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Racial and Ethnic Minorities and the LawThe newsletter of the ISBA’s Standing Committee on Racial and Ethnic Minorities and the Law

October 2011, vol. 22, no. 1

Adjusting to the practice of law: Reflections on five years of practice

As a new attorney in a small firm, there are three important things I have discovered for which law school could not have prepared me: the importance of creating and maintaining a meaningful life/work balance; a paying client does not always equal a good client; and, the information a client thinks I need to know to effectively represent his/her interest is entirely different from what I should know.

Work Life Balance

Young and new attorneys become so consumed with trying to impress the partners, prove themselves to the legal community and learn everything there is to know about the chosen field of practice, that personal lives often take a back seat. Not only does time at the office and focus on a particular client file increase in the first years of practice, but networking events and community-driven initiatives also become an intricate part of life. Soon, those relaxing and enjoyable activities we used to do get lost in the hustle and bustle of everyday life. For example, I used to have a regular exercise program each week. No matter what was on my schedule, I exercised at the designated times. I had control over what occurred from week to week. However, after about a year of full-time practice, my exercise workouts became sporadic, an afterthought. Fitting a time into my schedule to exercise became a burden and exercise was no longer the fun part of my life it had always been. Exercise became another item on my to-do list rather than an activity I enjoyed doing just for the fun of it – an activity for which I needed no prompting.

Exercise is just one example. Fill in the blank with your own personal story -- i.e. going to the movies, hanging out with friends, or reading a leisure book. These life pleasures fall to the bottom of the priority list or sometimes fall off the list altogether. So, how does a young attorney create a work life balance that includes leisure activities while still making the extra effort at work? Set a limit on the amount of time that passes without a voluntary, enjoyable personal activity occurring. Just as researching an issue on Westlaw or Lexis is important to your client’s case, having meaningful personal life activities outside of work is important to your individual health and welfare. Too much of any one thing is not good. I love practicing law and I love exercising, so I am moving my work and life back into balance.

A paying Client does not always equal a good Client

As a new attorney I am always excited to recruit a new client. If I’m honest, I am most excited when I recruit a new paying client, the client who understands that my legal services and knowledge are valuable and is willing to compensate me accordingly. I bring new business to the firm and increase the firm’s receivables. This is perfect, or is it? The client intake and initial meeting is held. The client understands the working relationship just created. A couple of months into the case, however, the client tells me that the case is taking too long and I should be able to speed it along; or the client does not want me to engage in discovery because the client believes the opposing party’s position is simply wrong; or the client tells me that I can force the opposing party into a position the opposing party does not legally have to take.

Occasionally, a client’s patience runs out or the client becomes dissatisfied with the legal process. There are not enough letters, phone calls, e-mails or in-office visits explaining the legal procedures and timeframes that can satisfy the client at this point. When this occurs, I humbly suggest to the client that I can withdraw from the case and he/she is free to deal with the case as he/she chooses. Strangely, the usual response is “No, I don’t want you to withdraw.” From this I surmise that the client is not unhappy with my work and is willing to continue to pay for my time and costs spent on the case, but the client is going to be a challenge for the duration of the case.

Weighing the client’s demands against the receivables makes for interesting decisions. If the client’s concerns are legitimate and the case does not interfere with the rest of my caseload productivity, I keep the client. In the event the client’s concerns cannot be managed without hindering productivity, the loss of one client’s receivables does not outweigh several other manageable clients who may be a bit slow in making payment.

The facts the Client thinks I should know are different from what I should know

No matter how many times I tell a new client to err on the side of giving me too much information about the situation rather than not enough, inevitably I discover facts that can be crucial to the resolution of the issue(s) at hand at a later date. I have seen numerous client intake forms structured to gain the necessary information from a client. In my opinion, however, there will never be an intake form broad enough to prompt a client to provide all of the necessary facts. Frankly, we are combating the client’s pre-conceived notions regarding the facts he/she believes will resolve the issue. The client is not objective. Friends, family and/or the numerous legal drama television shows have worked to craft an idea in the client’s mind about how the case should be resolved. Based on that idea, the client believes that there are a limited number of facts necessary to get the end result.

I have asked the following questions in an attempt to prompt the client to tell me all of the facts: “Is there anything else you want to say about the issue?”; “Pretend you are on the opposite side of this issue. What do you believe is important to get a resolution supporting the opposite view?”; “What do you believe are the weaknesses in your case?” One of my clients did not think it was important to tell me that he has two legally adopted children whom he raised. I did not think I had to include a caveat regarding adopted versus biological children when I asked, “How many children do you have.” When I asked why he did not tell me this, the client responded that he and the children no longer enjoy a close relationship. In fact, information regarding the number of children was very relevant to the issues at hand. Fortunately, after several amendments, the case was favorably resolved.

Another client involved in a dispute with her neighbor neglected to tell me that the neighbor called the police and a police report was made. I did not discover this fact until the neighbor revealed it in a complaint against my client. Whether the client does not understand what may or may not be relevant or consciously decides not to tell me pertinent information, ultimately, I am forced to reassess my strategy and rethink the issues. This process sometimes leads me to conclude that the case requires alternative dispute resolution rather than a court action.

Scenarios like those mentioned in this article push us to constantly reinvent the way we practice law. Whether we choose to adjust our schedules to allow for that extra vacation time, do not take certain cases, or draft disclaimers to protect our representative capacity, we navigate a unique set of talents and insights. Lessons learned from these few scenarios are valuable and could only be taught on-the-job. After five years, I view practicing law as a daytime television soap opera. Just when the storyline seems to make sense, the never-imagined twist occurs. There is not a dull moment when dealing with various client personalities and this, along with balancing fun with work responsibility, is a daily cycle that requires regular reprogramming. ■


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