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 is the best advice you received when you first started practicing law?
A dear friend and mentor shared that it is called “the practice of law” for a reason. It helped me see we are all practitioners, doing our best to make the best recommendations and work toward the most favorable outcomes for our clients.
—Roula Allouch | Of Counsel | Graydon Law | Cincinnati, Ohio
“Don’t lose people.” Keep up with your classmates, your coworkers, and to the extent it can be done, opposing counsel. The legal world in your practice area isn’t that big, and you’ll run into the same people over and over again in different roles . . . opponents today, but law partners tomorrow, and then maybe clients somewhere down the line. When I started practicing, you had to do this manually—I had a huge Christmas card list—but modern social-media technology makes it much easier. Even so, you still have to work at updating your records and including new contacts in them as your practice develops. This part hasn’t changed, though—if you lose touch with someone, it’s a lot harder to re-establish the relationship than if you’ve kept in any contact with them.
—David Coale | Partner | Lynn, Pinker, Hurst & Schwegmann | Dallas, Texas
The best advice I received early in my career is to give the client what they are asking for. If you’re in a big firm and don’t have direct contact with the firm’s clients, then your clients are the partners who give you research and other assignments. Ensure that you leave any interaction with external or internal clients with a clear picture of what you are being asked to do and use the old newspaper maxim: who, what, where, and when. Who is the audience of your work, and how is your work product to be presented? What is the exact issue(s) that you’re going to be researching? When and where is your work product expected? Take notes when you’re meeting with the client and if you don’t have a clear picture of one of these questions, ask for the information you need.
—Richard Rivera | Partner | Smith, Gambrell & Russell, LLP | Jacksonville, Florida
I can’t think of a particular piece of advice that I would say was the best, but one of the senior partners at my firm was very generous with his time, particularly if I visited on my way out the door at the end of the day. He always had great advice and insights into the practice. For example, he was the first person to teach me about time billed versus realization and how important realization was to your position in the firm. If I had to identify one piece of his advice that has stayed with me, though, I would say I still read aloud my briefs/emails/etc., because he told me it was a good idea, and I always find mistakes that I missed in reading them to myself.
—Lindsay Sestile | Columbus, Ohio
The best advice I received when I first started practicing law was “to follow my passion.” The longer I am a lawyer, the more that advice still resonates. If you do not have a passion for what you are doing or feel like you are making a difference, life can be very dreary. And life is too short. I will add to this advice the following two pieces: work with people you like and respect, and work in an environment where you are making a difference. These three principles guide every job decision I make.
—Mary Smith | Immediate Past National Secretary, American Bar Association | Past President, National Native American Bar Association | Vice Chair, VENG Group | Lansing, Illinois
The best advice I received when I first started practicing law actually came from a non-lawyer who worked in my organization. She told me to “never be afraid of anything.” She explained that I would have lots of opportunities, and some of them would seem daunting. However, she cautioned me never to forgo an opportunity simply because I had never done it before or was apprehensive about taking on a task of such magnitude. This advice significantly impacted my career.
—Daiquiri Steele | Assistant Professor of Law | The University of Alabama School of Law | Tuscaloosa, Alabama
I was fortunate to begin my practice at a firm that strongly emphasized ethical conduct and professionalism in law practice. One of the first discrete pieces of advice I received has also proven to be one of the best. I was told that reputation is everything in the practice of law. While my law firm’s reputation was enough to give me the initial benefit of the doubt, it was clear that maintaining that good reputation and expanding it would take an unflinching commitment to high ethical standards and professionalism. In my community, nothing is as easy to destroy as a sterling reputation. One clear step across an ethical boundary can brand you as an unethical or “sleazy” lawyer. One serious breach of professional decorum can just as easily cast you as a person never to be trusted. Great reputations are fragile, but bad reputations are rigid and enduring. The former is tough to build, and the latter is impossible to shake.
—Marty Truss | Office Managing Member | Dykema Gossett PLLC | San Antonio, Texas
A senior partner at the firm where I was an intern in law school sat me down to review a memo I had drafted and said simply, “Words matter.” In a rush to get a project done, or more common today, to respond quickly to a text or email, we can default to commonly used phrases or even “auto-fill” vocabulary. Practicing law involves using words precisely, whether in a memo, a contract, a pleading, or a settlement agreement. People will rely on what you write, which is a sobering realization for a new lawyer. Take the time to choose the right words to convey exactly what you want to say.
—Neil Westesen | Partner | Crowley Fleck | Helena, Montana