Hidden pitfalls of a legal career

Experts warned lawyers and law students about common yet not-so-obvious practice pitfalls and overlooked opportunities during the American Bar Association webinar “Tripwires for Lawyers and Law Students: Practice Traps for the Unwary.”  

One mistake lawyers make is being passive, said Debby Stone, founder of Novateur Partners LLC. “Your career is similar to a safe deposit box,” she said. “You have one key, and your boss and client base hold the other key. … You can’t wait for them to open the door. Use your key to unlock the steps to your career.”

Stone, an executive coach for the legal community, said waiting on people to give you assignments, promotions and raises is not an effective approach. She suggested that young lawyers and solo practitioners actively seek out mentors and business opportunities.

Another pitfall can come from relying too much on technology rather than building relationships face to face. James J. Grogan, deputy administrator and chief counsel of the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission of the Illinois Supreme Court, said lawyers should be mindful of the amount of time they spend on technology. “Know when to use it,” he said. “It’s a tripwire if you always rely on it.”

Grogan stressed the value in understanding generational differences when it comes to the preferred modes of communication for clients and co-workers. He suggested replying to a communication in the way it was initiated; return a call with a call and an email with an email.  

The experts also warned lawyers to be careful when pressing “reply all” in email. Grogan, who has investigated and prosecuted charges of lawyer misconduct, noted that accidentally breaking confidentiality rules could result in disciplinary issues. “Count to 10. … Look over everything before you hit send,” he said.

Don’t be afraid to speak up if you are in over your head, Grogan advised. The experts agreed that when new associates are overly confident and take on too much work, negative experiences can result. “Don’t put too much on your shoulders or take too many matters in your own hands,” Grogan said. Lawyers “know a lot, but we don’t know everything,” he added. “It takes a lot of years to understand the nuances.”

While Stone agreed that overconfidence can sometimes work against your career aspirations, she said another problem is a lack of confidence and professional presence.

A soft voice, hair twirling, nail biting and lack of eye contact could be mistaken for a lack of confidence, Stone said.

“In order to be successful as a lawyer, confidence and presence are really important,” she added. “It’s the gravitas that you have, the ability to be taken seriously. That doesn’t mean always being serious. … [It means] being seen as someone who is trustworthy, confident, without being over the top.”

Developing a professional presence takes time, Stone said. People “should see you as someone that they can trust with legal issues,” she noted.

One way to stand out as a new lawyer and not appear overconfident is to let your work speak for itself, Stone said. She suggested keeping track of weekly successes.

The conversation also included discussions on how to handle colleagues who overpromote themselves at someone else’s expense, the importance of networking and how to glean expertise from other lawyers while not imitating them.

Kathy Morris, founder of Under Advisement Ltd., served as moderator for “Tripwires for Lawyers and Law Students: Practice Traps for the Unwary.”