My Letter To A New Lawyer (Circa 2008)

There have been a few blog posts this past week sharing experience and wisdom for a new lawyer. I thought I’d resurrect my first Blawg Review #142 which debuted January, 2008.  It is filled with vintage posts (some dead links from defunct blogs) and great inspiration for any new lawyer.  At the bottom is a link with numerous Letters to New Lawyers compiled by Stephanie West Allen. Enjoy!

(This Blawg Review is designed as a Letter to New Lawyer.  I’ve incorporated the interesting names of many legal blogs as part of the narrative but you will have no clue what the topic of each blog post is until you click on the link.  Hopefully you will have fun discovering each blog post.  I’ve included some of the well-known and prolific usual suspects and am introducing you to some new and exciting blogs I’ve recently discovered.  There may even be other Letters to a New Lawyer you will uncover. So, enjoy!)

Dear New Lawyer,

Let’s face it.  Law is Cool. We have all fantasized about becoming The Greatest American Lawyer and the champions of Truth, Justice and Peace. Having grown up on all the glamorous legal shows like Perry Mason, Matlock, L.A. Law, The Practice, Boston Legal, Damages, it’s hard to not get caught up in the excitement and the drama. Imagine if our days and careers could be edited so seamlessly.

Lawyers see themselves fighting the great legal battles in $2,000 apparel of their choice, being part of ground breaking class action suits, winning millions in a wrongful death action or championing the under served.  But be warned.  If you buy into this Hollywood scripted confection, one day you will be F/K/A an attorney because you will have left the profession and your degree behind as more than 50% of all lawyers leave the profession once reality and fantasy collide with almost certain fatality.  Why? Because many are incapable or unknowing of how to make the shift from employee to self-employed or Big Law employee to small firm employee.  Golden handcuffs, while expensive and hypnotically shiny, keep lawyers bound to the key holders.  And student loan providers hold the spare key should you become unshackled from your employer. This double-keyed slavery system keeps lawyers uncreative and suppressed professionally.

Some will say, “But that’s the price of Higher Ed.” It doesn’t have to be if you go to the law school which is the best fit for your ambitions, emotions and finances, short and long term (even if there is very little in the way of Law School Innovation). If you are too busy focusing in on the law school others say is the best, those student loans will be a lead necklace dragging you down when you seek out employment options.  Debt may force your hand and make you practice in an area of law or work environment which slowly saps your soul until you can’t see a way to break free. Or worse, make you regret getting a legal education.

Therefore, while in law school I would encourage you to be a Frugal Law Student, eat a little less steak and a little more Lawsagna,  go to The Food Court at the mall, but do not keeping going to the ‘ATM’ known as “law school loans” for vacations or unnecessary extras.  Debt will limit your options significantly.

If you can maneuver around these temptations, the privilege of actually practicing law can be utterly fascinating and rewarding in ways that are priceless.  Imagine representing a little 8 year old girl during her parents’ divorce telling you she is dressing up as a lawyer for Halloween.  Or winning a medical malpractice case for misdiagnosis of breast cancer ultimately protecting two children’s futures in the absence of their mother.

Many lawyers want to practice Idealaw(g). They dream of defending the accused.  They are fascinated with Crime and Consequences. They want to advocate for Simple Justice, Objective – Justice, yet justice is neither simple or objective.  It can be Arbitrary and Capricious. Yet, advocates must be passionate about their work in the face of ingratitude, client guilt and a public who would condemn them for defending the process for which others have sacrificed their lives. Yes, lawyers must be passionate about the process and the rights they are defending because they are defending these rights for everyone else who may one day stand accused.  That’s the Reason.

You may have the goal to be a A Public Defender or will look to Abolish the Death Penalty, champion the Underdog or just dream of arguing before the SCOTUS on a landmark case which could affect millions of Americans. And yet Between a Laugh and a Tear you will be both triumphant for your client and cause and criticized by your client and those who oppose your cause. All of the media glory and all of the emotional pain is within your reach by virtue of your law degree.

It’s up to you to maximize your potential once you pass the bar regardless the hurdles others will tell you will be insurmountable.  But always stay realistic.  Then persevere in spite of what you think you know in order to discover what, in fact, will be your personal reality.

You may have the Dreams of a Solo and hope to one day say to your child, ‘that’s My Shingle.’ YouStsc601rglarge realize you will need a Startup Toolbox and have learned you will have to be your own Chief Happiness Officer. Quite often that is when you will face the most resistance from others, and the secret envy of many.

The river looks wide before you cross it, but from the other side you realize it’s easily forded. At school, lawyers were generally the bookish, conservative types. Being entrepreneurial comes less easy to us as there is probably a higher comfort threshold to overcome. But if you get the plan right and join up all the dots, starting your own firm isn’t as big a deal as it seems. Richard Kemp, Founding Partner of Kemp Little

And when you are successful, have Legal Sanity and Legal Ease, you can take on the challenges of misguided reporters at The Wall Street Journal who perpetuate the caste system in the legal profession. I find this Patently-O(ffensive). There is so much more camaraderie between lawyers then many would lead you to believe.  (And, of course, plenty of Legal Antics.) Whether it is a paternalistic nature, altruism, ego or fundamental human kindness, lawyers help new lawyers without fail. There are many Concurring Opinions on this point.  Just look at all the legal bloggers out there.

And be a generous lawyer.  Nothing will combat a negative image of the profession more than generosity of spirit and information.

You may want to be known for your Legal Intellect in one particular area of law like Sports Law, China Law. Biker and Motorcycle LawChild Safety, practice At The Schoolhouse Gate, Special Education Law, You may be more geographic specific like New York Personal Injury, Chicago IP Litigation, California Condo and HOA Law, Maryland Father’s Rights, Florida Estate Planning.   The choice remains yours.

The law has Brilliant Color and vibrancy, rich with options seldom discussed but now uncovered and available for all to see thanks to the internet and those who blog their expertise freely and with good humor. Unfortunately, for years in the popular press, all that was ever discussed was how the profession is overpopulated, our culture litigious and Overlawyered, many believing if a client has the money they are Above the Law.  Let’s continue to show them differently through grass roots education on the internet.

You may want to create a firm which focuses on The (Non)Billable Hour.  The opportunities are endless. How Appealing is that? But you will pay your dues, this I can promise you.  Whether to yourself as a Sololawyer or to Big Law you will have to earn your stripes.  What other degree and license gives you this much flexibility?  You won’t see the flexibility, however, if you don’t create, then stick to your own definition of success, whatever that may be. Too often we get sucked into believing there is only one right way to use our degree, advance in our profession, achieve our goals and it creates fear of failure based upon another’s definition of success.  And fear stops you from forging ahead.

And then there is the actual work. You may be nervous you don’t know the law and have to spend an entire Day on Torts because you have no mentors and you get a case which requires real Legal Juice from a seasoned veteran.  Mentors abound.  You just have to ask.  Find an affiliation which works for you. There are more lawyers like yourself looking for the same things then you realize. Or you may be a Mediator in the Making or want to be a PT Law Mom or you can be the Black Sheep of Philly Contract Attorneys discussing unionization of contract lawyers. Alternative ways of doing legal work will happen. Recognize not every lawyer wants to practice law in the traditional way.  Not every client wants to hire lawyers in the traditional way.  This is a reality which must be faced.  So be creative.

Try to envision yourself Inside the Firm of the Future. There will be many Deliberations in the evolution of your Law Career and a Likelihood of Confusion.  But make no mistake.  We are Riding The Third Wave of lawyering where many will eschew the trappings of traditional offices. Never measure your success by your office square footage as you may very well be a Home Office Lawyer with a niche practice area envied by many who still commute. And given the home office phenomenon and a lawyer’s reliance upon the most advanced and user-friendly technologies, chances are you will be a Mac Lawyer.

If your dream is reserved for the Big Law experience, make sure you are working for a firm which encourages Sustainable Lawyering.  And let’s Settle It Now once and for all.  Big Law associates are not necessarily unhappy or depressed.  If this is your ambition just understand the commitment your are being asked to make and to know, through all the media hype on salary and killable billables, whether or not you are up to the task.

There is an old saying. ” What do you call a leader without any followers?  Just someone walking.”  Therefore, “what do you call a lawyer without any clients?  Just someone with a JD.” You can never forget the most important question:  What About Clients?  It’s all about clients and their needs.  Inability to attract clients will guarantee you never have a chance to address their needs. And if you have clients, inability to address the needs of your clients guarantees you both professional and financial failure in your chosen career. You must fully embrace Business Development and many are Profiting with Public Relations.  If you refuse to accept you are selling legal services and construct a business model which incorporates this knowledge, (a day structured around business development, networking, client development and the practice of law), whether in a Big Law firm, small firm or solo, you will forever be at the mercy of others, just a cog in someone else’s wheel or out of the profession entirely.

Marketing, leveraging of relationships, fostering community and disregarding competition are all key to attracting clients. So, as you read this, opinions, ideas, heated debates and discussions rarely seen or as easily accessible before the advent of the internet, remember Real Lawyers Have Blogs for a reason.  Without participating in any meaningful way through the power of the internet, you will eventually cease to exist professionally. Make sure your marketing efforts begin with this low cost, high impact venue first.

Balloons_2 Differences between lawyers, their individual ambitions and their type of employment should be appreciated, not used as a sword against each other to measure success or failure as a practitioner.

“I was at a party where two hundred helium-filled balloons were released into the blue Virginia sky.  Within seconds the balloons were scattered across the sky, some of them rising hundreds of feet.  Some drifted away as far as the eye could see, others were caught in branches and other obstacles nearby.  How interesting, I thought! And how similar to people!  Some people soar. They catch the breezes, fly through the skies, seem to be at ease with the height.  Some fly closer to the ground.  Others cling to the limbs and hang dangerously close to the sharp points.

It’s encouraging to know that those who seem to fly so close to the ground can share with their world tales of their flight and visions that have been completely missed by those high in the sky.  Those who fly high have visions to share that only they can see.  And even those in the branches have an interesting perspective to share.  I urge you not to be discouraged if those around you are flying at different heights.  Their experiences are preparing them for their own unique journey.  It’s when those up high talk with those down low and vice versa that we all benefit.  And when shared, they expand all of our horizons.” Elizabeth B. Brown

I bet some associates and partners see themselves soaring, solos close to the ground.  I bet some solos see themselves soaring and associates close to the ground. It’s all about perspective on your road to becoming the lawyer you always envisioned.

So, which balloon are you or want to be? Whichever balloon, whatever the height, keep your options, your attitude, your dreams flexible and realistic and you will enjoy Life At The Bar.

(Here are more Letters to a New Lawyer collected by Stephanie West Allen.)

If you’d like to see the original post and comments you can do so here.

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