Thursday Thinkpiece: Lee on Mistakes to Avoid in Your First Job at a Law Firm

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The Marble and The Sculptor: From Law School To Law Practice
Keith Lee
Chicago: ABA, 2013

Five Basic Mistakes to Avoid in Your First Job at a Firm

1. Rule #1. Also referred to by seasoned attorneys and judges as “key witness Mr. Green.” Always make sure you get paid.

For someone at a firm, this means that when you begin to work on a project, make sure you get a billing code. Keep track of your time and bill accordingly. This seems like a simple thing, but many people are not familiar with the billing systems of law firms and law school doesn’t actually do that much in the way of getting graduates prepared for it.

There are a variety of methods for doing this, ranging from complex automated software packages to the humble legal pad.1 Just find what works for you, and make sure you are diligent in keeping your time. This is true even in matters that are flat fee arrangements. Why? Six months after you have resolved a matter for a client, they decide that your fee was too high and file a complaint with the ethics committee of the bar. Being able to pull out a database, or tracking list that shows all the work you undertook in the matter, will go a long way to diffusing their complaints.

If you are striking out on your own, this means that you need to understand accounting. Accounts receivable, income statements, balance sheets, statement of cash flows, etc. If none of those terms mean anything to you (and if you went from some sort of humanities in college and directly into law school it is unlikely that they do), you really need to put everything else on hold until you do. The practice of law is a profession, but a law firm is a business. If you’re on your own you have to be able to do both.

Find a local college, community college, or library and reach out to them regarding their small business programs. They usually offer some good, cheap basic accounting seminars or classes for small businesses. Oftentimes, regions and municipalities will have small business outreach programs as well. You can likely also find programs that specifically target woman- and minority-owned businesses.

If you’re really hard pressed and can’t find anything like the above in your community, you can always go online, though this is the second best option. Why? As should be clear by now, meeting with people in real life is essential to growing your practice. You know who else is at small business accounting seminars? Other small business owners. Guess what small businesses often find themselves needing? Legal services.

2. Being unprepared. Always walk into another lawyer’s office with a legal pad and pen.

There’s nothing worse than walking into a lawyer’s office unprepared. Having to step in and begin discussing a project and having to excuse yourself to get something on which to write, or worse, ask the attorney for something on which to write, makes you come across as inexperienced and amateurish. This is true whether you are in an opposing counsel’s office or that of a senior lawyer at your firm.

Wait, I take that back. There is something worse than walking into a lawyer’s office unprepared: walking into a lawyer’s office unprepared—along with someone who is prepared. This is doubly true if you do so at your own firm. The senior lawyer is immediately going to look at you and the other associate and conclude that you are likely short lived at the firm.

3. Not knowing when the game is up. Always ask for a schedule or time frame for completion.

In a firm, sometimes lawyers don’t have a time frame in mind, or only a vague one at best, when they ask you to undertake a project. Yet, when they do want the results of your project, they will want them immediately. Don’t get caught with your pants down; press the attorney as much as you can for some sort of deadline. Then, under-promise and over-deliver. Say you’ll get it done by then, but turn it in early.

The same is true if you are on your own. Courts will handle their own scheduling, you just need to make sure you abide by it. But you do need to be mindful of scheduling when it comes to deliverables for your clients. This gets back to managing expectations. If you’re not the sort of person who is naturally organized, that needs to change immediately. Whether you adopt a scheduling system like Getting Things Done2 or use a simple wall calendar, you need to be able to lay out all of your responsibilities and tasks in a way that you can be organized.

Some legal matters might only span a couple of weeks. Other can take years. Either way, organization will carry the day.

4. Picking the wrong road. Always try to get some guidance as to what form the end work product should take.

Sometimes lawyers might want a formal memo, but often times they just want a quick email detailing some issue. Or maybe they want a breakdown of the formatting codes from an insurance company, in which a spreadsheet might be a better option. Or maybe they tell you they want a general description of an issue, as they are just going to forward it to a client. Regardless, you need to know where you are going with the work product. Don’t be in the position where you are halfway through a project and not have a clue if it’s actually what the senior lawyer wanted.

The same is true if you’re working directly with a client. If a client asks you about a legal concern, you don’t always need to give them a detailed, 20 page brief on the issue. Communicate with the client and make sure you clearly understand what they are looking for. It will save you time and the client money.

5. Picking the right road, but choosing the wrong car. Find an internal sample or similar version of the project on which you are working.

Different firms will have different policies and procedures in how they handle certain memos, drafts, letters, etc. It’s important that you conform to those policies and procedures as soon as possible. The easiest way to do this is just to find similar work product that has been done before. Look on the internal network server. If the firm doesn’t have one, look in recent files. Best bet: find the most seasoned paralegal/legal assistant there and become friends immediately; they always know where everything is located. The projects given to new associates are generally boilerplate stuff—you’re too green to be given real problems that require creative and unique solutions.

Yet if you’re on your own, you don’t have anyone in the office to turn to. This is yet another occasion that illustrates the importance of developing a wide and deep network of other attorneys you can rely on. If you are presented with a matter in which you are unsure of how to proceed, pick up the phone and call someone you know who has handled a similar matter before. Discuss it with them. Find out how they handled it.

What if you don’t know anyone who has handled such a matter before? Reach out to your network or local bar and ask around until you find a lawyer that does. Then—*GASP*—cold call that lawyer and introduce yourself. It’s really that easy. I’ve cold called at least a dozen lawyers asking about an issue or for advice on a topic. Every single one of them returned my call and spent at least thirty minutes speaking with me. Why? Experienced lawyers know the value of having a network, of “having a how can I help?” attitude and mindset.

If the matter is really too big and complex and you feel uncomfortable in handling it on your own—yet you want to learn about it—co-counsel with a competent attorney who handles such matters and split the fee. This is a regular practice among a large number of solos and small firms. Most lawyers will be happy to co-counsel with you and appreciate the phone call. Beyond helping provide competent representation to the client, you’ll also build relationships with other lawyers.

1 The legal pad being my preferred option.


[“Five Basic Mistakes to Avoid in Your First Job at a Firm,” was excerpted from the forthcoming ABA publication “The Marble and the Sculptor,” available for purchase from ©2013 American Bar Association. Reprinted With permission. All rights reserved. This information or any or portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association.]

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