The Big Picture: The (Sometimes) Harsh Realities of Private

by | March 31, 2009

Lawyers love to give advice, especially to new lawyers. By the time a young lawyer shows up for her first day of work, she likely will have received opinions on everything from what to wear to the length of time it takes to make partner. (They make everyone who stays partner, right?) Because a new attorney can be overwhelmed by the day-to-day work of learning to be a lawyer, too often, she never finds the time to sort what's sound advice from what's shaky. Some of the guidance experienced (and not-so-experienced) lawyers offer to new lawyers is important because, just as in life, many of these lessons were learned the hard way.

Difficult and time consuming that it may be, a new lawyer should sift through offered recommendations and suggestions, corroborate them if necessary, and ultimately do what makes sense, given the context within which she works. The thoughts and opinions that follow represent a "collective experience" approach to many of the issues that face new arrivals to the private practice of law, whether they work in small, medium or large firms. Many lawyers were interviewed for this book. The question that seemed to elicit the most emphatic response was "what do you know now that you wish you knew at the beginning of your career." The most common response: The "big picture."

So, let's begin with the big picture.

You have left academia and are now in the business world. Try not to overlook this concept because it sounds simplistic or obvious. Without doubt, your graduation effected changes in your life beyond geographical ones, although not all of these changes are immediately apparent. For instance, you just spent three years trying to figure out what your law school teachers expected of you. There was a process by which these professors taught you to think and analyze a certain way. Now, you have to go through that process all over again. Your employer, whether a law firm or a corporation, expects something totally different. Probably no one will tell you that you have to start thinking differently, and probably no one will tell you how to do it. Nonetheless, law firms (and corporations) will expect that you will figure this out.

Think of it this way: law schools get you lost in the forest to find the acorn; legal employers require that you grasp the forest. You must now pull back and broaden your approach to trouble shooting and problem solving. No longer can you spend weeks working on a moot court brief or an entire semester researching and writing a law review note. If you do, you will be of little practical value to your employer, no matter how correct your conclusions. Part of your job as a new lawyer is to figure out how to provide value to your employer and your clients. Value means that you provide a top quality work product for a reasonable price. Price is inextricably bound up in time.

Next, understand that although you have a juris doctor degree and maybe some summer clerkship experience, you have little substantive knowledge of the law. Partners at law firms know that you know next-to-nothing. Understand that you are not being paid for your expertise; rather, you are being paid for your time. It follows that you must be prepared to devote time (energy, creativity and commitment are all part of the equation) to the firm. On the surface it is a good match: Firms sell time; time is about all you can supply as an inexperienced lawyer.

Many of you will be uncomfortable with this formulaic analysis of your initial contribution to the law enterprise. You know yourselves to be bright, creative individuals who strive to better the practice of law through the contributions to the profession that you intend to make. You recognize that if being a lawyer were as simple as the time-money/supply and demand characterization implies, far fewer people would leave the practice within their first few years or grapple with disillusionment over the nature of their practice. It is partly because lawyers are individuals that success is not guaranteed, even when the formula is followed. In other words, the economics of supply and demand do not translate into assured success because we are people dealing with other people. None of this changes the fact, however, that since law firms sell time, the most important product that you can supply is your time. New lawyers (and all lawyers, for that matter) are well-advised to interpret events happening in their law firms, as well as factors shaping their careers, in light of that bottom-line orientation. ~

Here is another sobering thought that most new lawyers do not think about: You are a fungible commodity. You are replaceable during your first, third or even the fifth associate year. You are replaceable at the partner level. It may not be quick or cheap to replace you, and there may be repercussions felt at the firm by your leaving, but you can be replaced. (Later we discuss how more senior lawyers fall into categories of "lawyers the firm does not really want to lose" and "lawyers the firm wants to lose.") Lawyers easily convince themselves that they are necessary or indispensable when firms are busy, the economy is strong and law firms cannot keep associates without increasing salaries to obscene levels. Many lawyers get their first dose of reality when the economy takes a downturn and law firms start firing associates (and unproductive partners). It's also a given that lawyers and partners can be fired even when the economy is strong. Many others who want your job are just as qualified (or perhaps more-so) as you are to research, write and conduct due diligence. Conduct your affairs and keep your demands consistent with the belief that the firm can lose you at any point and still function as a business. We all like to believe that we bring something unique to the workplace. After all, we all have different life experiences and talents that give depth to our technical legal training. The reality, however, is that when it becomes financially or politically necessary, the firm can and will function without you.

The next point is related: A law firm is a business and, for long-term survival, it must be run like a business. As detailed in Chapter 8, your value to the firm is tied in large part to your billable hours. Other things are important, too, like your work quality, ability to get along with others, handling of clients, and level of maturity. But these things become less important if you are not a productive member of the business. Equate productive with billable hours. Politics will come into play in most any firm of two or more people. The word "politics" is a loose term describing office alliances and relationships that will inevitably impact decisions made by people. These relationships and alliances will also impact your working life. There will be times during your career when you will not understand what is happening to you. For example, you may experience hostility from another attorney or partner that seems unjustified or unprovoked. Perhaps the partner who was mentoring you has left the firm and others are viewing you with suspicion. Perhaps others perceive your practice group as arrogant and insular. Perhaps you rubbed someone the wrong way when you told him that you had too much work to do and could not assist him. Perhaps you went to the wrong school and an attorney is taking a rivalry too far. In any event, endeavor to understand the subtleties (and relationships) at work and consider that information as you progress in your career.

As a lower level associate, you will have three types of clients: (1) partners; (2) senior associates; and (3) firm clients. You will have no firm clients to please if you fail to please the partners and senior associates. As you navigate the tricky waters of attorney development, you might try evaluating yourself and your contributions as a client would: Are you adding value to this project? Are you reliable and trustworthy? Are you a team player? Once you understand that your relationship with your superiors is one of attorney-client, then you must learn to treat the partners and senior associates as clients. Of course, the lessons you learn in that context are fully applicable to the attorney-firm client relationship too. Much of Chapter 9 deals with learning to handle your clients, including partners and associates. Chapter 14 addresses handling the corporation as a client.

Your reputation will be established within the firm and the legal community much sooner than you think. Within the firm, a hard-working associate who produces a consistently superior work product will, depending on the size of the firm, develop a favorable reputation within a year. An associate who gossips, complains, boasts, displays immaturity, lacks judgment, or produces a poor-quality work product will establish a negative reputation in a much shorter time period. Over time, your reputation, good or bad, becomes known among members of the bar.

One large-city firm hired every member of its litigation team by relying foremost on each attorney's reputation in the legal community for producing superior work. Interestingly, some of these attorneys were at the time second-year associates. These associates had already earned a solid reputation in the bar.

One of the reasons that your professional reputation gets around so quickly is that attorneys change jobs frequently. Your entering class of twenty-nine first-year lawyers might be reduced to four lawyers within a few short years. Many of the twenty-five attorneys who left are now practicing in other firms. If you combine those lawyers with opposing counsel, co-counsel on matters handled by you, loose-lipped headhunters, and attorneys in professional organizations in which you are involved, then you can see how a reputation is made or destroyed within a short period of time. Remind yourself that you do not practice in a vacuum; your professional abilities as well as your words, actions and treatment of others will shape your reputation as a lawyer (and a human being). To the extent you have control over those factors, be sure to exercise it early.

You and only you are ultimately responsible for the development of your career. If you are a third-year associate and have never argued a motion or taken a deposition, then you are at least partly responsible for not having had that experience. If you lack substantive knowledge about your area of law, you need to rectify that. One first year attorney wanted to travel out-of-state to defend what would have been her first deposition. She sent her supervising partner a list entitled "Top Ten Reasons Why I Should Defend the Deposition." She then called him to make her case. Ultimately, the partner agreed that both of them would attend the deposition and the firm would write off the associate's time. The partner was persuaded that the value of the experience outweighed the dollar loss to the firm. Once the associate had this experience under her belt, the next deposition opportunity came quickly. (It is a law firm axiom that if you do something once, everyone assumes you are knowledgeable). Her deposition experience was off to an early start. ~

Another lower-level associate needed practical court experience. She took advantage of a deal made with the local district attorneys' office that allowed law firm associates to try jury cases that were not overly complicated (misdemeanors and the like). Several aspects of this criminal experience were applicable to the civil context, including learning to pick a jury and handling difficult witnesses. Had she not pursued this opportunity, she would merely become a senior associate with no jury experience.

Responsibility for your career carries over into the realm of feedback. It is your responsibility to follow up with the lawyers with whom you work. If they are unavailable or too busy, it is your job to be persistent, without being obtrusive, until they give you feedback. It is up to you to then incorporate into your work those suggestions or comments provided by the reviewing attorney. By pursuing feedback, you can not only improve your work product, but also get some idea of where you stand in the eyes of your client.

It is important that you have at least an idea of why you want to practice law and what you hope to get out of it. You may be in it for a satisfying and challenging career. You may be in it to learn and gain experience and then move on. Or, you may be in it for the money. Whatever your reasons, having a clear understanding will alleviate some amount of stress down the road. You will have a benchmark by which to measure your idea of success. Finally, you can better keep your expectations in check.

Practicing law is a difficult way to make a lot of money. Certainly there are people who have made incredible amounts of money: a plaintiff's lawyer settles a large personal injury case, or a partner shares in the profits of an especially lucrative year. Not every attorney has this experience. The vast majority of lawyers are sole practitioners making far less than $500,000 per year. Moreover, don't rely too heavily on the high salaries offered by large firms as the way to riches. There is a direct correlation between how much you earn and how hard the firm will make you work for it. Sustaining that level of effort and stress is more difficult than you can imagine. If money is your sole motivation, you may want to re-think your career.

As you begin your career, try not to view partnership as the pot at the end of the rainbow. As one large-firm partner suggested, have a "present orientation" and enjoy each day of your career and your life now. Try to figure out what aspects of practicing law that you enjoy. Start thinking about the practice areas that interest you. One new associate was concerned about how his handling of a certain minor matter would play out in partnership decisions down the road. The mid-level associate with whom he was talking expressed surprise and pointed out that the chances of him being at that firm eight years down the road were so slim that his worries were unfounded. The new associate could not contain his surprise. Associates should focus first on the factors that make them satisfied, skilled lawyers; partnership issues seem to fall into place from there.

On that note, it will become increasingly clear that partnership decisions are based on a myriad of factors, including (but not limited to) your previous years of penance as a hard-working associate. While this book focuses on some of those partnership factors, it is more about doing the things that will make you a great lawyer and a fulfilled lawyer.

To that end, keep these "big-picture" thoughts in mind as you read the rest of this book and perhaps put some of these thoughts into action. No one, of course, can do all of these suggestions all of the time. Take this information, however, and use it to the extent it works for you, taking into consideration your firm's environment, the group within which you work, and your personality.

You have just read an excerpt from "Full Disclosure: The New Lawyer's Must-Read Career Guide" by Christen Civiletto Carey. To purchase this book, visit LawCatalog.

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