November 13, 2013 Articles

Increasing Your Firm Profile: Practical Tips for Young Lawyers

By David L. Schwan

Fall has arrived, cold weather is around the corner, and thousands of new lawyers have begun working at firms across the country as they (anxiously) await their bar results. Over the past seven years of my practice, I have received a great deal of good advice that I wanted to synthesize and share with young lawyers who are beginning to navigate firm life. My goal is not to answer every particular question, but rather to provide a broad overview of how a new lawyer can set himself or herself apart from the pack. Keep in mind that these are general tips, and it is up to each of you to take this advice and apply it to your own circumstances, making it clear to partners and senior associates that you want to advance your career on many levels.

With that goal in mind, my advice can be divided into four categories, three of which correspond with litigation phases: (1) discovery, (2) pretrial, (3) trial, and (4) beyond trial.

As you begin work in litigation, you will most likely be assigned to a document review, sometimes on a very large scale. While this may not be the most glamorous work, keep in mind that document reviews can offer great advantages to a new lawyer. You may come across many irrelevant documents, but you could also have the opportunity to review and learn about documents that will be vital to the case going forward. You can then educate senior lawyers about what you have found and how those documents may be important to the legal issues and potential expert review.

Moreover, getting to know the facts and documents can provide you with a leg up on future depositions. The partner in charge likely will not send you, the new lawyer, out on a crucial deposition, but he or she may be open to your deposing a lesser fact witness or a third-party witness. By reviewing documents and making it clear to those in charge that you have developed a strong familiarity with documents for a certain witness, you can put yourself in a strong position to depose that witness or at least be a substantial participant in deposition preparation. The key is to identify those opportunities by learning about the case generally and your documents in particular, so that you can exploit those avenues during the litigation process.

A further advantage of learning the documents, besides becoming an expert on the conduct of certain individuals, is the knowledge you will gain about documents in relation to specific legal questions. In many cases, the documents will open new options in discovery for the assertion of additional defenses or claims. By gaining a deep knowledge of the documents, you will have the opportunity to be the go-to person on those documents and issues, increasing your profile with senior attorneys and even with clients. As you will see, client interaction is crucial, and at meetings you can show your value to the litigation team by speaking up on the issues you have analyzed with the help of the documents.

The next phase, and next point of advancement, is the pretrial period when everyone gets ready for the main event. A great way to show your interest is to volunteer for managing the pretrial task list. Not every trial team will have this in place, and if not, this is a great innovation for you to suggest. This gives you great control and understanding as to what tasks remain before trial among all the members of the team.

By managing the pretrial task list, you can work with senior lawyers to understand all that goes into pretrial planning, including the relative importance of tasks and upcoming deadlines. It also gives you a window into tasks in which you may be able to take ownership. For example, there may be pretrial motions (such as motions in limine or Daubert motions) that you can help prepare. You might also seek out witness preparation, especially cross-examination outlines for witnesses that you deposed. This can lead to stand-up opportunities in trial for you to take some witnesses’ testimony (and perhaps witnesses for whom you developed a familiarity during document review).

A great opportunity is to work on drafting or responding to a motion for a directed verdict, which is often referred to as a Rule 50(a) motion in federal court. If you are on the defense side, by trial you should be well aware of the main legal points for which a motion for judgment as a matter of law is appropriate. You also should be familiar with the trial testimony and exhibits to know areas of your opponents’ weakness as to the facts and what needs to be proved to survive a directed verdict. And by drafting or responding to a directed verdict motion, you will be well positioned to argue the motion in court.

Another great opportunity for speaking at trial is handling the objections to the jury charge. In many cases, you as a young associate will have the most familiarity with substantive and procedural questions of law that led to the crafting of the jury instructions, and you will be well prepared to object to your opponent’s proposed instructions and defend your side’s instructions.

Beyond Trial 
Outside the trial setting, there are many opportunities for a young lawyer to grow as a professional. I highly recommend that you get involved with pro bono cases that your firm may be referred from time to time. You may have the opportunity to represent clients in immigration and family-law matters that can lead to in-court experience at the state and federal levels. And if your firm has a pro bono partner or coordinator, you should reach out to that person to express your interest in getting involved. As I have said before, the key is for you to show interest to partners and others that you want to get this experience to give you further advantages with your regular caseload.

Another great activity beyond trial that will assist you with developing management and public-speaking skills is involvement in charitable and CLE/bar-association activities. Being on a charity board or volunteering your time will help you network with other professionals and give you the opportunity to manage people outside the legal profession. These are easily transferrable skills that will assist you in any law practice as you work with secretaries and paraprofessionals. Further, volunteering to present a CLE can also increase your profile at the firm and develop your public-speaking skills. You may get to work with partners on the CLE who can give you greater insight about a particular area of practice that might not arise during general litigation. You can also be active in ABA or local/state bar-association committees and write articles (such as this one) that help advance your writing skills, and participate in those organizations’ CLEs. These are great opportunities for networking at local and national levels.

Always keep your eyes open for involvement in social and professional activities beyond traditional litigation so that you can develop new skills and contacts. These are incredibly valuable as you move up your career ladder, wherever life takes you.

As your career begins (or continues in a new direction), remember that life for a new litigator contains many opportunities for professional development. There are many ways you can get involved and become indispensable during discovery and trial. And outside traditional litigation, there are several professional and charitable activities that need your time and talent, which, in turn, can give you additional skills for writing, management, and public speaking. So whatever you do, make sure that you are involved and your interests are known to those who can give you better work and recognition. In the end, this kind of collaboration is essential to your professional development.

Keywords: litigation, mass torts, career development, young lawyer

Copyright © 2018, American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association, the Section of Litigation, this committee, or the employer(s) of the author(s).