21 Pieces of Advice for Every (New) Lawyer

Mentorship

When I started in practice back in 1982, I regularly received tips and advice from more experienced attorneys. Sometimes I asked, but very often it was unsolicited. I was generally receptive to this, though often skeptical about whether they really knew how things were now. After all, some of these attorneys had been practicing for 50 years, which means they started practicing in 1932!  Like, at the beginning of the Great Depression.

So, I listened, knowing there were some truths being told, but doubting they would apply to me, in the here and now of modern day 1982.  Many, many times I knew better, kept my own counsel, and handled my clients and my practice as I thought best.

Well, law practice is one tough go.  Hard lessons get learned, sometimes over and over and over.  Many of those lessons were in fact explicitly told to me by the old-timers.  Maybe experience is the best teacher, but it sure can be painful.

So now, with the benefit of hindsight, I can humbly say…

They were right!

Here are some things I wish I had understood clearer and earlier.  I am providing this list, which I think still applies now, even though when I started in practice back in 1982…

There were no faxes, no internet, no Fedex, no cell phones, very little word processing, and many other Stone Age aspects of practice.  They were right in telling me:

  1. The best cases are the ones you turn down (Learn to say NO)
  2. You make more money in the office than in Court
  3. Judges who never practiced can be dangerous to attorneys.
  4. Venue is very important, even in non-litigated matters (ie – if you will have to travel a lot for a matter, it may not be worth it)
  5. On a new matter, pay attention to who your opposing attorneys will be.
  6. You may trust what your client tells you, but verify it to protect yourself.
  7. Getting retained is not that hard.  Getting subsequent payments is much harder.
  8. Many potential clients cannot afford to pay for proper legal services, plain and simple.
  9. Making good referrals is very important.  Even more important than getting them.
  10. If a client seems nuts, they ARE nuts.  Trust your gut.
  11. The Court system is VERY political.  The Judges are not there on merit.  They are there because of politics.
  12. Truth is WAY stranger than fiction.
  13. People rarely show appreciation for what you have done.  Get used to it.
  14. If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember what you said.
  15. Take detailed notes.  You may have a great memory, but at some point you will forget more than you can imagine.
  16. Confirm and re-confirm appointments.  It’s worth it.
  17. A case being proposed on a contingency fee is like a three-legged stool.  The legs are liability, damages and collectability.  If any of the legs is weak, the stool falls.  You should avoid those cases.
  18. If a client wants you to “just send a letter”, this never works out.  Be prepared to implement Plan B.
  19. Return phone calls promptly.
  20. Take vacations.
  21. If you run into a problem on a case, don’t get paralyzed.  Take action.

Of course, one thing I didn’t realize about those Depression Era lawyers and their advice, is that they were still successfully practicing in my era, just as Neanderthal me is still successfully practicing in this era.

I hope these nuggets of truth about law practice are as helpful to you as they should have been to me.

PS – If you have any doubt about the timelessness of issues confronting attorneys in practice, I offer the following quote from a lawyer who practiced in the 1830’s –

Discourage litigation. Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can. Point out to them how the nominal winner is often a real loser – in fees, and expenses, and waste of time. As a peace-maker the lawyer has a superior opportunity [sic] of being a good man. There will still be business enough.

Never stir up litigation. A worse man can scarcely be found than one who does this. Who can be more nearly a fiend than he who habitually overhauls the Register of deeds, in search of defects in titles, whereon to stir up strife, and put money in his pocket? A moral tone ought to be infused into the profession, which should drive such men out of it.

The matter of fees is important far beyond the mere question of bread and butter involved. Properly attended to fuller justice is done to both lawyer and client. An exorbitant fee should never be claimed. As a general rule, never take your whole fee in advance, nor any more than a small retainer. When fully paid before hand, you are more than a common mortal if you can feel the same interest in the case, as if something was still in prospect for you, as well as for your client. And when you lack interest in the case, the job will very likely lack skill and diligence in the performance. Settle the amount of fee, and take a note in advance. Then you will feel that you are working for something, and you are sure to do your work faithfully and well.

There is a vague popular belief that lawyers are necessarily dishonest. I say vague, because when we consider to what extent confidence, and honors are reposed in, and conferred upon lawyers by the people, it appears improbable that their impression of dishonesty is very distinct and vivid. Yet the impression, is common – almost universal. Let no young man, choosing the law for a calling, for a moment yield to this popular belief. Resolve to be honest at all events; and if, in your own judgment, you can not be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer. Choose some other occupation, rather than one in the choosing of which you do, in advance, consent to be a knave.

~ Abraham Lincoln
What nugget of advice do you wish you had heeded?

All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.

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4 comments on “21 Pieces of Advice for Every (New) Lawyer

  • Thanks for this list Barry. Numbers one and seven very much need to be viewed together. Many startups feel the need to work with those who can’t pay up front, out of a need for work, and wind up not getting paid later. Saying no to those who can’t pay the retain solves both issues.

    • One and seven often do go together. Sometimes when you try to disclose what the matter could ultimately cost (and you should have this discussion), many clients don’t really acknowledge. That being said, number seven (difficulty getting paid after initial retainer) also often arises from not billing clearly and regularly, and from not billing because you “haven’t done anything” (for whatever reason).

  • That Lincoln guy knows what he’s on about.

    Also – I think number 13 can be a bitter pill for many young lawyers to swallow – I still hold on to the hope that, at least internally as a profession, we can start to change that one!

    A good list. Thanks for putting it out there Barry.

    Cheers,
    Chris

    • Ah, #13, people don’t show appreciation. It took me years to actually realize how much this was bothering me. Kind of irrational, really. In response I did a few things:

      - Acknowledged that this was their problem, not mine.
      - Decided to really notice and appreciate the times when people actually DO show appreciation. Uh, when you choose to notice it, it happens more than you realize.
      - Recalled that an old lawyer had told me this, and decided to “put it on the list”

      One aside to this: For years I have kept a “tributes” file. In it I put anything where a client said something really nice to me, or about me. There have been times when a matter was completed and a client sent me a card, just thanking me. Every so often I look through this file, just because it feels good.

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