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Go Forth without This Legal Career Advice

ABA Law Student Division

Go Forth without This Legal Career Advice

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Your future is vast and largely uncharted, and you’ll make many decisions over the next decades as you seek happiness and contentment in your career. You’ll hear gobs of advice as you weave through that process. The key to your success lies in how well you sift through all that advice and figure out which is worth absorbing into your core and which to let roll off you as you move forward. Because let’s face it, everybody’s got an opinion about your future, and not all of those opinions are worth heeding.

Your soon-to-be colleagues are here to help. Here, they share with you what they now consider poor advice in the hope that it helps you avoid a mindset or move that doesn’t lead to your happiness and fulfillment.

OCI Is the Be-All, End-All

In law schools, there’s a strong belief that the only path to a great legal career is through the on-campus hiring process. That couldn’t be further from the truth—unless you think working at a white-shoe law firm is the only way to go. While there are self-serving reasons for law schools to nurture relationships with big firms, there are hundreds or thousands of firms that might be looking for someone like you. Also, there are a lot of practice areas that big firms don’t really care about.

The key to finding a great job outside the established hiring framework is to be proactive. With any search engine and LinkedIn, it’s easier than ever to find lawyers who share your values and work on causes you care about. And nothing stokes a lawyer’s ego more than when someone wants to hear about their work.

Reach out to lawyers at firms or companies that look cool to you and ask if they want to grab a cup of coffee, even virtually. If you hit it off, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to create your own opportunity. If not, you’ll learn a little more about a practice area you’re interested in.

Elliott Brown, lawyer and head of marketing, OnPay Payroll, San Francisco

Solos Should Follow the Pack

Conventional wisdom is that if you’re planning to start your own solo firm, you should adopt traditional law firm practices, such as hourly billing and standard office hours. Those tired tropes fail to meet the needs of clients in today’s global economy. My firm offers flat-fee billing and 24/7 attorney access, among other things. Always be willing to challenge accepted conventions by experimenting and innovating.

William Scott Goldman, managing attorney/founder, Goldman Law Group, Washington, D.C.

Rookies Can’t Get Clients

One of the worst pieces of advice I heard as a new lawyer was that you don’t need to think about business development until you’re more senior and close to making partner. Nothing could be further from the truth, especially these days since already having your own book of business is often required to be considered for partner.

If anything, new associates and even law students should be thinking about business development early on.

One of the most important skills to moving up as a lawyer is being able to manage clients independently and ideally bringing in new clients.

Having to rely on others for work means less control over your schedule, career path, and stress levels. In addition to advancement, having my own clients has allowed for greater control over my career and workload, along with providing substantially more job satisfaction. It also allows me to choose the clients and attorneys I want to work with and decline work from others.

Put yourself out there early, and practice networking and making connections.

In the beginning, don’t go out trying to land a job or client—that creates too much pressure on yourself, takes all the fun out of it, and will likely turn people off.

Instead, contact people, go to events, and engage on social media simply to learn about people, businesses, and the law. Over time, and if you’re consistent, this will naturally lead to jobs and clients. Looking back, I planted seeds early on and throughout my career, which laid the foundation for the practice I have now.

Dylan O. Adams, partner, Davis Wright Tremaine, Seattle

Lawyers Can’t Be Activists

It was my passion to abolish the death penalty that motivated me to go to law school. Because there’s an execution chamber just an hour from my home, I felt compelled to be present to protest every single one and have since become an internationally known anti-death penalty activist.

Experienced death penalty lawyers have told me that I can’t be both an activist and an attorney because it will ruin my credibility.

I think that’s patently false. What this world desperately needs is more activist attorneys. We’re in a unique situation to see the systemic failures of our justice systems, and we understand the complex laws behind such failures. I believe we have a duty to society to do everything we can to ensure that systemic injustices are corrected, and the only way to do that is with outspoken advocacy.

Sometimes the best way to protect the rights of We the People is to educate them.

Ashley Kincaid Eve, lawyer, Indianapolis

Massage Those Files

The worst advice had to be when the firm’s managing partner told me I had to learn how to manipulate the file to bill more fees. I didn’t feel comfortable conjuring up legal fees just because the firm had to make a certain amount of money per file.

Shortly after this request, I left the firm and eventually started my own firm. We make good money doing what we do. We need to remember that people depend on us to be honest and maintain integrity. The value you provide to clients is much more important than the fees you can bill them.

Base your career on streamlining your legal practice so that clients see your value rather than your price tag.

If you do that, clients will continue to come back and refer others.

Kurt M. Varricchio, president, KVA Sports, Irvine, Calif.

Accept Every Case

The worst advice I received as a new lawyer was to take any case that came through the door and figure the details out later. I’ve found that there are many lawyers in town who practice that way, and it’s dangerous for both the lawyer and the client.

I ignored this advice and went to work among experienced, caring attorneys in my field. This allowed me to quickly develop knowledge and skills in trial advocacy and personal injury law. Now, any time a friend or client approaches me about a legal matter outside my practice area, my advice is always the same: Seek counsel from someone who practices in that specific area of law every day, just as we do here with personal injury law.

Evette Hooper, associate, Stewart J. Guss Injury Accident Lawyers, Houston

Take the Job You Can Get

There seems to be a rite of passage in the legal profession, where more-seasoned lawyers inform new lawyers of a cookie-cutter formula full of perils and a premade path that will certainly involve BigLaw and a miserable life.

The most remarkable advice I heard came from a seasoned immigration lawyer. As I discussed with him my desire to become an immigration attorney, he responded: Lawyers don’t get to practice what they want; they get to practice in the area in which they find a job.

Six years later, I run an award-winning immigration practice representing clients nationwide, and the deliberate intent to practice in the area that fit my passion made all the difference. Carve your own path, trust your instincts, and be ready to do the work. That’s the most valuable advice you can receive.

Renata Castro, founder, Castro Legal Group, Pompano Beach, Fla.

Don’t Be a Flake

I started out on the defense side of civil litigation and almost immediately felt it wasn’t a good fit for me. I desperately wanted to switch to the plaintiff’s side but was cautioned that I shouldn’t make a jump so early in my career. I was told it would make me look like a flake and that I was simply too green to know where I’d best fit.

I stuck it out at the defense firm for five years and was miserable every day of it. When I finally switched to the plaintiffs’ side, I felt instant relief. I was also consumed with regret for not having left sooner. Your gut will tell you whether a job is right for you. Go with it.

Matt Meyer, partner, MKP Law Group, Los Angeles

Money First, Everything Else Later

The worst advice I’ve heard for new lawyers is any advice related to consideration of the earning potential from different areas of law. I’ve found that you can make good money as a lawyer. However, I’ve also seen innumerable examples of attorneys who end up bitter, broken, and burned out because they’ve chased dollar bills over a fulfilling career.

I believe all lawyers should have at least some minimal passion or interest in their career path. Find that interest and passion before you hunt for a salary, and you’ll set yourself up for long-term success.

Scott Kimberly, Attorney at Law, Murfreesboro, Tenn.

Be the Cheapest First

What sticks out strongly to me is the advice I received when looking at going out on my own. The worst suggestion included the idea that I had to be cheaper than everyone else when I started out. Absolutely not true. A basic understanding of business will help you understand your worth.

Andrew Taylor, founder, director, chief executive, Net Lawman, Bury St Edmunds, United Kingdom

Corporate BigLaw Is the Pinnacle

The worst advice I heard as a new lawyer was that the BigLaw corporate law path was the only road to a significant career or respect in the legal community. I was interested only in immigration and human rights. But many people told me I’d be relegated to a life of poverty and an inferior status among lawyers.

On the contrary, because I pursued my passion rather than following the herd, I was offered significant opportunities early in my career and carved out a niche for myself that was unique and in demand by many clients. I was also able to start and grow my own practice early and gain valuable flexibility when I became a single parent or encountered other life challenges, such as the sudden death of my mother.

I’ve argued before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, prevailing in several petitions for review, and I received a remand from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit in a complex asylum case. I know that if I’d have pursued a corporate law career, I’d be mediocre at best.

Authenticity and knowing yourself is as important in the law as it is in life.

Jessica Smith Bobadilla, the Law Office of Jessica Smith Bobadilla, Fresno, Calif.

Citing Case Law Wins the Argument

In law school, you’re told that it’s vital to learn case law and its historical significance.

That’s true, to a point. And you’re taught to believe that citing case law is the only way to win a case.

But when you get into a courtroom, everyone knows the law. It’s the facts of the case as applied to the law that distinguish a winning argument from a losing one.

The fastest way to lose a hearing is to preach the law to a judge. A prepared judge always knows the applicable law. The best lawyers know how to educate the court on how the facts of your case apply to the law.

The facts can literally set your client free.

M. Colin Bresee, Law Offices of M. Colin Bresee, Denver

Don’t Upset the Apple Cart

The most common advice I heard when I was a new lawyer was to find a mentor who’d been practicing for 30-plus years and to model my lawyering after that experienced attorney.

The thinking was that if it’s not broken, why fix it?

Here’s why: In the last five years, and especially this last year, the legal landscape has evolved exponentially at a rate our predecessors could have never anticipated. Today’s lawyering is much more about understanding and embracing technology and the needs of the modern client than it is about shaking hands at the country club cocktail party.

To succeed today, you must be willing to toss aside preconceived notions about who and what a lawyer is or is supposed to be and forge your own path.

Jonathan Sills, the Sills Law Firm, Hartford, Conn.