Going on my eighth year as a lawyer, I am on the cusp of what is considered a “young lawyer.” I have learned much in the past eight years, most not taught in law school. This column highlights some of those lessons for other young lawyers, so you can hopefully build a practice you desire, making you enjoy coming to work each day.
A Law Firm Is a Business—You Are a Salesperson
I start here because this is the most important lesson for young lawyers. If you are a lawyer in private practice, you are a salesperson. I know many lawyers will cringe when reading this statement, but you can be the greatest lawyer in the world, and it will not matter if you have no clients to represent. At some point in your career, likely earlier than you anticipate, your law firm will expect you to generate business. The earlier you realize that you are a salesperson, the more successful you will be as a lawyer.
This does not mean that you need to sell your clients services they do not need or that you need to resemble a sleazy used-car salesman. It does mean, however, that you need to make connections in the community so you are the go-to lawyer for people looking for your services. Some of the best resources that I have found as a lawyer are books that focus on business, not legal services. When I began thinking like a business owner, it grew my career. I built a strong book of business. Now, I regularly have recruiters contacting me to join other law firms. Ultimately, this shift in mindset allowed me to build the career I want, not the career someone else created for me.
Transparency Is the Key
When I first became a lawyer, I thought like many other lawyers: what we do should be done behind a curtain with the clients knowing only the major events. If a mistake happens, the instinct is to hide it from the clients or downplay the error. I have learned that the best way to be a great lawyer is to share as much information as possible with my clients. Mistakes happen. There is no avoiding it. But when you are open and honest with your clients, they understand and appreciate the honesty, allowing you to build better relationships with them.
I have had the opportunity to teach numerous CLEs on legal ethics. When preparing for those speaking engagements, I have learned that although money is the number one issue that gets lawyers in trouble, lack of communication is number two. When clients do not know what is happening in their case, they get frustrated. When they get frustrated, they file bar complaints. This is why I now make it a point to share as much information as possible with my clients and work collaboratively to make decisions jointly. There are times when you might have to tell a client that their desired course of action is not possible, but that does not mean they should not have the opportunity to be involved in your decision-making or know when things do not go as expected.
Learn from Other Industries and Life Experiences
When you think about running your own law practice, reflect on your own experiences with other companies. For example, when I was getting ready to open my current law firm, I had a bad experience looking for an accountant to help me with tax planning. The onboarding process with the accountants I contacted was frustrating, and one even blew me off for an appointment. This experience is not unique to accountants. Reaching out to a lawyer can be difficult, and, for many of our clients, this is their first time doing so. Due to my experience engaging other professionals for their services, I have improved the onboarding process at my firm, so new clients feel welcomed and comforted knowing that they have selected the right firm.
Similarly, I have been frustrated when I have not timely received information for medical appointments, and it has helped me focus on providing my clients with access to their information. The practice of law is one of the world’s oldest professions, but we can always improve. You can improve the way you interact with your clients–and subsequently their satisfaction with you —simply by thinking about your own life experiences. Sometimes the greatest instructors in this regard come from outside the practice of law.
These are just a few of the lessons that have instructed me in my career as a lawyer. I hope my experiences benefit you as you move forward in your career. The practice of law is a process of constant learning. I will learn much more as I advance in my career, as will you.
Best wishes to you on your journey.