As new lawyers enter the profession each year, more-experienced attorneys are in a unique position to look back on their own journeys and advise, mentor and educate them based on their own observations and experiences. I spoke with three attorneys, far enough along in their respective careers to call “experienced,” yet young enough to remember what it is like to be a young lawyer. Here are some of their invaluable words of wisdom:
1. Admit your mistakes
When you fail to meet a deadline, make the wrong argument, or just plain forget to do something asked of you, admit it. Don’t make any excuses, put the blame on someone else or ignore it. Honesty is truly the best policy. Coming forward and admitting you made a mistake, owning up to it and taking responsibility for it shows confidence. Mistakes are made all of the time, even by veteran attorneys. More importantly, most mistakes can be fixed! The true test is the action you take to fix the mistake and what you learn from it.
2. Admit when you don’t know the answer
Like admitting to your mistakes, acknowledge when you do not know an answer. It is impossible to have all the answers. Even the most experienced attorneys don’t have all the answers. Whether it is a question of law or merely whether you know where a file is, come clean. It is better to confess that you do not know rather than making excuses—or even worse—making a baseless argument—to hide the obvious. It takes more time and effort to make the wrong argument or cover-up story than it does to simply answer, “I don’t know, but I will find out!”
3. Don’t be afraid to ask questions
Advice: Just do it. Asking questions can be nerve-racking, especially when you are a brand-new attorney, fresh out of the safe confines of law school. But asking questions is also inevitable. Approaching partners and other experienced attorneys is undoubtedly intimidating and stressful. You can attempt to do the leg work on your own first, but if all else fails, you are left with no choice but to ask. Remember that there is no such thing as a “stupid” question and asking questions is oftentimes much-appreciated. So take a deep breath, push your way in the door, bother the partner and ask the question! Best of all, asking questions minimizes your chances of falling victim to #1 and #2!
4. Don’t overcompensate
If you are unfamiliar with the ins and outs of your practice area, like most young lawyers are, don’t overcompensate for your lack of familiarity by being rude, condescending and disrespectful. Advice: See #3.
5. Be courageous
No matter what practice area you are in, be courageous, firm in your position and don’t back down. Even if you know your argument is weak, argue it as if it is strong. Lawyers always have to argue both sides. Your side isn’t always going to be the better side, but present it as if it is the best side.
6. Be prepared at all times
You never know when a partner, judge or opponent is going to put you on the spot. Stay familiar with your files, know your case, keep current with the law and be organized.
7. If you plan on having a family, invest in your reputation beforehand
Putting in the hard work, long hours and going the extra mile help to lay the ground work for a stellar reputation in your field. If you plan on having a family, your priorities may shift and the hard work, long hours and going the extra mile will likely get devoted to earning a stellar reputation with your family. There is no reason you can’t have both, but having a well-established reputation in your field definitely eases the pressure when you now have to balance a family and career.
8. Don’t put your career before what really matters to you
Sometimes we lose sight of what really matters to us—whether it is our health, family, friends and/or community—when we get wrapped up in our work. Stay grounded and don’t lose focus on what really matters to you. It is not the case that we will remember down the road, it is our family, friends, community and the world around us that counts.
9. Don’t take anything personally
You will more than likely encounter other attorneys, staff, court personnel and the like who are less than pleasant to you, to say the least. Keep a stiff upper lip and thick skin. Kill them with kindness.
10. Treat your practice as a profession and not a job
Try and remember the big picture. Practicing law is more than a job; it is a profession. As lawyers we represent a larger professional community. We should try to conduct ourselves in a manner that not only improves our own careers, but our profession as a whole.
11. GOOD LUCK! ■