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Eight Tips for Young Lawyers

Joseph C Merschman

Eight Tips for Young Lawyers

Being a new lawyer can be difficult. The work is demanding, the hours are long, and the environment, especially for litigators, can be stressful. While law school does a good job of teaching you to “think like a lawyer,” it does not always prepare you to hit the ground running and navigate the day-to-day realities of your new profession. This article provides practical advice for young litigators to try to fill that gap and help make the start of their careers a little less daunting.

1. Ask Questions

Many people, not just lawyers, are afraid to ask questions. They do not want to sound foolish or admit that they do not know something they think they should. So instead of speaking up and risking embarrassment, they remain quiet and perhaps think to themselves, “I’ll just look it up later.” Avoid this pitfall. Ask the question. If you are getting a new assignment from a partner, for example, make sure you raise any questions you have before you leave the meeting. When is this due? When should I circulate it internally? Can you explain more about that concept you mentioned? It is better to ask questions on the spot than to assume things that may not be true. Nobody knows everything, and asking questions is a great way to learn. It is also the best way to avoid an unpleasant surprise down the road if you thought X and your colleagues were expecting Y.

2. Communicate

This tip goes hand in hand with the first tip. It is important to keep your colleagues (and clients) updated. If a particular task takes longer than anticipated, let them know. If you are researching an issue and uncover a related issue that was not discussed, raise it. You should not assume the partner or senior associate with whom you are working has thought of everything or knows the full landscape of the law on a particular issue. Open lines of communication are key.

3. Accept That You Will Make Mistakes

Mistakes are inevitable. You will make mistakes in your legal career. The key is to learn from them, remember them, and avoid repeating them. Use mistakes as an opportunity to grow and become a better lawyer.

4. Be Thorough

Being a litigator often feels like you are under a constant deadline. There are external deadlines imposed by the court, internal deadlines imposed by your colleagues, and deadlines you may impose on yourself to balance everything on your plate. This pressure can make new lawyers feel that they have to find an answer as quickly as possible. Resist the urge to cut your research short and report the first case or two you find that addresses the issue as the “answer.” A better practice is to research an issue until each new case you find, including the most recently decided ones, all point back to the same one or two seminal cases on the issue. Then you can be confident that you have researched the issue thoroughly and obtained a firm understanding of the law on that issue.

5. Raise Your Hand

This tip may sound counterintuitive to a busy new lawyer, but do not hesitate to raise your hand when an opportunity arises to get a new experience. If you have drafted discovery objections but haven’t drafted discovery requests, raise your hand and volunteer to tackle them. You will find that you are forced to think about your case in a different way than when you are objecting or responding to requests. You will have to think about what issues are important, what documents might be helpful, and what facts you will need to establish to prove your case (or defend against the other party’s case). If you have experience in document discovery but have never taken a deposition, raise your hand for that. Your first deposition may not be of the opposing party or a key fact witness or the other side’s expert. But there may be a third-party or a relatively minor fact witness who also needs to be deposed, and that could be the perfect opportunity to take your first deposition. Raising your hand when those opportunities arise is a great way to get a broad base of experience and grow as a lawyer.

6. Ask for Feedback

Do not be shy about asking for feedback. Most lawyers are willing, even eager, to provide feedback and constructive advice to young lawyers. Unfortunately, many do not make it a part of their routine when working with new lawyers, but do not let that deter you. After you finish a brief, for example, ask the partner to set aside 15 minutes to discuss your draft, what you did well, and what you could do better next time.

7. Own Your Cases

Perhaps the best advice I received as a young lawyer was to take ownership of my cases. Taking ownership means thinking about the whole case, rather than just the discrete assignment you have been given. It can be tempting to focus on the assignment at hand, complete it as directed, and check the box. The better approach is to look beyond that silo and try to consider and understand the case more broadly. How does the motion you are working on fit into the case? Why is it important? What might happen if we prevail? What might happen if we lose? Should we file this motion at all? These are important questions to ask as a litigator, whether you are in your first year of practice or your twentieth.

8. Be Civil

You have heard it before: Civility in the legal profession is dying, and the level of discourse is deteriorating. While there may be some level of truth to each of those statements, it is also true that there are countless lawyers who practice with civility and professionalism.

Being a litigator does not mean being a jerk. You can fight vigorously for your client without demonizing the opposing party and counsel. The court will not be impressed with snide comments or ad hominem attacks, and making things personal will not get you or your client any closer to victory. So be civil and treat everyone with respect, and they will repay you in kind.