Top 10 tips for the new general practitioner

Those of us from general practice firms have a distinct advantage over our colleagues who concentrate in one or two areas of the law; namely, they need us more often than we need them. For example, a friend who concentrates in environmental law with one of the state's largest firms recently called asking for assistance with a speeding ticket.

Imagine this highly skilled advocate lost in the relatively simplistic world of traffic court. Sure, life inside CERCLA and RCRA is no doubt complicated, and yes I would seek out this person if I had a case in that area of the law, but a fellow member of the bar needing help with a mere speeding ticket?

Many of our colleagues who concentrate their practices charge astronomical hourly rates for their unique services. But when I received this call I wondered, how many would it take to handle a traffic ticket? I will get to the answer later.

Although I am sure this environmental guru, and fine trial lawyer, could have secured a reasonable disposition of the traffic citation without my help, he was concerned that something important might sidetrack him while appearing as a defendant before the court. Was there a supreme court rule that applied? What is court supervision and do judges grant it to offending lawyers? These were questions he simply could not answer.

With one phone call I was able to set his mind at ease and prove to my highly paid friend that those who concentrate their practice can oftentimes be at the mercy of the generalist. It reminded me of the heart surgeon who could not diagnose her own cold.

In law firms around the nation there is an ever increasing tendency to mold more of those who practice in a specific area of the law. Although general courses are required in law schools, firms select associates for "departments" or "practice groups." The largest firms do a terrific job instructing new associates on trial techniques for insurance defense cases, but little if any time is spent focusing on estate planning or simple real estate transactions There are thousands of young associates in Illinois who can tear apart a rear end collision case, but cannot file a small claims complaint to collect a bad debt.

Luckily, there are small firms, both downstate and in the Chicago area, that fill the generalist's niche. When joining one of these firms, an associate can expect an education in many different areas of the law, and just one or two.

Monday might bring an adoption and Friday a zoning dispute. The general practice firm's motto is: "If we don't practice in that area, we'll learn it."

Whether it is more satisfying to be one who focuses on a certain area or a general practitioner is a question that can be debated well into the next millennium. Those who concentrate their practice are nice people; some are my best friends.

Regardless of your position, the one basic premise we must agree on is that the education of young attorneys in firms that concentrate is drastically different than that offered in general practice firms. In light of the difference in educational opportunities, I offer the following 10 tips for the associate entering the general practice firm. Since the general practice firm relies on associates to become familiar with many different areas of the law, these tips span several topics.

Tip Number 1: Irreconcilable Differences. There is simply no more entertaining area of the law for a young general practitioner than divorce. However, simply becoming familiar with the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act is not enough. In matrimonial law, phrases have their own meaning. At first blush "irreconcilable differences" may seem to have the following definition: an unfortunate situation when the married couple simply cannot continue as man and wife without any true fault of either party. The reality of the situation is that "irreconcilable differences" is typically defined a different way: "husband's new girlfriend."

Tip Number 2: Mental Cruelty. After taking the bar exam, a new associate may think that Illinois is a modified no-fault state in terms of divorces. In other words, one party must prove fault unless the couple lives separate and apart for the statutorily deemed period. The most oft-employed ground for divorce in Illinois is "extreme and repeated mental cruelty." To the new associate, this sounds fairly harsh. Surely mentally cruel people must appear as obvious as Hester wearing her scarlet "A." Instead a mentally cruel party can be the one who repeatedly leaves the lid of the chunky peanut butter. Such heinous activity could surely cause the spouse to loose sleep and there is little question if would affect the couple's sex life. These are the facts of life. Try learning that at Hinshaw University.

Tip Number 3: Rule Against Perpetuities. There were two people in law school that understood the rule and none in the general practice firms. The new associate should simply forget this nasty rule and only think of it when someone starts talking about things like the Statute of Anne.

Tip Number 7: SODDIT. New associates in general practice usually cannot wait to tackle their first criminal cases. Years of studying constitutional law and watching Matlock reruns can make even lesser criminal cases seem like Miranda. The lesson the new associate learns is emblazoned on the license plate of a popular Peoria criminal attorney, SODDIT. When it comes to that first crucial interview with the accused, the young general practitioner will become familiar with SODDIT - Some Other Dude Did IT. After a few similar interviews, the associate will not believe the unreliability of multiple witness statements and videotape of the crime in progress.

Tip Number 4: Big Motions in Small Claims. The best place to test the young generalist is in small claims court. The stakes are lower and the pressure is relaxed, even if the associate does not know that yet. Most new law school graduates are aware we have these things in Illinois called supreme court rules, but few have ever read them. Specifically, most new small claims warriors have no clue that Illinois Supreme Court Rule 287 prohibits the filing of motions without leave of court. Before the simple eviction case is supported by a 15 page motion for summary judgment and a memorandum of law in support, be sure the associate visits the Supreme Court Rules, they may be of some interest.

Tip Number 5: "So what happened?" Young attorneys must eventually cut their teeth in bench trials, often in traffic matters or perhaps in small claims court. That third year trial advocacy class taught them how to get the direct examination started, and their enthusiasm and natural talent will draw them to the nexus of the case. The problem lies in bridging the gap. Judges often comment on the lack of adequate foundation being supplied by young trial counsel. Some inexperienced attorneys may be able to slide by against a pro se adversary, but a more seasoned trial advocate can simply befuddle an unprepared and unsuspecting young attorney with appropriate foundation objections. Before getting to the "So what happened?" question, the novice attorney must fill in the blanks and build the support for that all-important question. I tell our young associates that it is like getting to the punch line before the set-up. Unless properly prepared to provide foundation, the joke can end up on the young attorney, embarrassing her before the court and potentially her client.

Tip Number 6: Who said what? One important issue that law schools fail to focus on in preparing new lawyers is the handling of day-to-day files. Young attorneys must incorporate a critical function into their practice early so that it becomes habit. That function is taking contemporaneous notes of telephone conferences. Young associates are at the mercy of partners in the firm who dump loads of files on their desks. These files in the general practice firm can all be very different. Sharp, novice attorneys with exceptional memories eventually become seasoned attorneys who barely remember the names of their children. (Just kidding, Spencer – my six-month-old.) In light of this natural decline in memory, it is important for new attorneys to start taking contemporaneous notes of telephone conferences. The telephone is the lifeline of all generalists, and we simply cannot remember the substance and date of every call. If this information is available in the files, others can more easily understand the status of a file and less information is lost due to poor memory. There is simply nothing more powerful than being able to remind opposing counsel what was said in a conversation that took place years ago.

Tip Number 7: May it please the court. As recent law school graduates, most new associates in general practice firms are assigned a multitude of research projects. Often this research is incorporated into important memoranda to the court, or perhaps even appellate briefs. If the associate is lucky enough to participate in the appellate process, these two tips run hand-in-hand. First, there is no more empowering moment than when an advocate steps to the podium before an appellate court and begins a well researched and prepared argument with the greeting, "May it please the court." Second, there is also no more infuriating moment than receiving the court's opinion ignoring the attorney's best argument. Appellate practice teaches that trial judges are like ring masters--they can make you jump through hoops; but appellate judges are like mothers-in-law --you never know what abuse to expect and you feel sick to your stomach before you visit them.

Tip Number 8: Pro bono. One nice by-product of being a young generalist is that the door to provide pro bono services is wide open. After a short time in practice the associate can assist elderly or indigent clients through legal aid services or firm initiated pro bono plans. Often local legal service agencies and bar association plans will provide additional training for attorneys who want to dedicate their time. This is great training, often provided by those skilled in very specific areas.

Tip Number 9: Who you gonna call? Know when to call the person who concentrates. Being a "jack of all trades" is very rewarding. The confidence young attorneys gain by exploring a number of areas of law cannot be replaced or underestimated. On the other hand, we all must recognize our limitations. There are times when someone who dedicates his or her legal career to one or two areas of the law can be the lighthouse in a storm. Don't ask me about environmental law, patents or bankruptcy. I have no desire to spend years learning what others have mastered. Instead, like so many other generalists, I have a Rolodex filled with the names of those I can contact for assistance or referrals to specific areas of the law.

Tip Number 10: Guardian ad litem. One way to get some court time for new lawyers is to sign up to be appointed as a guardian ad litem (GAL) in guardianship and other cases. Once appointed, the young GAL is sent to visit the alleged disabled adult. Sometimes these meetings are very short, because the alleged disabled adult is profoundly disabled and cannot comprehend what the GAL is saying. Occasionally the alleged disabled adult is much more able to answer questions and provide vital information to the GAL. This may initially lead the GAL to believe the guardianship is unwise. Perhaps, although the young GAL should endeavor to get to know the client in more than one short visit. For example, one charming, elderly lady once answered every question I could pose. She knew the president's name and recalled that she did not like him. She provided an accurate personal history and seemed to understand her rights as I carefully described them to her. I could not believe anyone would think the lady needed a guardian. Then, without warning, she indicated that I looked like her boyfriend. I asked his name and she replied, "Heinrich Himmler." I asked if she had met the German general during World War II, and she reminded me that he lived in Bloomington and visited her often. Hearing the bell ringing in my head, I realized in my moment of clarity, that I had been visiting during her's.

In the end, I suppose the generalist and those who concentrate need each other. By the way, how many single-area practitioners does it take to handle a traffic ticket? One, so long as he buys his golf-playing general practitioner friend the next round of golf.

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March 1999Volume 27Number 7