As you emerge from the primordial soup

I was recently watching a documentary on Netflix about the great Wildebeest migration in Africa and I learned that Wildebeest calves learn to walk within minutes of birth and are able to keep up with the herd within days. 

Of course, this made me think of lawyers. Specifically, how becoming a lawyer is really a great analogy for being human. Does that seem odd?

See, the thing is, as a lawyer, you do not emerge from law school fully-formed. As a new lawyer, you are like a human baby, unable to walk. Unable to feed or care for yourself. You are completely dependent on your superiors for your care and upbringing.

As a new lawyer, the habits and skills that you learn in the first few years of practice can make or break you as you become more senior. You hope that you can rely on your superiors, just like parents, to teach you the proper rules and etiquette and lead you on the path to independence. But, of course, it doesn’t always happen that way. We are all fond of saying that lawyers are terrible managers, but what does that really mean? Sometimes it means that they’re just really bad at dealing with HR issues, but sometimes it means that they are incompetent to be supervising other lawyers. Either their own self-interest makes it impossible for them to take the time to teach you how to do something properly, or maybe (and I think this happens more often than not) they never actually learned the proper way and so their bad habits are now your bad habits.

There’s a fundamental difference between lawyers who are “raised” by the likes of June Cleaver and those who are “raised” by Ozzy Osbourne. My personal opinion is that too many Ozzys have been unleashed upon the lawyers of the world and so we can decry the lack of civility in practice and wax eloquent about a “simpler time”, but the reality is that we’re drawn to the bad-boy image. The rockstar personas. The people who just don’t follow the crowd.

However, IMHO, a profession built on the notion of stare decisis cannot be a profession that is filled with rock stars. We need intelligent and hard-working people who are willing to sacrifice their pride in order to get shit done.

Anyway, I’ve gone a bit off topic, but the point is that we all need each other. We do not emerge from law school as a final product. Like a human baby learning to walk, it takes a long time and a lot of practice and a few bumps along the way to figure out how to put one foot in front of the other and not fall down. Make the years and the time that you spend learning worthwhile by spending time with lawyers who hold themselves to the high standards to which they hold everyone else. Ask all of the questions. Learn the rules properly so you can break them with principled conviction. Don’t be a victim of your circumstances. If you work somewhere that is not providing you with meaningful opportunities for practice, then find somewhere else. If you work for people who don’t care about you or your development, then care enough about yourself to seek out people who will guide you.

If we want to be part of a profession that we can all be proud of, we have to take responsibility for ourselves and for those coming after us. Learn. Teach. Repeat.

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New Lawyer Series: Think Like A Lawyer

“Think like a lawyer” is a common, if not commonly-explained, phrase that all law students and new lawyers are familiar with. It’s easy to believe that attending three years of school, participating in various hands-on clinics and working in law offices for a couple months of the year will prepare you for what it takes to be a good lawyer, but it takes more than just perfecting your drafting techniques and learning the office politics to succeed as an advocate.

In “The Sweet Science of Shifting Your Mental Venue” in the Summer 2015 edition of the ABA’s TYL magazine, Tracey Lesetar-Smith drills down on what it takes to think like a good lawyer. Here are her suggestions:

  1. Take Time to Think Even Under the Gun: “Pressure to have all the answers. . .at our fingertips can obscure a lawyer’s ability to retreat into thought, and the necessity of quality thinking time is rarely understood by clients.” So how do you take the tim you need to really think about the issues you’re being presented with? Tracey recommends getting rid of as many distractions as possible: cell phone, email, open door. Sit and think through the issue and, when you think you’re done, ask yourself what could be missing. And keep thinking about the issue.
  2. Don’t Go Through Life With a Red Pen In Your Hand: Not every potential legal issue is one that your client cares about. Know how to spot all of the issues, but learn which ones will actually matter to your client.
  3. Take Stock of Your Resources: Use your resources (time, relationships, etc) wisely.
  4. Don’t Forget the Narrative: You need to create a narrative for your client’s side of the story that makes sense to people. It’s great to be clever and come up with new legal arguments, but ultimately, if the other side’s story just makes more sense, then the time and energy you put into those clever arguments is worthless.
  5. Sweat the Details, then Don’t Sweat the Details: Do the best work you can – double and triple check everything – but don’t flip out if there’s an inconsequential typo on page 39. Young lawyers are often tasked with worrying about everything, and rightfully so. However, there is marginal utility to continuing to beat yourself up over some small errors that will ultimately change nothing.

Once you’ve mastered the fundamental skills of lawyering, you must begin to refine your thought processes so that you are able to provide the most value to your client.

The concept of providing value to clients is somewhat new to lawyers, but it is no less important than all of the things that you learn in law school. Any one could spend countless hours and dollars researching a minor point of law, but the truly great lawyers will identify the top issues that make a material difference to their clients and spend the time advocating for those things. It’s not enough to just think like a lawyer – you have to think like your client and act accordingly. That’s how you become a great lawyer.

Do you think this list is complete or is there something else you would have included?

New Lawyer Series: Mentors, development and job searching

In their very first podcast, the crew over at Lawyerist.com interviewed Alan Dershowitz about his book “Letters to a Young Lawyer“. To be fair, I haven’t read the book, but it was an interesting interview and I thought there were some especially great points about mentors, including two red flags:

  1. Lawyers who advise you to do the same things they have done in their career.
  2. Lawyers who do things just because they have always done things, despite the lack of any evidence those things actually work.

These made me think of some especially important points for people who are either a) new lawyers currently looking for work and b) those who just completed the OCI process.

I cannot stress enough the importance of working for someone who believes in lawyer development. You will hear time and time again that, before you can think about honing your business development skills or becoming an expert in some field, you must first DO GOOD WORK. People have to be able to trust your judgment and know that when you give advice, you have done the due diligence and that the advice is based on sound legal principles.

You want to work for someone who will watch you fail (because you will), give you constructive feedback, and MOST IMPORTANTLY, let you try again.

What people don’t often talk about is how, as a new lawyer, you’re supposed to know whether you’re doing good work or not. In the case of trial lawyers, civil or otherwise, bad advocacy is a lot easier to spot than good advocacy. Good advocacy appears effortless and, well, it just makes sense: the logic of the argument is clear and advocate is persuasive. Even if you don’t agree with their position, you will understand their arguments and the facts that are important to the case. The important thing to take away from this is that this is a skill that can be taught and you should be looking to work for lawyers who are willing and able to teach you these things.

You can call them mentors or sponsors or whatever you like, but they serve the same purpose: they’re going to make sure that you’re getting the opportunities you need to develop your skills. Whether it’s drafting particular types of agreements or getting on your feet, you want to work for someone who will watch you fail (because you will), give you constructive feedback, and MOST IMPORTANTLY, let you try again. There are stories in every firm of partners or senior associates who ask for some vague thing, get back work product that they don’t like and then just assume that the junior lawyer is an idiot and vow never to work with them again. If you’re in a large firm, luckily there will likely be plenty of other people to work with, but if you’re in a small firm or working for a solo – you’re going to SOL real quick. Unfortunately, how to manage people, although perfectly teachable, is not something that is currently taught to lawyers.

At the end of the day, the partners are running a business and they can make whatever business decisions they want, including determining that you’re not a good fit for WHATEVER REASON and the best way to make sure you don’t end up in that position is to ask the right questions during the interview process (it really is true that the best defense is a good offense).

I’ll go into further details about what questions you should ask in my next post, but I’m sure there are some that I haven’t thought of, so tell me: what questions have you found to be effective at determining whether you’ll get the guidance and support you’ll need as a young lawyer? Do you worry that asking too many questions might take you out of the running?

Leave your answers and thoughts in the comments!