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May 2018

Young lawyers: 5 Lessons learned from failing

Lawyers are worriers, and they fear failure, writes Jeffrey Brauer in “Failure: An Opportunity to Find the Keys to Success,” a round-up of lessons learned in a recent issue of tyl, the magazine of the Young Lawyers Division.

Among the things attorneys worry about are: missing deadlines, saying or writing the wrong thing and making a bad impression on someone important.

Yet failure can be a good thing because “it helps us to learn crucial lessons about practicing law and about ourselves,” writes Brauer, a partner at Hahn Loeser & Parks LLP in Cleveland.

Lesson: Failure happens to everyone

Brauer’s legal career started off on an ominous note: the large firm where he’d been a summer associate lost a big client and declined to hire any of the law students who had worked there and were just graduating. So, despite a degree and good grades from a good school, it was a down market in 1994 and it took six months for Brauer to land a job at a mid-size firm.

“Even when I was finally employed, I felt the stigma of this setback when I compared myself to my classmates in large prestigious firms,” he writes.

Of the adversity that creeps into “every career path,” Brauer writes, “I often say that everyone gets hit by the bus – the question is which bus.” And although you cannot control many adversities, “there is one that you have a lot of control over – your own perception of your supposed failures,” he writes, adding that “success is available for everyone, not just those who were lucky enough to avoid the bus.”

Lesson: What works for others may not work for you

Aaron Krauss, a member at Cozen O’Connor in Philadelphia, writes that he blew it when he tried to be someone else at a deposition. His attempt to emulate a senior lawyer’s uber-aggressive style garnered him exactly nothing from a witness. He realized his style had to be consistent with his personality. Years later, he had the satisfaction of presenting an expert witness at trial and being complimented by opposing counsel — the same attorney he had mimicked.

Lesson: Admit your mistakes

Missed deadlines were Holly Williams’ Achilles heel.  After failing to get pretrial materials on time to opposing counsel in her first federal case, Williams, an attorney at Lee Smart in Seattle, instituted a system of triple-checking deadlines, and making sure they appeared on her assistant’s calendar as well as her own. In addition, she learned, “if you candidly admit that you made a mistake and ask for a professional courtesy, that request will often be met with professionalism and courtesy in return.”

Lesson: Develop a plan B

An unexpected answer at a deposition taught Bill Hill, a partner at Klehr Harrison Harvey Branzburg LLP in Philadelphia, to learn “to never be confident that you know what your opponent will say. Always have a plan B ready in case you don’t get the answer you want or expect,” he writes. “That lesson has served me well in my subsequent cases.”

Lesson: Persistence pays

As a mid-level attorney, litigator Benjamin Bleiberg had a hankering to examine trial witnesses. Instead, he was tasked with reviewing documents, drafting motions and preparing memos and outlines. Eventually a partner told him to prepare one of a trial’s outlines as if he were examining that one witness, then said he could examine him in court. Although the case settled before he could do it, Bleiberg, now of counsel at Chadbourne & Parke LLP in New York, “learned that persistence in actively seeking out opportunities to exercise my advocacy skills effectively creates those opportunities.” Opportunity was not just handed to him; he had to keep pushing for it.

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