Some Thoughts to the New Class of Attorneys
Hello new lawyers, and welcome to the practice of law. You worked hard to get here, so congratulations. I have seen lots of you throwing out interestingly crafted hash tags and such on various social media outlets, and you deserve to bask in the glory of your newly acquired status as esquire. When I became a lawyer 15 years ago, I didn’t have Instagram or Twitter to share the news, just a crappy dial up modem at a friend’s house to find out I made the cut. Actually, I was so stoked when I passed the Bar, I celebrated by buying a couch from a catalog to put in a house I couldn’t afford. I loved that couch and that house, but I digress.
I know acquiring your law license means you now know everything about everything, but if you have a minute or two, I will share some lessons it took me a decade or so to learn:
Specialize. In today’s market, it is easy to take on the mentality you will work on anything that comes through the door. For the first year or two of your career, while you are learning basic skills, this is a fine approach. If you are working for someone else, you do not have much choice in the matter anyway. However, I submit it is difficult to be a generalist. Generalists are forgettable. The lawyer who works in assisted reproductive technology or intellectual property disputes in mobile applications is much more memorable. It was explained to me like this early in my career. Let’s say you are standing in the checkout line at the grocery store, and the person in front of you sees you are in a suit and asks what you do for a living. You respond proudly by saying, “I’m an attorney.”
What is the next question they will ask? That’s right smart lawyer, “What type of attorney are you?”
“I do family law, bankruptcy, personal injury and business law.”
Do you know what they remembered? Nothing. A generalist is forgettable. Alternatively, if your response to the question is, “I’m an attorney helping high net worth individuals protect their assets.” You are now memorable. If you cannot work in your chosen specialty because of your geographic limitations, you may need to expand the borders of your practice or move. Specializing is good. Generalizing is bad.
Use Technology. The use of technology is easier and cheaper today than ever before. Embrace it. Lawyers get paid for exerting their mental energy on a given task. If one can use technology to do it better and faster, there is more mental energy in your tank for other tasks. Obviously, technology assists in marketing, but think document construction, time keeping, communications, accounting, file storage and calendaring. You do not have to be a tech geek to leverage technology in your practice. If you are in a firm with a bunch of blue hairs, they will lean on you, which is what you want. If your chosen path is to climb up the corporate ladder at some firm, your job is to make your boss's life easier. Do the job well and you will be loved. Do it crappy, you will be forgotten or fired.
Learn to Delegate. My dad was an electrician, but he was a master delegator. Even in his 70s, he would leverage the labor of those with him to get the job done. Unfortunately, if you are in a firm with a staff, the older legal assistants and paralegals know more than you, so it may be tricky to get them to help you. My first year of law practice, I was hated by the staff. I thought I knew more than I did, so my attempts to delegate were met with much resistance. You are going to find this pretty tricky, but it is essential. Remember, Frank Sinatra played the piano. He had others set up the stage. Look, you have got to learn to operate the office machines and do basic secretarial tasks. How can you teach someone to do something you cannot do yourself? There are only two ways to make money practicing law. The first way is to be able to generate more work than you can physically do yourself. The other is to get lucky and take big chances. Either way, working with a team and effectively delegating is a huge part of practicing law.
Don’t Buy So Much Stuff. Want to put a noose around your own neck? Go buy lots of stuff. At my pre-midlife crisis age of 40, I find myself in a season of simplification. I have read lots and lots of books and articles about happiness, and one of the recurring themes is that of simplification. You can still drive a Ford and be a respected attorney. Operate with self-restraint when it comes to spending the money you are finally making. When I was in law school, I could easily live off $1,000 per month. You are used to being poor, so even if you landed a job making $80,000, don’t go crazy and buy lots of stuff. Keep it simple and be happier.
Lawyers are Your Friends. I get referrals from satisfied clients, counselors, pastors, speaking engagements, writing, community involvement and my cumulative marketing efforts. However, the best work comes from lawyers –lawyers who don’t do what I do and those who do but are conflicted. I will stipulate some lawyers are just jerks and you are going to hate them from a very deep place. These are not your future referral sources and you have my permission to be equally catty. For the most part, other lawyers are scratching around like you, trying to find fulfillment in work and get their car note and mortgage paid on time each month. Give your fellow attorneys respect, because while the client may or may not be around next time, the lawyer will be. You can fight hard and compete and still be genuine to your colleagues. I have seen average lawyers who have great careers because they are well liked among the Bar.
Find a Mentor. The practice of law is one of the few professions where we are set free to wreak havoc on the world at large without a formal residency program. It takes about 10,000 hours to be good at anything. Some people take less time, but most take more. You are smart. You are successful. You are independent. You are a winner. But you don’t know it all. Find a lawyer whose practice and personal life you respect, and ask them to mentor you. It is a high complement for folks like me. Follow them around. Ask them questions. Read the stuff they write. Cut their yard. And do it for free if you must (although getting paid is better). Want to be a great lawyer? Find a great teacher.
Get Good. If you are good, people will remember you. I know you just got finished studying for the bar exam, and reading and writing for free seems asinine. News flash, you have got to know the law to be a good lawyer. Read it every week. Read good blogs, read the hand down lists from the appellate courts. Read the work of other good lawyers in your field. Being a good lawyer goes beyond knowing the law. Be a person of your word. If you say you are going to call someone back, do it before you promised. Learn to communicate. That is a big part of your job. You have got to effectively communicate to your staff, clients, counsels opposite and judges. Skillful communication takes practice. Sit down right now and write out goals for your career. What do you want to have accomplished by the end of year one, three and five? Write it down, post it on your mirror and get to work. A little hustle goes a long way.
Don’t Define Yourself By Your Work. The next thing I am going to tell you is going to hurt a little bit. You are not just a lawyer. If you only define yourself by what you do, you are going to have a very disappointing career and sadly, a disappointing life. The practice of law has afforded my family and me a very comfortable life. But if at your funeral all that can be said is he or she was a fine lawyer, I think the world will have missed out on something beautiful.
If You Don’t Like Practicing Law, Do Something Else. I get lots of joy from the practice of law, but it is not all fun. A good friend of mine says if work was all fun, they would have called it something else. I do not spring forth from the bed every day and think about how many family problems in Mississippi I am going to solve, but some days I do. If you find yourself in a place where you are unhappy for extended periods of time and you absolutely abhor the work you are doing –do something else. I know you spent all this money on law school and your daddy is going to be upset if you do not become the next Johnny Cochran, but we only get one chance at this life, and if you are spending 40-60 hours each week doing something you hate, stop it and do something else.
Give it Away. Do some stuff for free. There are more legal problems in the world than there is money to pay lawyers to solve. You can’t do everything for free, and it sucks to do work for which you are expecting to get paid and then you don’t. But there comes a time and a place where you are going to have the expertise and resources to help someone. Do it and do it for free. Want to live a bigger life story, think about something other than your personal comfort and security and help someone else. Have a client that needs a break? How about a letter forgiving their debt to your firm?
In summary, while I could have continued this monologue longer than you would care to read, you are entering into a profession which will have moments of beauty, poetry and dignity unseen by the rest of the world. While I wish you success in your career, more so I wish you fulfillment, peace, joy, happiness and a sense of purpose.
Now get out there and make the world a better place.
Craig Robertson is a divorce attorney practicing throughout Mississippi.