Advice for Newly Minted Lawyers

*Updated to add some great advice posted by readers on social media – see below. 

Photo of a shelf of law books
As we enter October, some states have already released the results of the July bar exam, and other states will post their results soon.  I thought this would be a good time offer some advice to this year’s class of new lawyers as they embark on their careers.  I spent my first two years after law school working at a fairly large law firm, and the following tips might be less applicable to those working in other settings (i.e., in-house legal departments, government agencies, etc.), but I think most of these points apply across the board.  Lawyers, please add your own advice in the comments below.  

  1. Write everything down.  Carry a notepad and pen into every meeting with a boss, client, witness, or other important person.  Take copious notes.  If you can’t jot down everything during the meeting, take a few minutes immediately afterward to summarize what was said:  the scenario presented, the task you are being asked to perform.  If you met with a client or witness, write a memo to the file summarizing the meeting.  Do not rely on your memory.  You may think you will remember what your boss asked you to research or when she needs your work product, but you will get busy juggling multiple projects and you will forget.  Don’t take any chances; write it down.  (Note:  I suggested a notepad, and by that I mean an actual pad of paper.  You may find it more convenient to type meeting notes on your iPad or other device, but many higher-ups will assume you are doing something other than taking notes and will fault you for being rude and distracted during the meeting.  Stick with a pen and paper.)
  2. Stay organized.  Even if you are not by nature an organized person, you need to come up with a system that will allow you to find what you need quickly.  This may mean keeping hard-copy research files in your office, alphabetized in a file cabinet; it may mean maintaining electronic files into which you place every email communication; it may mean tidy, organized piles of paper sorted on your desk.  Whatever works for you, come up with a system and stay organized.  If you have been assigned an assistant, you can ask your assistant to help you with this.
  3. Treat everything you prepare as though it will be the end product.  Unless you are hanging your own shingle, your work product will probably be reviewed by a senior attorney for at least the first few months, if not years.  Even so, you need to understand that some of those senior attorneys will not review your work as closely as others.  Do not assume they will catch your mistakes.  They have not done the research you have done; they may not be as familiar with the issues as you are.  Do your best work, and be as thorough as possible, with the understanding that your work may be passed along to a client or filed with a court with very little revision.  Within the structure of your organization, you may not be considered the lead attorney or the primary client contact, but don’t let that make you complacent.  Take full ownership of everything you do, and understand that your work can have great consequences, even if it doesn’t always feel that way.
  4. Don’t take on too many side obligations.  It can be tempting for an enthusiastic new lawyer to volunteer for multiple nonprofit boards and bar association committees.  You want to make a good impression on your bosses, establish yourself in the community, and bring in some business.  But if you take on too much, you will either burn yourself out, or your work will suffer, or both.  In the beginning, don’t commit yourself to more than one or two things, and choose activities and organizations that you genuinely enjoy.
  5. Take a long view of work-life balance.  There will be times when you have no choice but to work a lot of hours.  Early in your career, the new lawyer learning curve contributes to this, and you’ll likely be saddled with more grunt work as a junior attorney.  But there will also be slower times, and you should take advantage of them.  Take vacations and practice self care during those times.  Rather than expecting a balanced schedule every day or week, strive for balance on a monthly or yearly basis.  Don’t assume that because you are crazy busy now, you will feel that way forever.  Most lawyers’ careers are not linear anymore. They are more like jungle gyms than ladders.  You can move laterally or hop off when life demands it and still eventually make your way to the top.
  6. It takes time to hit your stride.  No matter how well you did in law school, practicing law is hard.  You will almost certainly feel overwhelmed, overmatched, and in over your head at times.  I think every new attorney has a moment when she thinks, “What qualifies me to give anyone advice?” or “Law school did not prepare me for this situation!”  It may take a year or two, or even longer, but you will eventually learn from experience and become more confident in what you are doing.  In the meantime, don’t hesitate to call upon your mentors.  We’ve all been there.

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Here’s some additional advice shared by readers in response to this piece:

  • I would add the following: 1. Attorney client privilege must be taken seriously. It may be tempting to talk when you’re out at dinner with friends about a clients case or situation. Never. Never. Never. 2. Have some empathy, it’s important to get involved in pro bono work. A law license is a power tool. It can be used to make money, but it can also be used to help people who otherwise couldn’t afford an attorney. 3. Be careful what you post online. Remember that attorneys are held to higher social media standards. A prospective employer or client probably won’t hire you if you post a picture taking shots wearing a tuxedo t-shirt at a dive bar. 4. No amount of advice will prepare you for what’s ahead. Listen, ask questions and remember that you don’t know everything. Once you stop learning, you stop being a good attorney. –Peter G. Aziz, Esq. (LinkedIn)
  • Keep records of everything you do. Your time is valuable, document everything you do, and make sure your explanations are deep, thorough, and clear. –Daniel Reeder (Facebook)
  • Find a mentor you can trust! I had several working at Legal Aid back in the day and it made all the difference. –Janine Myatt (Facebook)
  • Don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions! –Hillary Spadaccini (Facebook)

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