10 Do's and Don'ts for New Attorneys

You've graduated law school, you passed the bar, and you've just been sworn in. You're one of the few people to find a job in law in this terrible job market, or you have the gumption to strike out on your own as a solo. Whatever the case may be, you have a whole lot of book knowledge in your head, but very little idea of how the practice of law actually works, that is, beyond watching reruns of Law and Order. And no, that does not count for much.

So what do you need to know that you didn't learn in law school? Here are some basics for new attorneys as you embark on your new career:

1. DO become best friends with the office staff/assistant

You may think that the managing partner in the office holds all the power. He or she may wield a great majority, to be sure. However, in the day to day operations, the true power lies in the hands of the office staff or assistant, depending on how big the firm is. The legal assistant knows everything: from the in's and out's of local court rules to how the managing partner likes tasks to be done. In a small firm, the assistant may be the one allocating resources and very often has input on assignments for associates. This person is a wealth of knowledge and influence. Be kind to this person. Value their input and their hard work. Do your own menial tasks. When they are stressed, offer to help. Yes, you have billable hours to meet, but it is not hard to make the time. Not only is it a basic human courtesy ("We live in a society people!"), but building a relationship with this person will certainly make your life easier when you need help navigating the unchartered waters that is your first year as an associate.

2. DO find a mentor

Much of the practice of law will not be found in a book. Yes, you have to know the rules and you have to research the substantive law. But, a mentor can teach you valuable insights that can only be gained through experience: what to say in certain situations to convey what you mean to a judge, opposing counsel, mediator, or adjuster, without having to spell it out, how to talk to a difficult client, how to handle an ethical conundrum, how to negotiate to set yourself up for a particular settlement result without naming your figure, just to name a few examples.

Find someone whose style resonates with you. The mentor will be of little value if their style is aggressive and yours is more subtle. Your mentor could be someone from your office, a partner or a more senior associate. Failing that, many bar associations have networking opportunities that are useful for creating connections, and some have formal mentor programs.

3. DO become a great listener

Becoming a great listener takes work. Given the adversarial nature of law, attorneys are constantly thinking of the next thing to say. Take the time to actually listen to what is being said to you, from clients, partners, judges, opposing counsel, and adjusters. Clients in particular want to feel heard and understood. Partners need you to understand your marching orders. And launching into a diatribe on what you think versus what the judge, opposing counsel or adjuster is asking, just wastes people's time and reflects poorly on you. Don't assume to know what information someone else is seeking.

4. DO ask questions

When you first start practicing, you may not understand much of what the partner is telling you. Don't be afraid to ask questions, particularly when receiving an assignment. Clarifying exactly what the partner is looking for will take a couple of minutes on the front end, but could save valuable time on the back end. Partners understand that there is a learning curve. If you feel like it is a particularly unintelligent question, ask it anyway if you don't know the answer, but perhaps direct to the assistant or a senior associate.

5. DON'T bug the partner with every thought that comes into your head

As a corollary to the "ask questions" directive, keep in mind that the partner is very busy, and you do want them to think that hiring you was a good idea. So don't bug them every time a question confronts you in your work, or when an idea pops into your head about how to solve a perplexing issue in a case, unless there is an urgent need to. Schedule a time to meet with the partner to go over questions and case statuses. Although dropping in on the boss is not entirely verboten, don't abuse it, or the partner may be inclined to think that you can't operate independently.

6. DO be organized

Streamline your work process by implementing routines, forms and checklists. You should not need to reinvent the wheel every day. Start the day by checking messages, returning calls and emails, and reviewing your "to-do" list. Keep a "to-do" list. Cross items off as they are completed so you can see what items are getting stale. At the end of each day, review the list and prioritize for what needs to be accomplished the next morning.

Whatever your practice area is, have a system that you use. For example, see our article on Organizing Your Personal Injury Cases: A Step by Step Checklist. As advised there, having a set checklist for a type of case will help you use your time effectively and efficiently. Keep folders with blank forms for clients, so that it is easy to open a new file. Additionally, having a case checklist will save you time looking through the entire file when you can just glance at the list to know where the case stands. Being organized will help you stay on top of your cases, and avoid wasting time figuring out what you need to do next.

7. DO respond to messages within 24 hours

Always respond to any communication within 24 hours. Always, always, always. There is nothing more upsetting to a client than not hearing back from their attorney. Even if your response is, "I don't know the answer, but I will look into it." Knowing that you have gotten the message and are treating the client's inquiry as a priority will go a long way to keeping the client happy. If you are in trial, get someone to do it for you, another associate, assistant, anybody, even if all that they say is that you are in trial and you will contact them as soon as you can. Yes, you are busy. No, you are not too busy to ensure that the client feels valued.

Additionally, one of the best pieces of advice I received at a seminar for new attorneys when I first started practicing was to always choose the most personal mode of communication that is appropriate for the situation. If you can walk down the hall and have a conversation, do it. If you can pick up the phone to discuss the issue, do it. Yes, you will have to send emails and letters, but a personal conversation goes a very long way to resolving most issues.

8. DO follow everything up in writing

This is easy, follow up everything in writing, whether by email or letter. You will talk to many people throughout the day, as will the attorneys and adjusters with whom you are dealing. If it is in writing, there can be no confusion as to what was said or what was decided.

9. DO play nice

This is an adversarial system, but I am a firm believer that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. Certainly, there will be some people that believe that the aggressive approach is the way to go. I do not. Everyone is trying to do their job and whatever tack another person may take, always show respect. Grant attorneys and adjusters requested courtesies. There will come a time when you will need an extension or some other courtesy, and if you have not done so for others, they are not going to want to cut you a break.

10. DON'T comment about anything work-related on social media

There may be a lot of material that presents itself in your work that you will find funny and want to share. There will be times that attorneys, witnesses, or (god-forbid) clients, act so outrageous that you feel like venting about it to your social media friends. Resist the urge. Not only are you in danger of ethical violations or losing your job, it reflects poorly on you and the profession. The legal community is also small, and though your account may be private, word can get back to your employer or the judge on your case.