September 01, 2014

Opening Statement: Practical Advice from a Practical Lawyer

An experienced lawyer distills 30 years into 10 tips.

Nancy Scott Degan

Growing up, I never knew any lawyers, and I never went to an Ivy League college or law school. Somehow, I survived. After a while, I even started to enjoy what I do. More than 30 years later, I still do. I have now litigated with and against some fine lawyers at some great firms, and along the way, I think I have learned a few things. I share some of them here as some practical advice from a practical lawyer.

1. Never underestimate your power. As a lawyer, you possess power that non-lawyers don’t. If you doubt this, volunteer at a homeless legal clinic. You will soon realize that your knowledge and experience enable you to solve many problems (including non-legal problems) that seem insurmountable to others When you share this power, you get more than you give.

2. Never underestimate your opponent. Some of the most effective lawyers I have encountered were not from prestigious firms or particularly well known in their fields. Especially if you are new to the profession, avoid stereotyping your opposing counsel. They may surprise you.

3. Reputation is everything. Whether dealing with clients, partners, opposing counsel, or judges, remember that everything you do and say contributes to your reputation and can enhance or limit your career. The world is round. The lawyer to whom you deny a courtesy today may be the same lawyer from whom you need a courtesy tomorrow.

4. Think about your closing argument. When you begin a case, and you have familiarized yourself with the issues, think about what you would say to a jury in your closing argument if trial were tomorrow. Use that closing argument during discovery to get the evidence you need.

5. Use outlines. You probably learned how to prepare an outline when you wrote your first book report in grade school. It’s time to brush up on that skill. Outlines can help you prepare for client meetings, organize thoughts for oral arguments, and get ready for depositions. A good outline identifies important issues and shows how they relate to one another. Lawyers who practice in any area at any level of seniority can benefit from the use of outlines.

6. You are never too old to learn. As a young lawyer, I learned a lot by sitting in partners’ offices waiting for an audience. I heard how they talked to clients, opposing counsel, and judges. That was invaluable experience. I continue to learn from others. When I travel alone by car or plane, I often listen to Section of Litigation podcasts ( litigation/resources/sound_advice.html) or audiobooks to try to improve my skills or learn about a new topic. I have listened to motivational speakers and psychologists discuss everything from positive thinking to sibling rivalry. As I prepared to assume the role as chair of the Section of Litigation, I watched how those who preceded me conducted their meetings and solved their problems. I know I’ll be a better chair as a result.

7. Don’t take yourself too seriously. This one can be hard for litigators, but it is important. We all make mistakes; ignoring them invariably causes problems. Acknowledging them illustrates your authenticity and honesty. And if someone with whom you work makes a mistake, you can rest assured that he or she probably feels worse than you do about it. Don’t dwell on it. Have a conversation about how the mistake can be avoided in the future and move on.

8. Thoughtful, handwritten notes never go out of style. At the conclusion of a recent case, I sent a handwritten note to a client expressing my appreciation for the confidence the company had placed in me. I was amazed at how grateful the client was for this personal expression of thanks. I also try to send handwritten notes to acknowledge friends’ and colleagues’ major life events. It makes me feel good, and I am always surprised by the strength of the reaction I receive in return. An e-mail does not suffice.

9. You can’t control other people’s actions, but you can control your reactions. Especially with litigation, repeating this to yourself and controlling your reactions when bad things happen can help you maintain your sanity and keep you out of trouble.

10. Smile. You’ll live longer.

Nancy Scott Degan

The author is a shareholder with Baker Donelson Bearman Caldwell & Berkowitz, PC, New Orleans, and chair of the Section of Litigation.