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April 03, 2018 Articles

Seven Habits Young Lawyers Should Develop to Overcome the Challenges of Litigation Practice

By Natasha S. Cooper

When the average person thinks of litigation, they likely envision the thrilling and high-intensity courtroom scenes portrayed on television shows like Law & Order or the classic movie, My Cousin Vinny. As any litigator would confirm, litigation rarely mirrors the level of excitement and drama portrayed on television and in movies, but it has its moments. As a fledging litigator, I have already experienced both the pressures and the thrills that come with my chosen career. I have learned that with the right guidance and tools, the litigation “joy” can outweigh the stress. In a recent Law360 Article, experienced litigators shared their tips on how to achieve success in this high-stress environment. Their seven tips for success revolve around habits of organization, discipline and efficiency, as follows.

Keep Perspective
Perspective is based on what you know. Stephen Kastenberg, a partner at Ballard Spahr LLP, encourages us to focus on understanding our clients’ needs and expectations. For example, understanding the client requires us to know the appropriate strategy when handling a case, “whether that’s litigating a matter to trial or avoiding a lawsuit,” he says. Understanding the client’s needs also translates to predicting their needs. “Be proactive by thinking in advance about the trajectory of a client’s case or goals,” adds Sandra Bresnick, cochair of Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan LLP’s global life sciences practice.

In my experience, fulfilling a client’s needs can be as simple as maintaining communication – being transparent. As Jill Del Monico, Associate General Counsel of Bank of America/Merrill Lynch recently explained at a panel discussion entitled Practical Tips for Fostering Strong Relationships with In-House Counsel, held at Bressler, Amery & Ross, P.C., in New York City, keeping the client in the loop regarding deadlines, expenses, or unexpected developments in the case is essential. Maintaining habitual client communication will allow you to become proactive and predict the client’s needs.

Trust Your Team
Delegation of work and trusting your team is key. Ed Chapin, managing partner of Sanford Heisler Sharp LLP’s San Diego office, describes the value in creating and using management tools such as checklists and timelines to ensure tasks are accomplished and work is disturbed evenly throughout a team.

This is great advice. I have found that unlike most law school experiences, the legal practice requires attorneys to thrive in a collaborative environment. The inherent nature of the law school “curve” is competitive and counterproductive to what attorneys, particularly litigators, do on a day-to-day basis. Every successful litigator needs a team. Even Wonder Woman has the Justice League. Developing delegation and management skills earlier in your career can help with your long-term success.

Set Goals Each Week
It is no secret that writing down your goals increases the likelihood of achievement in your career. Brendan O’Rourke, partner and cochair of Proskauer Rose LLP’s litigation department, explains the benefit of the habit: “when you put [goals] down in writing, you’ll be surprised at how much more relaxed you’ll feel.”

I could not agree more. Written goals provide you with the organization and clarity you need to accomplish them, whether it is a short-term daily task or a long-term professional goal. John Goddard, an American adventurer, author, and lecturer, is the prime-example of how written goals can propel you into achievement. Goddard, as a 15 year-old boy, wrote a list of 127 goals he wanted to achieve, many of which were farfetched adventures. Before his passing at age 88, he accomplished 120 of the 127 goals, including milking a poisonous snake and watching a cremation ceremony in Bali. Goddard had attributed his success to simply documenting his ambitions: “Until you write down your dream it is just a dream. Writing it makes it a goal.”

That being said, when writing your goals, it is important to strike a balance between the effortless and the unattainable. Indeed, in a Harvard Business Review Article, contributing editor Amy Gallo explains the importance of setting goals that are challenging and realistic: “If overly cautious, you will miss opportunities and settle for mediocrity.” However, Gallo warns, “poorly set goals can be destructive to employees’ morale and productivity.”

Maintain Your Professional Network
We have all heard the saying, “you are who you know,” or something similar to that idea. Michael Rhodes, cochair of Cooley LLP’s privacy and data protection and internet groups, explains that maintaining your network can become a key source of business. He describes “dot-connecting” as his way of maintaining his network. He defines dot-connecting as his use of his professional network “to bridge pieces of information or to start a conversation with unfamiliar lawyers about common issues.” He does this in addition to surveying six news sources from blogs with topics relating to his practice.

In my opinion, maintaining your network requires commitment to self-development, regardless of your profession. Elon Musk, Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates, Warrant Buffet, and Mark Zuckerberg all follow what is known as the “five-hour rule.” Michael Simmons, author of the article Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Oprah Winfrey All Use the 5-Hour Rule, found that these leaders set aside at least an hour a day, or five hours a week, for activities described as deliberate practice or learning. These activities include personal reading, reflection or experimentation.

I apply the five-hour rule when maintaining my network. I set aside time, either in the evenings or on the weekends, for bar association activities or readings related to my profession. As Forbes’ contributor Glenn Llopis wisely said in a 2012 Forbes article, “You are accountable for your own success. As such, it is your responsibility to discover your special gifts, attributes and capabilities that can give you a competitive edge and the greatest probability to have a flourishing career.” Thus, he advises, “invest in the right relationships: give them time and attention.”

Be Constantly Aware of Your Schedule
Technology today provides you with the tools to review your schedule whether you are inside or outside of the office. Mary Craig Calkins, an insurance coverage litigator at Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton, describes her habit of setting five-minute warnings for every scheduled meeting or conference call.

I too believe that reminders keep you aware of your schedule. Although the fundamental requirement is first establishing a schedule, I understand strict schedules do not work for everyone. If you want to avoid committing yourself to a strict schedule, I suggest assigning your tasks generally to either a morning, afternoon or evening slot. Then organize and prioritize. If you are more efficient in the morning, assigning your highest priority task to your morning agenda assures it will be accomplished.

Be Flexible
As described in the article, productivity comes from having the ability to quickly pivot and move forward. Sounds easy, right? Not always. For instance, what if you have finalized your schedule as suggested above, and then a client calls asking you to research and draft a memorandum on Wyoming’s long arm statute by 11:00 a.m. This was not on your morning schedule, so what do you do? If at all possible, you get it done. To that end, delegation is always an option—either for the new assignment or other items on your to-do list. A successful litigator should remain flexible and expect the unexpected to occur.

Alternatively, plan for the unexpected and do not overbook your schedule when creating it. I typically schedule two priority assignments per day, so if needed, less-pressing matters can be deferred and completed the following day. By doing this, I remain in control and feel accomplished, while allowing for the unexpected to occur.

Make Time for Your Family and Hobbies
Success comes with hard work but it does not have to be at the expense of no play. The Law360 Article explains that many litigators enjoy taking time either in the morning or night to read non-legal publications. Enjoying your hobbies and/or having family time refocuses you. “I find that it helps keep my ideas fresh in terms of how to express things,” says Mary Rose Alexander, chair of Latham & Watkins LLP’s environmental litigation practice.

I agree. Whether it is reading or listening to a novel during your commute, going for a walk during lunch, or heading to the gym after work, doing things that you enjoy outside of your job brings you happiness. I have found that this happiness allows me to stay engaged throughout the week and not burn out.

Staying organized, disciplined, and efficient will help create the necessary “me-time” away from the demands of our chosen profession. As mentioned above, with the excitement of litigation comes the pressures. Do not let the pressures hinder your success. By practicing the seven habits outlined here, you can increase the likelihood that you will flourish as a litigator.

Natasha S. Cooper is with Bressler, Amery & Ross, PC, New York City.

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).