Practical Advice for New Law School Graduates

Vol. 32 No. 3

By

William L. Pfeifer Jr. is an appellate lawyer, law practice management consultant, and freelance writer. His law firm website is located at williampfeifer.com.

One of the first things that new graduates from law school realize as they start their legal careers is that law school did not teach them very much about how to practice law. Although each field of law has specialized advice that applies only to those areas of practice, there are some basic principles that all new attorneys should follow in starting their legal careers. These suggestions will help you get off to a good start regardless of your field of practice.

Learn How to Talk to Clients

If you learn how to talk to clients, you’ll find yourself being hired by more of them. Despite being in a profession that revolves around speaking and writing, many lawyers have poor communication skills when talking to anyone other than another lawyer. Here are some ideas about how to improve your ability to talk to a client.

  • Be prepared. When a new client sets an appointment, find out in advance what the general legal issue is going to be. Then, before meeting with the client, do some research to make sure you know how to answer at least some of the client’s potential questions. As a new lawyer, you are not likely to have enough experience to answer difficult questions off the top of your head. However, with a little preparation before the client meeting, you can project a higher level of competence than you may have had before doing your homework.
  • Focus and be present. Focus your mind on what the client is saying and demonstrate that you are actively listening. Don’t let your mind wander, no matter how boring the client may be. Look at your client, not your computer or your phone. Ask questions that demonstrate you are paying attention. This is how you form a personal connection with the client.
  • Dig for details. Your first meeting with a new client should be a long one. This is the time for getting as much information as possible so you’ll have all the information you need to handle the case. This saves you from having to call the client later with multiple follow-up questions and will better enable you to understand and represent your client’s interests. Detailed questioning of the client will also help you identify weaknesses in the case that you need to address.
  • Use plain language. Many lawyers fail to realize that their clients don’t understand the advice being given to them. I recall the example of a friend whom I referred to another lawyer for help with a particular legal problem. After meetings with the lawyer, my friend called to tell me what the lawyer said—and then asked me to translate it into plain English. The lawyer was one of the best in his field, but he lacked the ability to communicate without using legalese and complex terms. Unless you are representing a lawyer, assume that your client did not go to law school and is not accustomed to using legal jargon. Learn to speak to your clients using ordinary words and phrases they will understand.

Learn Trust Account Management

One of the first things that new lawyers need to do is to read the rules and ethical opinions issued by their state bar concerning trust account management. Many outstanding lawyers have been suspended or disbarred solely because of mistakes they made with their trust accounts. Understand that this is not just a minor issue. There are few things that will get you sanctioned by the bar faster than mishandling your trust account. Some of the details vary from state to state, but following these basic rules will keep you out of trouble.

  • Fees are not earned until you’ve actually earned them. Don’t take a client’s money out of your trust account until you actually have the right to do so. Whether you have the right to the funds can vary according to the terms of your fee agreement, the nature of the work, the length and status of the project, and the rules of your state bar association. Don’t work in gray areas when it comes to your trust account. Determine when you are entitled to bill against the trust account and then do so at the appropriate time.
  • Don’t borrow funds from your trust account, even if you plan to put them back later. Borrowing money from your trust account is not the way to fix cash flow problems. While you may have the best of intentions, your state bar will likely consider it to be theft or at least to be irresponsible trust account management.
  • Don’t steal trust account funds. This may seem so obvious that it wouldn’t need to be mentioned. However, the unfortunate reality is that many lawyers have looted client trust accounts, sometimes for millions of dollars before being caught. Often it is the result of an attorney developing a substance abuse problem or a gambling addiction. Other times it is driven by pure greed and a willingness to exploit people. Don’t end your legal career by going to prison.
  • Don’t allow non-lawyer employees to have check-writing authority on your trust account. Many good lawyers have seen their legal careers come to an end because they allowed an employee to have authority to write checks on the trust account, only for that employee to steal large sums of money from the firm. Even though you may not be the one who stole the money, you will be the one responsible for refunding the money to the clients. You also are very likely going to lose your law license for it, especially if you don’t have the financial ability to reimburse the client.
  • Maintain a balance sheet or ledger on each client. Don’t trust yourself to remember how much money each client has in your trust account. You need to keep precise, written records.
  • Balance individual client ledgers against the overall account. Compare your individual client records against your overall trust account balance to make sure that the numbers match. This will sometimes reveal an accounting error, such as where you’ve forgotten to enter a check or deposit properly. A quick review of your balances every month will let you find and fix any errors quickly. The longer you go without reconciling your accounts, the harder it will be to figure out and fix an error when you make mistakes.
  • Open an actual IOLTA account for holding trust funds. Some lawyers open a second bank account to keep client funds separate from their own but fail to open an interest on lawyer trust account (IOLTA). Make sure that you have opened an actual IOLTA account and not just a second ordinary checking account.
  • Get help if you need it. If you screw up your trust account and don’t know how to fix it, your state bar may be able to help without it costing you your license. Many states now have a provision in their rules of professional conduct that allows their law practice management consultants to assist lawyers without having to report the problems to their ethics board. If you are struggling with fixing a trust account problem, or just need advice on how to manage your trust account, check to see if your state bar offers a confidential law practice management assistance program.

Develop Efficiency Through Time Management

The importance of having a work-life balance is often stressed to busy professionals, and one of the best ways to achieve this balance is by developing efficiency in your work. The busier a law practice becomes, the harder it is to keep up with everything that needs to be done. Developing a structure for managing your practice is essential to your long-term success.

Although there are many systems that can be implemented into a law practice, there are three principles that should be included in any time-management plan:

  • Eat the frog. Mark Twain wrote, “if you eat a frog first thing in the morning, the rest of your day will be wonderful.” He also wrote, “if you have to eat a frog, don’t look at it for too long.” This idea forms the central theme to Brian Tracy’s time management book Eat That Frog!, where he advises that you should decide each day which is the worst task you have to do—and then do that task first. Once it is done, you’ll feel as if a burden has been lifted from your shoulders, and it will be easier to get through the rest of the things you need to do.
  • Avoid unnecessary interruptions. Multi-tasking is a nice term for being unfocused and inefficient. Learn to focus on one thing at a time. When you are working on an unpleasant task or on something that requires concentration, don’t allow yourself to be interrupted without good cause. Block off times during the day when you are not to be disturbed so that you can actually get your work done, and schedule other periods of time during the day for meeting with clients, returning phone calls, and doing other tasks of that nature. Don’t take phone calls, don’t answer e-mails, and stay far away from Facebook and other social media systems during the work periods. When you are able to focus on one task at a time without interruptions, you will find your productivity goes up dramatically.
  • Plan ahead. Taking a few minutes at the end of a workday to schedule important tasks for the next day can be a great way to increase efficiency. If you plan your workday in the morning, you will be more likely to push the unpleasant tasks to the bottom of the list. If you plan your workday the evening before, you are more likely to plan to do the worst thing first to get it out of the way. Also remember that emergencies often come up that can completely derail your day. You might not get past the first item on your to-do list before your day is disrupted. So always ask yourself the question: “If I can only get one thing done on my to-do list, what does it need to be?”

Conclusion

Getting your law practice off to a good start can make the difference between achieving early success in your field or spending years struggling to make ends meet. By developing your communication skills, implementing good financial management practices, and learning how to organize your workday to be more productive, you can build a successful career while also maintaining a good work-life balance.

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