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Advice for the New Lawyer (And More Experienced Lawyers, Too)

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, June 12, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, May 13, 2014
by Mindy Morton, President

For many of us, June is a time of celebration and reflection, as we attend weddings and graduations and look forward to summer vacations.  I am speaking at a ceremony for new admittees to the California bar this month, and as I started preparing my speech, I polled a number of my colleagues and asked what advice they would give to those starting a legal career.  Their advice made me stop and think about my own approach to the law, and although it was intended for those who are new practitioners, I think it applies to all of us, regardless of where we are in our legal journey.  We “practice law” because the law is always evolving and we need to keep up with it by bettering ourselves and our legal community.  So with that in mind, I share with you the following advice, with thanks to my legal colleagues.

Be respectful and professional.  Santa Clara County Bar Association has a Code of Professionalismfor lawyers practicing in Santa Clara County, and I encourage everyone to read it and apply it.  It is possible, and, indeed, preferable, to zealously advocate for your client while treating others with respect.  Everyone has a duty of professionalism, and under the Code, this duty includes “civility, professional integrity, personal dignity, candor, diligence, respect, courtesy, cooperation, and competence.”  It is even more important to follow the Professionalism Code when faced with opposing counsel who choose not to do so, even though it will be difficult.  Please remember to treat your staff, court employees, and others you encounter with the same respect and courtesy.

Write, revise, repeat.  Although the movies always show lawyers dazzling judges and juries alike with amazing speeches, most of us spend a large portion of our careers writing.  It is easy to write at length about most legal issues; it is far more difficult to write concisely.  Mark Twain once wrote that “Anybody can have ideas--the difficulty is to express them without squandering a quire of paper on an idea that ought to be reduced to one glittering paragraph.”  We have all suffered through paragraph-long sentences.  Don’t add to the pain.  Make sure to allow enough time to review your writing and be judicious with the delete key.  If you can, ask a colleague to review important letters and briefs to catch typos and awkward sentences that you miss.

Ask Questions.  Every case presents new facts and new opportunities for learning.  As an intellectual property litigator, I look forward to learning the new technologies that come with each trade secret, copyright or patent case.  Sometimes clients or other lawyers assume you know how something works.  If you don’t, speak up.  No one wants you to waste time researching something you don’t understand, and sometimes the question you are afraid to ask because it could be stupid leads the case down a rewarding path.

Find a mentor and be a mentor.  Having someone who will invest in your professional development is critical to your success as a lawyer, no matter how many years you have practiced law.  As a young lawyer, you may need advice on substantive and procedural issues.  As you gain more confidence in your practical skills, you may need advice on business development.  And even senior lawyers reach out to colleagues when confronting thorny ethical questions.  As a lawyer, you are a member of the legal community, and by asking for help when needed and providing guidance to others when you can, you keep the community vital and engaged.  I still remember the partner at my first law firm in New York who sat down with me after I had proudly drafted my first reply brief.  He spent over an hour explaining the difference between an opposition and a reply.  I think of him fondly every time I write or read a reply brief, and I do my best to follow his example when I mentor others.

Try new things.  Remember that your career path doesn’t end when you start your first job, or even your third or fourth job.  Explore new avenues!  Today’s research project could become a new specialty for you.  Be open to new projects and areas of the law.

Take vacations.  According to a 2011 study, the average American has 11 vacation days unused at the end of the year.  Don’t be average.  Taking time off reboots your brain and allows you to return to work feeling refreshed and ready to tackle new legal obstacles.  No one looks back on their career and regrets taking a vacation.  There will always be a new motion to file or contract to draft.  Make time for sunsets and world wonders and the smile on your child’s face the first time they meet Mickey Mouse.

Join the SCCBA and get involved with a section or committee.   The SCCBA is a great way to network with other attorneys and learn more about your practice area.  Networking is one of the most important ways to advance your professional development and joining one or more SCCBA sections makes networking with the right colleagues and local judges easy.  CLE programs are also a great way to get public speaking experience.  Becoming active in the SCCBA is a great way to enrich your professional life and to contribute to the legal community.

Do pro bono work.  The SCCBA 2005 Pro Bono Task Force Report stated that “every lawyer has a responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay, and that personal involvement in the problems of the disadvantaged can be one of the most rewarding experiences in the life of a lawyer.”  The SCCBA encourages all lawyers to provide at least 60 hours of direct legal assistance to the indigent.  Pro bono opportunities are plentiful, and you can check out open projects on the SCCBA’swww.probonomatch.org website.

Do something meaningful outside of work.  No matter how rewarding your legal career is, it is important to be involved in the community.  Volunteer for a nonprofit, join a community group, play sports, or take a class!  Get involved with something that matters to you outside of work.  The law doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and having a rich and rewarding life outside of the law makes you a better (and happier) lawyer. I leave you with another quote from Mark Twain: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines.  Sail away from the safe harbor.  Catch the trade winds in your sails.  Explore. Dream. Discover.”  Remember that there is so much more to being a lawyer than sitting at your desk writing a memo or brief.  Engage in our vibrant legal community and you will enrich the lives of others as well as your own.

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