It may be hard to believe, but I still recall my first year as a lawyer 25 years ago. While my research and writing skills were average to good, I didn’t have the first clue about the business of law or what it meant to exist in the structure of a law firm. Here are a few lessons I have learned that have allowed me to progress in my career:
It is not a job; it is a profession. The law is our profession. It is our craft. It is not just a “job.” If you were a musician, you would spend time on your own practicing, listening to other musicians, and finding ways to perfect and hone your skill. Being a lawyer is no different. You should look for ways to make yourself deeply knowledgeable about the areas of law in which you are practicing. When I had my first securities case, I read the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 from cover to cover (and many of the key regulations)—on my own time. I wanted to make sure I understood the breadth of the law governing the case I was handling. I wanted to be able, competently, to “issue spot” so that I could do more than simply answer a question, so that I could think about and offer ideas about strategy. One of the last sections I read (section 29) later became the key to defeating a motion for summary judgment. It had never been cited for the proposition we advocated, and there were only a few cases that had ever cited that provision of the federal securities laws. I am not suggesting that you have to read every statute from cover to cover. What I am suggesting is that, in your own way, try to keep abreast of the law and, importantly, changes in the law. There are terrific articles (like those contained in Section of Litigation committee newsletters and publications), law firm updates, and blogs on virtually any subject. So, whether you focus on insurance, products liability, employment, securities litigation, or environmental law, there are many resources that are regularly updated that contain practice pointers and historical information (archives) in addition to the latest changes in the law. Spend 20 minutes before the start of every day working to hone your craft because it will simply make you a better lawyer and a more valuable member of the team.
I am a consumer of legal services. As a senior partner, I am no different from the mid-level associate, the senior associate, or the junior partner you are working with in the following sense: We are all consumers of your legal services. We are buying; you are selling. If we don’t like what you’re selling, we’re going to move to the next store. So treat everyone you provide work to directly as “the client” because, in the sense I just described, they are consuming your legal services. There are certain keys to ensuring that the product you provide meets your “client’s” needs, but the first step is the most important—communication. Make sure you have a very clear understanding of the question you are being asked, how long the client wants you to take, and in what format the client wants the answer. If you don’t understand the assignment, when it’s due, and in what format it should be delivered—get clarification.
What you may think of as menial tasks have an important purpose, and mastery of them will allow you to shine. Document reviews. Privilege logs. Cite checking. Proofreading. Mastering the rules of civil procedure and the local rules. Embrace those tasks during this early stage of your career. They may seem at the time boring and unglamorous, but they are by no means “menial” in the derogatory sense of the word. They are the foundation of good lawyering. I can assure you also that shining in those areas—being the “go-to person” who knows the rules or can be counted on as an efficient, organized, and careful lawyer—will allow you to advance. I am always “shopping” at a store that delivers the goods on time and efficiently and that knows the rules inside and out.
Writing. Writing. Writing. And, oh, yeah, writing. There is no way to progress as a litigator without an incredibly solid foundation as a legal writer. Period. This is something that everyone (myself included) needs to focus on day in and day out. One of the biggest issues I see with young lawyers is finding their “advocacy voice.” They can write terrific, objective memoranda, but they struggle when it comes to taking a position. One quick suggestion is to pull a brief (or three) written by the partner you are working for (or written by someone you have heard is a good writer). Take note of how the brief is organized. Notice the style of writing (matter of fact or forceful). Notice sentence structure (I personally don’t like sentences with more than 20 words) and how the writer incorporates case citations and case discussions into her argument. If you are working for a partner, it might make sense, in the short term, to borrow her advocacy voice until you find one of your own.
You are going to make mistakes, but you will survive. Obviously, try to get it right. Be diligent. Find a mentor or two and ask the people around you for guidance. But you are not always going to get it right (none of us does). When you do make a mistake, own it, learn from it, and move on. Ultimately, you will learn a lot more from your mistakes than from everything you got right. The important thing is to demonstrate to the people you work with that you recognize the mistake you made and that you will strive not to make it again.
Your opinion matters. Open dialogue is critical to our collective success, and it is often very helpful to have a fresh pair of eyes. You were hired because you are smart and the people you are working with have placed their trust in you. If you hold back, you are shorting your team. I can think of many occasions where the youngest member of one of our case teams made a point that ended up driving part of our strategy. And, as I wrote above, I can remember times where I, as the youngest member of the team, made a point that drove our strategy. This is as true in a meeting as it is when collaborating on a brief. If you think an argument should be edited to be stronger, speak up. Seize the opportunity to contribute meaningfully.
Seek real-time feedback. The people you are working for are busy. Sometimes they simply do not have time or do not think to give you meaningful feedback about your work product. Take a moment to poke your head into the office of your immediate supervisor (the person who edited your work) and ask what she thought of your work product and, especially, steps you can take to improve. The last thing you want is for a criticism to come up for the first time months later during your biannual or annual review. By that time, you may have made the same mistake or written in a way that has bothered her for a long time. It is critical to your advancement in any organization to make sure you know—in real time—whether the work product you are producing is subpar, average, or excellent.
Just say yes. My involvement in the leadership of the Section of Litigation started almost 20 years ago with an email blast that went out to members of a certain Section of Litigation committee (frankly, I can’t even remember which committee). The email asked whether anyone wanted to serve as an advocate on a program at an upcoming ABA Annual Meeting based on a fictional appeal of a judgment in a case brought by the Estate of the Witch against Hansel and Gretel. I replied immediately with a “yes.” I had never spoken on a panel before. Nevertheless, I took a chance, prepared thoroughly, and apparently did a good job because someone in the audience approached me and asked whether I wanted to get involved in the leadership of the Section of Litigation (again, the answer was “yes”). The point is this: Take chances and stretch beyond your comfort zone—whether it is seeking out or saying yes to an opportunity to take a deposition or argue a dispositive motion or second-chair a trial. You never know whether saying yes in that instance might have a significant impact on your career.
Pro bono work is not only personally gratifying but will make you a better lawyer. It hardly seems necessary to make this point because I know most of you are very interested in representing clients who are vulnerable, cannot afford a lawyer, or have nowhere else to turn. There are organizations in virtually every community that can use your help. Working on a pro bono matter may also allow you, as a first – or second-year lawyer, to stand in front of a state or federal court judge or an administrative law judge and advocate on your client’s behalf. It may be a case in which you take your first fact or expert deposition. It may be a case in which you take the lead in drafting a dispositive motion. So talk with your supervisors about how you can integrate pro bono work into your practice. I can assure you that it will not only be personally gratifying but will make you a better lawyer. If your firm does not have dedicated pro bono resources, think about reaching out to the cochairs of the Section’s Children’s Rights Litigation Committee or the Access to Justice Committee.