As a young lawyer, advocating for yourself can be tricky. Figuring out when and how to stand up for yourself—while also developing your practice and becoming a reliable team player—is often more complicated than it seems. Here is some advice from seasoned attorneys to help you navigate the dos and don’ts of starting your legal career.
What advice do you wish you would have received when you first started practicing law?
I was one of very few visibly Muslim women practicing law in my region. From the time I decided to become an attorney to my experience in law school and then to my early days in practice, so many people (some well-intended) told me about all the difficulties and challenges I would face. They were not wrong but, at some point, I finally stopped listening to other people’s limitations on what I could achieve through my career. I wish more people had encouraged all the possibilities instead of focusing on the challenges.
—Roula Allouch | Of Counsel | Graydon Law | Cincinnati, Ohio
The lion of the litigation section at Haynes and Boone, George Bramlett, liked to say that a lawyer’s career develops in two levels. The first, after several years, is to learn the craft of your specialty. For example, as a litigator, you can take a decent deposition, handle yourself in court, and draft any required court paper. After several more years, the second is to “be relevant”—in some way leading and shaping your field. That can come in many forms: bar leadership, mentoring young lawyers, etc.—but it is tricker than it may seem and requires you to be very aware of your skills and interests because you aren’t going to make a meaningful contribution to a field that you don’t like. If I had heard—and internalized—this advice earlier, I would likely have turned my practice focus to appellate law much earlier than I did.
—David Coale | Partner | Lynn, Pinker, Hurst & Schwegmann | Dallas, Texas
Don’t lose yourself. It is tempting when you first start practicing to make law practice your entire life (and it doesn’t help that many employers would be thrilled if you devoted all of your time to billing). This is a ticket to burnout and stress-related health problems. When I started practicing, I had an undiagnosed autoimmune disease, and forgoing my hobbies and working long hours exacerbated the disease and its symptoms. Even though I made bonus money, it was not worth the toll on my health and personal relationships.
—Richard Rivera | Partner | Smith, Gambrell & Russell, LLP | Jacksonville, Florida
I don’t think young associates have—and I know I didn’t have—a realistic sense of the business of the practice of law. Law schools and law firms want young lawyers to develop into deep thinkers, effective writers, and good advocates; however, they shouldn’t ignore that law firms are a business and that the best advocacy won’t pay the bills if you don’t have the wherewithal to generate business. At my first law firm, we were told not to concern ourselves with client relationships, to concentrate on our development as lawyers, and the rest would take care of itself. But once we became senior associates, it felt like we did need to participate more fully in the client generation/business side of the law firm, but we hadn’t received the training to make that happen. I know I and several of my fellow senior associates were frustrated by that. My advice would be to seek out mentors or training for those soft skills, even if your firm tells you not to worry about it. In law firms, those skills are just as necessary as being a good advocate.
—Lindsay Sestile | Columbus, Ohio
When I started my career, I erroneously thought that all you need to succeed is to do good work. So, I often stayed at my desk, polishing that brief or billing even more hours. However, while doing excellent work is very important, it is not sufficient. In addition to substantive intelligence, emotional intelligence is also critical. Emotional intelligence encompasses knowing and controlling your own emotions and recognizing and empathizing with the emotions of others. By being self-aware and in tune with others, you will build more effective relationships and be more successful. And, thankfully, you can develop emotional intelligence.
—Mary Smith | Immediate Past National Secretary, American Bar Association | Past President, National Native American Bar Association | Vice Chair, VENG Group | Lansing, Illinois
I wish someone told me about the value of “unplugging” at times. In my first years of practice, I was always working. I vividly remember things like working from my laptop within an hour of having Thanksgiving dinner, being in the office on Christmas Eve every year, and thinking it strange when others used words like “vacation.” I wish someone told me that it is not only acceptable to take a break from time to time but that it is also beneficial.
—Daiquiri Steele | Assistant Professor of Law | The University of Alabama School of Law | Tuscaloosa, Alabama
As a young lawyer, I never maintained a rigid dividing line between work time and personal time. Early on, I developed the habit of dragging work home and working too much on the weekends when I truly wasn’t expected to. I convinced myself that it was expected, that my future success demanded it, but in retrospect, those were expectations I largely self-imposed. Over the years, I learned that many times truly demand late hours and weekends, such as an intense stretch of depositions or prepping for and being in trial. The better default practice is to resist allowing work to bleed over onto personal time when you don’t need to. Once you get into the habit of answering emails at midnight and 5:00 a.m., people will come to expect that of you. By all means, check your emails and phone messages after regular hours to ensure your immediate attention isn’t needed, but then resist the urge to respond to those that are not urgent. My colleagues who have maintained more rigid lines between work and personal time seem to have more balanced and happy lives. If you make sure your colleagues and clients know that you are always available for them for truly urgent matters but that you otherwise intend to prioritize a healthy family and private life, they should admire and respect that philosophy. If they don’t, you might think about finding other colleagues and clients.
—Marty Truss | Office Managing Member | Dykema Gossett PLLC | San Antonio, Texas
Avoid unnecessary stress whenever possible. Being a lawyer is a naturally stressful job. There are deadlines and competing demands and high stakes. All of those things create the necessary stress that comes with the job. Unnecessary stress comes from filing a brief at the last minute and worrying about computer problems or leaving late for a meeting and hoping traffic is light or over-scheduling and hoping something miraculously gets continued. File early, leave early, and set realistic deadlines. The stress is manageable if you keep it to the necessary.
—Neil Westesen | Partner | Crowley Fleck | Helena, Montana