Inventing Yourself as a Professional: Part Two

Sara J. Berman
Everything you write and most everything you say—and the way you say it—is either building or detracting from your reputation.

Everything you write and most everything you say—and the way you say it—is either building or detracting from your reputation.

Thomas Barwick/DigitalVision via GettyImages

In Part I, I asked, “Who is lawyer you?” I asked how you describe yourself and how you want others to describe you. And we talked about certain skills you must have to transition well into the profession. In this segment, we will focus on communication. Again, to frame our thinking, let’s imagine you or I had to hire an attorney to help advise with some unexpected crisis or investigation—or to represent us in a court matter. 

I’ll go first: I would want at least one face-to-face meeting so that I can feel a bond, because I know I will have to trust this person. In future communications, I want my attorney to write clearly and succinctly because I pay for her time. I want clear summaries of the possible consequences of actions my lawyer will take on my behalf. And, I want to be informed of new developments in a timely manner, especially when there are decisions I, as the client, must make.

Now, your turn: How do you want your hypothetical lawyer to communicate with you? What is important?

Communication as Part of Transitioning to the Profession

The way you communicate is powerful evidence of your skills, judgment, and behavior. (Recall the dictionary definition of professionalism as “the skill, good judgment, and polite behavior that is expected from a person who is trained to do a job well.”)

Some big picture goals are to communicate carefully, respectfully, and in a timely manner. Here are some examples.

Communicate Carefully and Respectfully

Many new lawyers tend not to use email as extensively as many senior lawyers do. Think of professional emails as more like snail mail than texts: err on the side of formality. Write and send emails wisely and professionally. Watch what you write and how you phrase your messages. Avoid sending emails or texts that you may later regret by not being too quick to hit send. If possible, put emails in a draft folder overnight or at least a few hours, if you can and still be timely. Reread them with fresh eyes before sending them. (You may be under a lot of stress, and you may not catch typos, inappropriate wording or tone, or other issues that might stand out if you reread the message.)

An important tip: have a trusted colleague read important messages to get a second set of eyes and a reality check on unintended meanings, including unintended cultural incompetence.

Carefully read all the correspondence—letters, emails, and texts written by your supervising attorney and other lawyers you work with—read for tone, style, and content. Ask questions when something doesn’t make sense.

Follow Up

Answer all messages that call for replies. If you do not have time for a substantive response, send a brief acknowledgment that you received and will reply as soon as possible. Then, calendar a date to follow up so you respond fully when you say you will. When someone writes requesting that you do something, send a reply noting that the task has been completed. If you sent something important to someone else and do not receive a reply after a reasonable amount of time (maybe a week or two, depending on the circumstances), follow up politely.

Lawyers trade in words. How you communicate is who you are as a lawyer. Everything you write and most everything you say—and the way you say it—is either building or detracting from your reputation. Lawyering is an art, a craft, a practice: so, work each day of your professional life to continuously improve your reading, writing, thinking, and speaking skills. This will be your bread and butter, and your legacy.

Discover top tips on professional behavior in Inventing Yourself as a Professional: Part Three.

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Sara J. Berman, a graduate of the UCLA School of Law, is an author and thought leader in legal education with nationally recognized expertise in student success, distance learning, and the bar exam. Her publications include Bar Exam MPT Preparation & Experiential Learning for Law Students: Interactive Performance Test Training, and The Criminal Law Handbook: Know Your Rights, Survive the System and Represent Yourself in Court: How to Prepare and Try a Winning Case, both coauthored with UCLA law professor Paul Bergman, and, most recently, Bar Exam Success: A Comprehensive Guide, (ABA Publishing, 2d ed., 2019).