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January 01, 2016

First-Time Lawyer: Reflections on the Early Years

Emily Crandall Harlan

We’ve all heard that law school teaches you how to think like a lawyer about the law. But what teaches you how to think like a lawyer about the many other aspects of the practice of law?

The answer, of course, is real-world experience. Nothing can really prepare you to practice law until you start. Pure hard work—which helped push you through college and law school—will no longer be enough to sustain you. Here are some challenges you may encounter in the early stages of your legal career.

For starters, bringing in new clients, and more work from existing clients, is key to a young lawyer’s chances of success, at least for lawyers working in the private sector. Because professional relationships bear fruit over time, it is never too early to start networking and preparing a business development plan that includes publications, speaking engagements, and other professional accomplishments to gain recognition in your field and your region.

Active participation and leadership in professional associations, another means of developing professional relationships, takes time—time you must make on top of your plate of client work. Meaningful business development also takes intention. Developing strong relationships and maintaining them take early and continued effort and focus.

When it comes to client work, your role as a trusted legal advisor and confidant is important, but merely providing legal advice is not enough. Clients expect lawyers to know their businesses inside and out, to identify areas for efficiencies and improvements, and to suggest solutions tailored to business needs, not just legal ones.

Equally important to building your business is knowing how to work with each particular client according to its needs and style. In some instances, this will involve helping clients distill key points from a wealth of information and resist unproductive side issues; in others, you may be faced with extracting information from a client who views the case as a nuisance or a discomfort. Remember: It’s your client’s case, not yours. Be flexible regarding each client’s priorities, but also make sure the needs of the case are met.

Stay attuned at the office, too. Remember that there are bad questions. Asking a senior attorney questions you can resolve by yourself will make you look unresourceful and unfocused. (Case in point: “How many pages do we have for the reply brief?”) Take the assignment you are given, sort through the information you obtain during the initial discussion about it, and try to figure things out by yourself. If you must go back to the assigning attorney with a question, approach it in a way that shows that you tried to answer it yourself first. That will demonstrate that you are resourceful and value your colleague’s time.

Recognize early on that sometimes, there is no answer. Many lawyers are uncomfortable with uncertainty. Look for an innovative argument or solution, and when you don’t think of one, sweat it out in the black hole of case law. In either case, with time, your comfort level with uncertainty will grow, as will your ability to predict future outcomes based on past experiences.

Given all these challenges that the beginning stages of your career can present, one last surprise about becoming a lawyer deserves the final mention: A strong personal network is just as important to the success of your career as a strong professional one. The practice of law is a career, not a job, and can often be all-encompassing. The necessity of support from your family and friends—in particular from the people most affected day-to-day by your career—can surprise even the best-prepared junior lawyer. It should never be underestimated.

Emily Crandall Harlan

The author is with Nixon Peabody LLP, Washington, D.C.