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January 13, 2014 Articles

Succeeding in the Firm

Focusing on the day-to-day activities will help ensure success.

By Justin L. Heather

Beginning in a new firm can be daunting. Although law school taught you how to “think like a lawyer” and maybe provided some practicum courses, nothing in law school prepares you for the realities of firm practice. You are no doubt prepared to research and write on a wide range of topics, but how do you get the job done while juggling multiple partner and client demands, keeping track of deadlines, and remembering the client code for the copier? Here is some practical advice on ways in which new lawyers can survive and thrive in a new law firm. While much of this is particularly appropriate for new lawyers, the more seasoned practitioner woulddo well to keep these suggestions in mind as well.

Always Have a Pad and Pen
Lawyers are in the business of communication. Whether it is research and writing, speaking with clients or opposing counsel, or addressing the court, effective communication is an essential tool of all lawyers. When clients call or you are in a meeting with other attorneys, a pad and pen are essential to making sure you have all the details necessary to your assignment. No one can remember every detail from every conversation, and, more importantly, facts initially thought to be insignificant may later prove to be important. In short, always have a pad and pen handy to take notes and record your thoughts for future reference. Even a brief meeting or impromptu conversation may lead to work and you should be prepared at all times.

Ask “Stupid” Questions
As the old saying goes, there are no stupid questions. While that may or may not be true, the unasked question can be the most important. For example, questions about deadlines, governing law, jurisdiction, and the like are frequently the difference between a successful draft and failure. Asking questions also tells the supervising attorney that you are thinking about the project and the pertinent issues. Young lawyers are often worried about making themselves look bad or showing a lack of knowledge or experience. All lawyers were new lawyers once, and the vast majority of lawyers will understand the need for questions and appreciate your interest in learning more about the task at hand.

Do Not Be a “Gunner”
We all remember the first semester of law school, where at least a few of our fellow students raised their hands in response to every question and volunteered at every opportunity. Although first-semester grades often cured this particular habit, many young lawyers forget this lesson and become a “gunner” when they begin practicing, volunteering for every assignment and overextending themselves. Supervising lawyers appreciate enthusiasm and a willingness to take on new assignments, but they appreciate timely completion of quality work more. Completing a few assignments on time and of high quality is much more impressive than taking on a larger number and missing deadlines or providing mediocre work product.

Meet Deadlines
Deadlines are one of the most important items in the practice of law. Missing a filing deadline can result in the waiver of arguments or your client’s rights. The results of such a failure are obvious. Missing internal deadlines can have equally disastrous consequences for your career. It is essential that young lawyers adhere to and observe the deadlines provided by other attorneys. To avoid procrastinating on projects and risking missed deadlines, consider practicing the half-time rule—complete the project or draft in half the time you have available. For example, if you are given two weeks, strive to complete the first draft (including caption, signature block, and other essentials) within one week, which will allow you time to review and revise and create a polished final work product. A missed deadline is an objective standard by which you will be measured harshly.

Do Not Reinvent the Wheel
Technological advances and the adoption of uniform standards have lead to the use of forms for many types of legal documents such as powers of attorney and basic wills. Although not all legal filings are amenable to such interchangeability, most lawyers and firms have some form of repository of documents or samples from which lawyers can draw. For example, simple motions to extend time, agreed protective orders, and other routine motions generally follow the same structure and need only be slightly modified for use in other cases. Whenever asked to complete an assignment, you should ask the supervising lawyer if there are any samples that he or she would like to be followed.

Keep Track of Your Time Daily
The death of the billable hour is greatly exaggerated, as many, if not most, firms continue to use the billable hour to account for lawyer time and charge clients for services. If your firm requires you to track your time, make sure to do so daily. Keeping track of your time on a daily basis will help ensure accuracy. Waiting even a few days can lead you to forget time or otherwise inaccurately record your time. Accurately and promptly recording your time is important, especially where compensation, bonuses, and sometimes even retention are based on billable hours.

There Is No “I” in “Team”
Young lawyers generally will work with other lawyers in the firm, especially early on in their practice. Lawyers are not the only members of the legal team at most firms. In addition to your fellow lawyers, legal assistants, secretarial, and other support staff are there to assist you in completing your client’s work. Lawyers need to be mindful of the importance of such staff members to make sure deadlines are observed, briefs are cite-checked, and the client’s needs are met. Young lawyers must be mindful to recognize the importance of the support staff in successfully serving clients and acknowledge that the staff often have longevity in the firm and are invaluable resources.

Challenge Authority
All too often as young lawyers, we tend to defer to the partner or senior associate in matters of strategy and process. I am not suggesting that you ignore such advice and direction, but rather think critically about the tasks you are given, both singularly and in the context of the client’s overall circumstances. If you are asked to draft a motion to dismiss a complaint under your local circuit law, consider whether the subject matter (such as certain intellectual-property issues) is governed by the Federal Circuit rather than regional circuit court law. Although moving to dismiss a state-court complaint may make sense at first blush, consider whether removal to federal court is more appropriate, especially if federal case law is more favorable to your client’s position. In other words, standard or traditional approaches to a case are often correct, but the astute lawyer will at least investigate whether the particular circumstances suggest a different approach. Be prepared for rejection, as there very well may be reasons for a particular course of conduct. Your supervisors, however, will appreciate your initiative and critical thinking with respect to the client’s situation.

To be successful, young lawyers must be focused not just on their career path but also on the smaller, day-to-day activities that help ensure success. Hopefully these steps will help you manage the everyday practice of law.

Justin L. Heather is the content manager for the Young Advocates Committee, and is with Korey Cotter Heather & Richardson, LLC, in Chicago, Illinois.