February 09, 2016 article

Top 5 Expectations for Young Lawyers

By Carmen D. Caruso

You have earned your law degree, and have gained admission to the bar. Some 33 years into my career, I am still as excited about being a lawyer as I was at the start. I hope that younger lawyers today will feel the same way.

Our January 2016 newsletter offers three very well-written articles on the subject mentorship in three smaller law firms, each of which, in its own way, is a litigation powerhouse.

Here, in this shorter piece, is a punch list of what I like to tell the younger lawyers on my team:

  1. Take Ownership
    Being an associate means you are a future partner in training. The more you can do to make yourself valuable to your firm, the more you are doing to help yourself. Remember that law firms exist for lawyers. There is a basic distinction in our roles, and what we should expect from each other, and from what we expect from staff.
  2. Team
    We can and should share in each other's growth and successes. Contributions to Team should not go unnoticed—or put another way, the player who gets an assist is as important as the player who scores the goal.
  3. Candor and Ethics
    There should be zero tolerance for lapses in candor, either within the office or in dealing with the outside world courts, clients, opposing counsels, vendors, or witnesses. Any questions about the truthfulness of a proposed communication should be discussed before speaking or pressing "send."

    An important part of candor is to immediately own up to any errors that are made. We are all human and we all make mistakes. As a general rule, the cover-up is usually worse than the crime. Please be candid in bringing any errors or problems to my attention.

    Likewise, there should be zero tolerance for violations of our professional responsibilities. If you have to ask if something is wrong, it probably is. But by all means, ask if you have any questions.
  4. Professional Growth
    Being a lawyer, working at a law firm, ought to be much more for you than just a job.

    In a healthy law firm, the assumption should be that each associate wants to grow into being the best possible lawyer that he or she can be, that is, to be among the best in our profession. This is not an easy task—and it extends to attitude as well as skills. It takes a lot of work and a sense of dedication.

    The partners in the firm should be committed to doing everything possible they can to provide good mentorship—and that might often include the encouragement for younger attorneys to become involved in bar association activities.
  5. Skills
    The following skills are a prerequisite to professional development:

    •Litigation skills: In a litigation practice, each young lawyer should be striving to become a first chair attorney capable of running a case, start to finish, as early in his or her career as possible.

    •Substantive law: Generalists are wonderful, but to develop business most good trial lawyers usually pick a couple of substantive areas in which to develop some expertise.

    •Technology: Technology to make litigators better and more efficient is here to stay, and young lawyers often have an opportunity to take lead roles on technology that will enhance their value to their firms.

    •Compliance with rules: Often overlooked, it is imperative that the youngest members of a litigation team be familiar with all court rules, codes of procedure, and standing orders that can impact the firm's cases. Don't be afraid to ask questions from the court's clerks when you have questions.

    •Good writing: It is impossible to imagine someone being a complete lawyer but a poor writer. Everyone should be striving to make his or her next brief better than the last one.

    •Spot the issues.

    •Learn to win.

    •Think outside the box—but at the same time, keep in mind that the "box" exists for a reason, and that we have to respect it.

Bottom line, professional growth, skills development, future business development, and ultimate career satisfaction all go hand in hand. "Complete lawyers," capable of persuading a jury, need to be "compete persons." To achieve your professional goals, it helps to get out of your comfort zones. Learn to take intelligent risk. Look for ways to interact with a variety of people in a variety of settings. Volunteer for something worthwhile. Push to meet new challenges in an unrelated field. Your admission to the bar is a high privilege that you earned through a lot of hard work, and now you owe it to yourself and to the profession to be the best lawyer that you can be.

Keywords: litigation, solo practitioners, small firms, young lawyers, professional development

Carmen D. Caruso founded Carmen D. Caruso Law Firm in Chicago, Illinois. He is the 2016 newsletter editor for the ABA Section of Litigation's Solo & Small Firm Committee.


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