As a seasoned attorney, I have recently felt compelled to share some personal reflections on the practice of law. It’s well understood that all lawyers must follow a code of professional ethics and obey the rules established under law. But beyond that, experienced attorneys will no doubt be aware of the existence of unwritten rules which they may or may not choose to apply to their own standards of practice. These unstated principles should be of particular interest and importance to younger attorneys, sometimes informally referred to as “baby lawyers”, who are still in the developmental stages of learning and growing in their particular fields.
It’s useful to remind oneself that the practice of law is just that: practice. The guidelines I’m about to share with you are guidelines that many of you may already use. They have been developed over years of practice (in both senses of the word) and are mine in the sense that they come from the heart. Unfortunately, I have had to formulate these principles the hard way, through many years of trial (sometimes literally) and error. It was certainly part of a process of making, and hopefully correcting, many mistakes. It also involved the good fortune of having worked with gracious attorneys and patient judges who have helped to lead and shape me. And it was also learned by the inevitable unfortunate encounters with some not-so-gracious attorneys, whether in adversarial or non-adversarial cases.
My father, who coincidentally or not also happens to be an attorney, was fond of telling me to “never underestimate the power of a bad example.” Many times, we do learn simply by learning exactly what not to do. I have always tried to bear this simple concept in mind as I navigate through the sometimes rough waters of the legal profession.
Recently, I sat down and attempted to express in writing the ways in which I have tried to conduct my day-to-day practice, applying the perspective of what I myself would have liked to have known when I was starting out as an attorney. Keeping one’s focus can make the practice of law something gratifying rather than just grueling. My goal is to encourage other lawyers to embrace the practice of law as I have learned to do. Ideally, new attorneys will be able to retain both a strong sense of self as well as a healthy self-awareness of why they chose to become lawyers in the first place. My hope is that these basic concepts will illuminate their career pathways just as they have helped to shine a light on mine.
Ten Practice Points Every New Attorney Should Consider:
1. Never Eat One of Your Own
■ In other words, give other practitioners the benefit of the doubt, knowing how difficult this job can be. The clients and cases are difficult. The lawyers need not be.
2. Refrain From Humiliating Another Attorney in Writing in an Effort to Make Yourself Look Better
■ Whether it is in correspondence, a report to the Court or within pleadings, stick with the facts and the legal arguments that are on your side. After all, that is what we do. There is no need to make things personal with the other attorney or with clients. “Zealously representing a client” does not mean being a jerk.
3. Never Blame Your Assistant, Paralegal, and/or Associate for Your Faults
■ This applies in Court, or otherwise. The buck stops with the attorney. It is cheap for attorneys not to take responsibility for mistakes.
4. Do Not Be Afraid to Admit That You Do Not Know the Answer
■ Young attorneys tend to view this as a sign of weakness, but it is quite the opposite. We do not need to know all of the answers; we just have to have the ability to spot the issues and we need to care enough to look for solutions.
5. Do Not Forget Who You are Serving – Your Client
■ Attorneys are servants. We are listeners. When we refuse to listen to our clients, or to care about their needs, our practice becomes malpractice. Put yourself in your client’s shoes. How would you feel after reading a letter from your counsel? Is it sarcastic? Is it unclear? Would you appreciate a call beforehand, or some explanation? The practice of law is foreign to many. As attorneys, we need to be cognizant of this fact.
6. Never Underestimate the Power of a Phone Call
■ Introduce yourself to opposing counsel over the phone. It is much more difficult to be mean to someone when you realize that he or she is a human being. E-mail is impersonal and not always the best way to communicate.
7. When in Doubt, Refer it Out
■ If you bring in work that you do not know how to do, do not be afraid to send it to someone who does. Do not take on something that could give you malpractice heartburn. It is not worth it, and it is not the best thing for your client.
8. Do Not Take Advantage of “Baby Lawyers”
■ You were a baby once.
9. Dress for the Occasion
■ If you are getting paid over $200.00 per hour, look professional. Dignity within the profession and perception are important.
10. Do Not Do Something You Would Not Want God to See
■ He never takes off.