a day planner in addition to the online calendaring system so I don’t miss any important court dates or client appointments.
2. Write Everything Down!
Or type it, but keep a record somewhere. If you have a conversation with a client, a mentor, or a colleague about the specifics of a case, write a quick memo or note in the client file. Later on, when you are wondering why you took one course of action over another, this will be a lifesaver. I quickly learned not to be shy about asking clients or colleagues to slow down over the phone so I can type what is being said.
3. Become a Collector
Solo practitioners and small firms often have limited access to large legal databases, form books, and other resources. So when you come across an article that demystifies a civil process, or has good tips and guidelines, print it out and put it in a binder that is organized by tabs and/or save it in your computer.
4. Start a Form Bank
This goes for all types of documents, from your client retainer agreement and motions, to discovery requests, responses, and correspondence for different purposes. The quicker you draft a good document, the quicker you move on to the next project. Having a good draft of a document as a starting point and a refresher saves time and gives you a head start.
5. Find a Mentor
We hear this all the time. Of course it is a good idea to have someone that will pick up your call when you have a question, or be willing to review a document you’re filing for the first time, or talk strategy with. It is easier said than done to find a mentor. Unless you spent a lot of time cultivating a close relationship with an experienced attorney during law school, it is difficult to find someone who is willing to put in the time to mentor you. Local bar associations generally have sections for different practice areas. I recommend going to the section meetings, and speaking with a solo or small firm practitioner in your practice area that has a more flexible schedule than someone that works for a mid-size or large firm. Section meetings are generally more intimate, and easier to navigate than general bar association meetings. A solo or small firm practitioner will also have relevant tips for your practice. Offer to take her to lunch, be positive, and leave a good impression. Offer to help them with their research or drafting if they need it, in exchange for their time.
6. Be Nice
To everyone. Solo practitioners and small firm attorneys don’t often have a slew of paid attorneys to assist with their work, but being nice can bring unexpected rewards in unexpected places. If you lease executive suites, spend some time talking to the staff and setting yourself apart from all the other faces they see all day. And a smile in the morning can only help to brighten up your day.
7. Set Boundaries
And follow them. As a solo or small firm attorney, your clients may often come from personal references, like family and friends. They are still your clients; if you are not already connected via social media, avoid it. Be friendly, but respectful. Also, let them know about attorney-client privilege if they seem concerned so they know that you will not be discussing any aspect of their case with the person that referred them.
8. Talk Money
Due to the personal nature and intimate setting of a small firm practice, you will often speak with your clients directly, unlike in large firm practice. As awkward as it may be to talk to an aunt’s best friend or your boyfriend’s uncle about fees, make sure they know. You are in business, and they know it. Let them know that you will send itemized bills at certain intervals. If you are charging by the hour, avoid quoting a price or a certain number of hours. Unexpected tangents do come up in legal work, and you don’t want to end up doing a week’s worth of work free of charge because you went over the time you quoted.
9. Join Bar Associations!
These include your local bar associations, and national bar associations like the American Bar Association. Bar associations usually have a section for young lawyers, and different practice areas. They often offer a lower membership price for young lawyers, and some really great discounts on legal services, like research and billing tools. Keep in mind that fellow new attorneys will be rising up with you, they will be your opposing counsel, and they are your colleagues, so getting to know them and forming relationships early in your career is really beneficial.