All newly minted litigators are, to varying degrees, intimidated by the litigation and advocacy process. Regardless of one’s exposure to litigation in law school trial advocacy courses, advice from professors and seasoned attorneys, and even time spent as a trial court clerk, nothing truly prepares a law school graduate for real world lawyering. As a young family law attorney with six years of litigation experience, I can personally attest that the first few years of practice can be nerve-wracking, demanding, humbling, and empowering, marked by character-building highs and lows. It is my hope that the suggestions below will provide a bit of guidance to aspiring litigators as they transition to a career in the courtroom.
Litigation is driven by deadlines, and young associates are expected to keep abreast of all pending deadlines for the partners at their firms and as well as their own cases, including court appearances, discovery demands, expert reports, depositions, and trial dates. It is imperative, then, that you are organized.
Create an organized case list that includes the docket number, the judge and law clerk’s name and phone number, your client’s contact information, opposing counsel’s contact information, and any other key information about the case, including upcoming deadlines. Continue to update the list on a weekly basis. Having this information handy will save you time and prevent you from searching the case file for basic information. In addition to your case list, maintain a detailed daily calendar with court appearances, mediation dates, discovery deadlines, client meetings and conference calls, all with relevant phone numbers and addresses. You can also schedule calendar alerts to remind you of upcoming deadlines several days in advance. While calendaring is typically an administrative task, you, the attorney, are ultimately responsible for meeting these deadlines. If possible, schedule weekly meetings with your assistant to ensure that the calendar is up to date.
Realize that most of what you do as an attorney has been done before. The wheel has been invented, so do not spend your time—and your client’s money—reinventing it. Seek out another attorney who has done what you are being asked to do and look for other resources available in your firm.
As with most aspects of family law, it is important to be prepared, starting with the consultation. Prepare for a consultation as you would for any other client meeting. The potential client will have a lot on their mind and will often jump from subject to subject; try your best to focus the discussion. Prepare a form document in advance of the consultation with a list of all subjects you want to address to ensure you and the potential client discuss all matters that may prove important to your analysis of the case. Remember that the potential client is coming to you for advice, and you will likely be in a better position to distinguish extraneous information from relevant aspects of the case. Consider utilizing a case information statement as a roadmap for the discussion. Write down all pertinent information so that if the client does, in fact, retain your firm, you already know general information regarding the engagement such as their children’s ages, their marriage date, their address, etc. The client will appreciate that you avoid redundant communication and will be impressed that you are promptly prepared to commence their case.
Once you are working on a matter, familiarize yourself with the case file. Know all the details. Run the numbers and analyze the case information statements. When you have questions about financial matters or custody, contact the forensic accountants and custody experts. Meet and speak with your client before every conference, court appearance, or mediation. If a partner at your firm asks you to address an issue on a case you have not worked on previously, review the entire file to avoid unnecessary and time-consuming questions to the partner and the client.
Understand your client’s stated position regarding financial matters and custody/parenting time issues, and the basis for their requests. Often, your client may base their requests on anecdotes from friends and family without an understanding of the law or recognizing that all cases resolve differently. Manage their expectations.
Knowing your judge is as important as knowing the case file. Every judge has his or her own idiosyncrasies, and you should know what to expect from a judge before you step into their courtroom. Appearing in court can be stressful for your client, but you can help put them at ease by telling them what to expect. If you are unfamiliar with the judge in a given case, talk to other attorneys in your firm. If they do not know the judge, call your colleagues in the county in which you will be appearing.
Review the case law and relevant statutes. Sign up to receive daily updates on new cases, both published and unpublished. Read and analyze these daily updates. Do not hesitate to review the Rules of Evidence before a court appearance. Do not merely take the minimum number of CLE credits to satisfy yearly requirements; instead, seek out additional classes and seminars that might advance your particular practice.
You cannot possibly micromanage for every possible contingency, so you must trust in your preparation and instincts. Although you may have less litigation experience than opposing counsel or the judge, remember that you, too, are an attorney. If you have prepared adequately for your court appearance or mediation and present your position with confidence, you have successfully advocated on behalf of your client. You may not win the case or motion at hand, but it will not come as a result of being unprepared. Understand that the facts will not always be in your favor.
Your reputation is vital to your career. You should think of it as your most important asset, and one that can be fleeting. The court, your peers, and your clients will only take a few minutes to evaluate your worth as an attorney, so make the most of that brief window. Your words and behavior affect your reputation, your client’s reputation, and your employer’s reputation. So while you, as a young attorney, may be anxious to have your voice heard and respected, you must think before you act.
The family law bar is a small community and word spreads fast. Litigation, generally, is adversarial by nature; this is especially true in family law. Family law is defined by conflict, emotion and stress, and often, the parties’ passions lead attorneys to regret their actions. Take a deep breath when faced with a difficult situation. Never insult or disrespect opposing counsel or their client. Do not allow the crumbling relationship between the parties to dictate the tone of the litigation and compromise the integrity of our profession. Wait an hour or more before sending out a letter or email to opposing counsel or the court if you question the tenor of the correspondence.
A dose of civility goes a long way towards settling a contentious case. While our clients expect us to aggressively represent their interests, recognize that professional courtesy, fair tactics, and adherence to the rules and law are in fact compatible with vigorous advocacy and zealous representation. Always remember that you will most likely work with opposing counsel in the future, and you will almost certainly see them at local and regional bar events.
Always be on time. You may have prepared for weeks, but if you are late to court, mediation, or any other meeting, your preparations will go to waste. Your client will be unhappy, the judge, experts and opposing counsel will likely respond unfavorably, and you may invite sanctions for you and your client. Factor in enough time for foreseeable issues such as weather, traffic, parking, security, and getting lost.
Trust your instincts and be proud of your work product. Have a mentor in your firm or another member of the bar. Learn from them and ask them questions. Ask for feedback, even when it may be painful or difficult to hear. When you are waiting in court to be heard, do not stare at your phone. Use the time to observe other attorneys in action. Watch how they interact with the judge, courtroom staff, and their clients. Take note of behavior to emulate and behavior to avoid. With time, you develop your own style and mature into the lawyer you want to be.
Transitioning from learning the law to eventually imparting legal advice is stressful. You may be the least experienced person in the room, but confidence, preparedness, and organization will go a long way. The longer you practice, the more your skills will improve, the more law you will learn, and the more comfortable you will become. Each year, you will look back and be astonished with how much you have grown as an attorney. As the years go by, you will have more experience and your skills will improve along with your confidence. Soon enough, you will be imparting your own set of advice to younger attorneys.
Sandra Starr Uretsky, is an associate with Donahue, Hagan, Klein & Weisberg, LLC, in Morristown, New Jersey.