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May 11, 2014

Ask the Section: What Is the One Practice Tip You’ve Learned in Your Career that You Wish You Would Have Known in Your First Couple of Years Practicing Law?

William H. Knight – April 1, 2014

A second-year associate attorney who still doesn't quite feel "like a lawyer" asks:

Dear Section of Litigation,

What is the one practice tip you've learned in your career that you wish you would have known in your first couple of years practicing law?

[Third Year's the Charm, Right?]

Dear "Third Year's the Charm":

I have heard some attorneys remark that they didn't quite feel comfortable or confident practicing law until they were in their 10th year, and others who seemed to hit their stride within six months.  The truth is that everyone feels like the suit is a costume for some period of time. To demonstrate, the JIOP Alumni Committee went "in-house" and forwarded your question to Section of Litigation leaders whose involvement with JIOP highlights their commitment to mentoring young professionals. Their personal experiences should help you feel a little less alone.

Learn to Anticipate Needs
An important skill to start developing early in your practice is to learn how to anticipate needs. The sooner you can master this skill, the more valuable you will be to your colleagues, your client, and the court.  For example, if you are a junior associate at a law firm, put yourself in the shoes of the more senior associate or the partner on the matter and ask what you can do to help that goes beyond the assignment that has been given to you.  It may be as simple as preparing a check list for a court filing or following up on an idea that was mentioned in passing by a more senior attorney.  If you know an area is of interest to a client and you see an article addressing it, forward the article with a note.  If you are helping to draft an argument or brief that will be submitted to the court, put yourself in the shoes of the judge and address the questions that you think the judge will have.  By learning to anticipate the needs of your different audiences, you will start to be noticed as a lawyer who goes beyond the call of duty, adds value to the work at hand, and advocates effectively.

Landis C. Best is a litigation partner at Cahill Gordon & Reindel LLP in New York, New York, and one of the JIOP Committee's national cochairs.

Ignore Distractions
I wish I had known early on to ignore the distractions that many opposing counsel attempt to impose by baiting, rude or unduly argumentative behavior. Those efforts are calculated and strategic and can be effective if they cause you to lose your focus. Successful attorneys are able to rise above the fray and engage only when it matters, and even then without internalizing the battle and losing energy for the war.

 The Hon. Barbara M.G. Lynn is a U.S. District Judge for the Northern District of Texas and an honorary JIOP national cochair.

Don't Put Off Until Tomorrow What You Can Accomplish Today
During my first years as a trial lawyer, I was often confronted with difficult and challenging situations that tended to prompt me into "procrastination mode."  The life of a litigator revolves around deadlines and the seemingly inevitable flurry of activity to meet them. In the midst of this treadmill of activity was the need to tackle the lingering difficult legal research issues or communicating with the client when the discussion might be difficult or the client's reaction unpredictable. Those tasks often got relegated to the end of my to-do list.

After a couple of years of practice, I started realizing that, more often than not, my trepidation was unwarranted.  There was an answer to the legal question, and despite my worries, the client was engaged and supportive in discussing the difficult issues. With this realization, I adopted the motto, "don't put off until tomorrow what you can accomplish today."

Try it. The next time you are sitting at your desk agonizing about when to make a difficult call about a nagging issue, pick up the phone, call the client, and address the issue.  I am willing to bet the result will be painless, and with a sense of relief you can move on to your next task.  The young attorneys whom I mentor are firm believers in my "motto."

Rudy Englund is a senior trial lawyer at Lane Powell in Seattle, Washington, and a JIOP regional cochair.

Don't Be Afraid
A lot of people early in practice are extremely afraid of making mistakes. You are going to make mistakes; it's inevitable. Just listen and learn from them and don't make them again.  If you have a fearless attitude, you are more apt to go after things you want, ask for opportunities, and be hungry and do things out of your comfort zone.  You will be able to take on more and be able to pick the assignments you like. In a very short time, you will be a leader among your peers. I have operated best when I have had ultimate confidence. You know your work is good and you can get it done. You will generate higher quality work and be happier in general. 

Christina Liu is an assistant general counsel at the Illinois Department of Insurance and a member of the JIOP Committee working group.

I think we've all been in your shoes, "Third Year's the Charm" (and many of us still are).  Confidence seems to be the key to feeling comfortable wearing the suit, and you can build confidence by: (1) anticipating needs; (2) ignoring distractions and negativity; and (3) confronting your fears.

Best of luck!

JIOP Alumni Committee

"Ask the Section" is a recurring column where JIOP alumni can submit anonymous career development questions and have them answered by specially selected Section of Litigation members who are the most qualified in that area. The JIOP Alumni committee developed this column to serve as a tool both for individual mentoring and to learn collectively from each other's professional growth. To submit an anonymous question, please e-mail the editor, Will Knight.

William H. Knight – April 1, 2014