Reputation and Relationships

Ian H. Fisher & Eugene E. Endress - March 29, 2017

Reputation and Relationships: Advice for First-year Law Students

The first year of law school can be all-consuming. 1Ls have their hands full just surviving their studies, and business development is likely far from their minds—as it should be. The first year of law school is not the time to worry about marketing or developing business for an eventual legal practice. A 1L’s energies are better spent on learning to break down a court opinion, for example, or to distinguish the mens rea for murder from that for manslaughter. Nevertheless, our advice to 1Ls is to be aware that even in the earliest stages of your legal education, you are laying the foundations for two of the most important aspects of business development: reputation and relationships.

The legal community is surprisingly small, and you will run across the people sitting next to you in class for the rest of your career. Realize that you are already making your reputation. Act a fool now, and your classmates will remember. Be diligent and show judgment, and they will remember that instead.

An attorney’s reputation is his or her most valuable asset. Fortunately, the keys to developing a good reputation are simple: Do your work, and act with integrity. While it would be nice if we could all be superstars, you do not need to be the brightest in the class or have the highest grades to have a good reputation. Whatever your grades, you will earn respect if you diligently prepare for class (or study group), and behave honestly and ethically inside and outside the classroom.

Develop a sense of self-awareness to determine whether you are on the right path. Are you the type of person that your classmates want in their study group? Or, do they avoid group projects with you? Are you prepared for your classes? Or, do you arrive without having studied the material and try to wing it? Do you complete your own work? Or, do you recycle the work of others to avoid having to struggle with the material? Are you making life choices outside the classroom that could give your classmates reason to doubt that they can trust you professionally? Try to answer these questions honestly. They will help you to identify areas for self-improvement. Do not be discouraged by the inevitable missteps you make along the way. You started building your professional reputation on the first day of law school, but each day you have a new opportunity to better it.

Nearly as important as your reputation are your relationships with your classmates. Years from now, you will laugh with them about how you spent your first year together scared to death; your second, working to death; and your third, bored to death. That camaraderie with your classmates is tremendously valuable in itself. Spend time with the classmates you enjoy. Let your relationships naturally grow. Enjoy them. There is no point in spending time with people with whom you share no affinity, and besides, life is too short to do so. As a fringe benefit, you will find that your friends from law school will form a valuable professional network once you become a practicing attorney.

Maintaining these relationships during law school tends to be easy. Classes and extracurricular involvements provide frequent opportunities for fellow students to interact with each other. However, once you begin practicing law, it takes more effort to maintain these relationships because of competing demands on your time, such as work or family obligations. As your legal career progresses, make a habit of occasionally reaching out to your friends from law school. Social media, like Facebook or LinkedIn, are great ways to stay in touch and keep current. For those friends who practice in other cities, make a point of meeting them for coffee or a drink when you are in their towns. It is as much about enjoying a balanced life with your friends as it is about business.

Importantly, relationships that may later support business development are a two-way street. You are likely to be a consumer of legal services in the future. You may find yourself in-house looking for an outside counsel you can really trust. Or, you may practice as outside counsel but find you need to refer a matter to someone else because it is outside of your practice area, would raise a conflict of interest, or is geographically inconvenient. Look for these opportunities to send appropriate work to your friends. Doing so benefits all concerned. Your friends will appreciate your efforts to facilitate their business, and will be eager to help you the next time they are in a position to make a connection.

Your first year is just the initial step in a career that will hopefully span many decades. As one of the co-authors can attest, almost 25 years after his first year of law school, he is still in touch with many of his classmates (most importantly, the one he married). He has often referred matters to those classmates he respects and he always looks for chances to work with them. In fact, one of his 1L study partners is now his law partner and one of the key reasons he moved to his current firm. Another classmate is occasionally his opposing counsel and their relationship benefits both of their clients. Others are in-house at companies that have become clients or have been great sources of referrals. Although his connections with these people have grown and evolved over many years, they began when he was a law student taking the first important steps toward developing his reputation and relationships.