Young Lawyers Network:

Young Lawyers Network

When I was fresh out of law school, I bought a copy of Grover E. Cleveland’s Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: The Essential Guide to Thriving as a New Lawyer. In this book, Cleveland paints an accurate picture of expectations placed upon first-year attorneys, gives advice on how to succeed as a new attorney, and shares his observations regarding the various mistakes he witnessed associates and law clerks make at his own law firm. This quick read has practical advice on every page that can benefit one’s career at any time. Having recently plucked it from the bookshelf at home on a whim, I was amazed at how much more his advice resonated with me now—six years into the practice of law—than it did when I was a “baby” lawyer. I was pleased to see that many mistakes were avoided while noting, candidly, that some were not. Below are ten lessons from the book that stand the test of time:


  1. Build relationships with one or two key lawyers by making their lives easier. The importance of having a lawyer in your corner as you start and develop your career at a law firm cannot be understated. Time is a lawyer’s most valuable asset. If you have a lawyer who is willing to spend time teaching and training you in a certain practice area, show gratitude. You will benefit by developing your skills as a budding lawyer. If you produce quality work, you will have an advocate for future promotions and bonuses.
  2. Remember the practice of law is a business. Any time you spend on a client matter is time that you cannot spend on another client matter. Therefore, your work must be quick and efficient in addition to being impeccable. For example, if asked to prepare a memo for a client, your work cannot be the purely academic exercise it was in law school but must be useful, polished, and produced in a timely manner that is affordable to the client. In law school, you can spend countless hours researching and writing an article. At a firm, the amount of time you spend on a matter has to bear some relation to the amount of money a client is willing to pay. Otherwise, the firm has to write off time. That means the firm paid you to do work that it gave the client for free. That’s not a sustainable business model.
  3. Develop skills that are important to the firm. Figure out what practice areas are the “bread and butter” for your firm and consume as much knowledge in those areas as you can, whether through your work, review of treatises, or other secondary sources (i.e., newspaper articles or trade publications). Doing so will convey enthusiasm and commitment to the firm.
  4. Resist attempts to change the firm. New lawyers inevitably see things they would change. Initially, it is best to just keep your head down and work.
  5. Recognize that other lawyers at your firm are your “clients” in the beginning of your legal career. When given a task, especially the first go-around, display enthusiasm and be keenly aware of any deadlines to complete the project. Do a good job. Good work begets additional work. You are ultimately responsible for securing enough billable work to manage and build your practice.
  6. Know the crucial aspects of any assignment given to you. Find out these five details: (1) the specific client you represent; (2) the exact problem that you are being asked to solve; (3) how much time the attorney thinks you should spend on the project; (4) how the attorney wants you to provide the information (memo, oral, discussion, etc.); and (5) when the attorney expects to receive your finished product.
  7. Never let colleagues in the firm see you sweat. You must be able to handle the significant stress of juggling many high-stakes projects, meeting challenging deadlines, and doing superior legal work. Take steps to manage your stress, but do not let your colleagues see you buckle under pressure. If you need a time-out, take it behind closed doors.
  8. Plan daily. Take time every morning to plan your work day. This helps you prioritize what needs to be done. Make a list of everything you absolutely must get done that day and approximately how long you think it will take—or at least how long you can spend on each project—and get it all done in time.
  9. First impressions matter. While mistakes are going to happen (we are all human), try to make them (to the extent possible) well after you have produced exceptional work for the supervising attorney. If you make a mistake after a proven track record, it will be easier for the supervising attorney to look past it.
  10. Become indispensable. To become indispensable to a senior lawyer, you need to deliver useful, error-free work with minimal hand-holding.