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Advice for New Lawyers - Community Zoom Recap

By Rebekah Page-Gourley posted 11-01-2021 09:45

  

This year, we started holding periodic informal Zoom discussions posted in the ICLE Community to give ICLE Partners a chance to meet up and discuss current practice issues. Most recently, we invited Tim Dinan, Jehan Crump-Gibson, and Fatima Bolyea to join us and share some of their best practice tips for new lawyers. The resulting discussion was an absolute treasure trove of advice. Here are some highlights for those who missed out:

  • Courtroom Logistics. It can be challenging for new attorneys to figure out the basic logistics of appearing in court, especially because every court and courtroom is different. The best thing to do is observe, which is especially easy now with the proliferation of Zoom hearings. Also, as a new lawyer, the clerk can be your best friend if you humble yourself enough to ask about particular courtroom practices or the judge’s preferences. A box of donuts can go a long way to opening doors and creating friendships! Finally, it’s important to know which courts have e-filing and which don’t, so that you know how to handle filing and service.
  • Motion Practice. The group advised new lawyers to be realistic and know when the facts are simply against you. Sometimes you don’t go to court to win but rather to put your argument on the record. You might file some motions just to alert the judge to an issue you don’t want them to miss or to make a record for appeal. And of course, drafting and arguing a motion is a billing event, so you can get compensated for your work. Remember that you’re learning, and you will make mistakes. Judges may sometimes be harsh if you slip up, but working through those experiences is part of the job. Developing resiliency is key. 
  • Difficult Opposing Counsel. Some opposing counsel will try to steamroll you as a new attorney because they are looking for any advantage. One of the most important things you can do is to know your case backward and forward, so they can’t capitalize on any weaknesses in your understanding of the case. Don’t believe everything opposing counsel says; if you think something is off, defer any decision or response until you have a chance to look into it. And remember that sometimes you can shut down incivility by calling it out and openly addressing it. If you remind the other lawyer that you are going to stand up for yourself, they will often back down. 
  • Practice Style. Lawyers have all different styles and there is no one “right” way to practice. You can represent your client zealously and effectively without being hard to work with, and you will represent your clients more effectively by being authentic than by trying to be someone you’re not. Remember that you are working for your client, but you’re also developing your own reputation in the legal community. You can get solid referrals from lawyers on the other side if you impress them and gain their respect. 
  • Solo Practice. One of the best things you can do if you’re starting out on your own is to be selective about the cases you take. Even though you’re trying to build your business and make money, some clients—and the baggage they bring—are not worth the headache. Learning to follow your intuition will save you money in the long run. Also, develop relationships with other professionals. Jehan’s first office was in a CPA building, and, by nurturing that relationship and demonstrating her work product, she was able to create a strong stable of referrals. 
  • Client Management. Be sure you clearly communicate your fee arrangement to your client, outlining exactly what you will charge them for. Confirm that they understand it, and make sure they ask any questions before they sign. Additionally, it’s vital to control the relationship with the client from the outset. Make sure you know what outcome they want, and be able to tell them whether or not it’s realistic. The client can tell you the facts, but you know the law. So, you are the one who needs to run the case. Finally, establish clear boundaries around your availability, or clients will take advantage of you and monopolize your time. 
  • Workload Management. Many times, new attorneys have to juggle assignments from multiple partners, some of whom may not be aware of what’s already been assigned. If dueling assignments are running you ragged, communicate with the partners about your workload. If it is a good work environment, they will understand and help you prioritize. Remember, the work you are doing will impact the partner’s case; if you are spread too thin and do subpar work, no one benefits. Also, maintain good relationships with your paralegals and legal assistants. They are assets to you and will catch your mistakes. Be kind and make sure their good work is recognized with appropriate gifts and expressions of thanks. 
  • Mental Health. The work lawyers do is hard and stressful. It’s also extremely important, but so is your family, your personal time, and your mental health. Jehan emphasized the importance of taking care of yourself, building in breaks, and striving to find a balance. Tim advised that you shouldn’t miss important events or time with your family for work that isn’t critical, because you won’t get that time back. Finally, Fatima suggested that if you’re feeling burnt out and think you might be done with the practice of law, you should look into other practice areas first to see if what you really need is a change.

As this discussion proved, while being a new lawyer is hard, there is no shortage of help out there. Recognize what you don’t know, and don’t be afraid to ask! If there are other topics you’d like guidance on, please email me at rebekahp@icle.org.

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