New Year’s Resolutions for the New or Young Lawyer to Act Professionally and Advance One’s Reputation
The New Year is the time when many of us resolve to improve ourselves, correct bad habits, and commit to become more successful. As our legal community continues to focus on improving professionalism and civility, we recognize that there are certain lawyer traits and trends of practice that help promote more professional behavior and advancing one’s reputation. Here are ten proposed resolutions for a new or young lawyer to consider in the New Year:
10. Find a niche area in which to practice
Lawyers in niche practice areas tend to behave more professionally towards each other, court, or arbitrator. Examples of such niche practice areas are bankruptcy, probate, securities arbitration, and products liability. Often the opposite trend occurs in more general areas of practice such as personal injury or commercial litigation. Why is that? Lawyers who know they will see each other in the next case behave better. If a lawyer burns a bridge with someone today, the lawyer will not be trusted the next time. Practicing law in a niche area tends to promote more professional and civil conduct.
9. Be utterly reliable
Most lawyers think of professionalism only as to how we interact with opposing counsel and the court. But there is also a component of professionalism that involves how we conduct ourselves in our own offices. A lawyer’s reputation quickly gets built within one’s office. The mold often has been laid already at the 6 month mark. The lawyer must be utterly reliable with time management and substantive work. The lawyer should finish projects on time and make sure to cite cases accurately and not overstate them.
8. Serve the bar and the community
One of the best ways to be viewed as a “professional lawyer” is to serve the bar and the general community. The most effective thing about this type of service is that you get to know other lawyers and judges through your service. You become their allies in this context. So when you see them in a case, you behave differently. You still do your job as an advocate, but you’re more courteous. And so is your opponent.
7. Only fight battles that you’re going to win
A few years ago, I was waiting for my turn at motion calendar and observed a defense lawyer in a personal injury case arguing a motion in limine. The lawyer was asking the court for an order to prevent a plaintiff from using a cane during trial because the defense had a surveillance tape in which the plaintiff was not using a cane. In response, the judge tilted his reading glasses and asked with disbelief, “What are you asking me to do?” Think about that motion from judge’s perspective. Does the judge have authority to prevent a plaintiff from using a cane? What if the plaintiff were injured and the non-use of a cane caused him to fall down during trial? No judge would enter such an order and the lawyer looks like he’s overreaching and not credible. Pick your battles wisely. Only go to court when: (1) it’s an important issue, and (2) you’re going to win.
6. Treat others like you want to be treated
If you are combative or not trustworthy, word gets around quickly. You know how lawyers talk about judges? Guess what judges do? Treat your opponents well. Treat your colleagues at the office well. Treat judicial staff well. Treat the guy behind the counter in the courthouse cafeteria well. They all talk (often to each other) and your reputation matters in all contexts, not just in the courtroom.
5. Try to find the right job with the right mentor
Be true to yourself and don’t go to work for a lawyer that you do not respect or does not have a good reputation. Ask around about a potential employer’s reputation before you take the job. Not only is this important because of the association it will bring upon you, but also because you will learn positive practice habits from a good mentor.
Judges want you to be prepared when you come to court. Know the issue cold that you’re asking the judge to rule upon. Know your cited cases – the holdings and the facts. Know the specific relief that you’re asking the judge to enter. Come in with a proposed order. If you’re appearing at motion calendar, know that there are probably 5 to 10 other cases to be heard as well. When you’re prepared, everybody – including the court and your audience – appreciates it.
3. The value of a cup of coffee
What does a cup of coffee cost at Starbucks? Two dollars for a tall? Five dollars for a venti, soy mocha? In litigation, the value of a cup of coffee with your opposing counsel can be worth tens of thousands of dollars to your client.
During your careers, you are bound to have cases where you don’t get along with your opponent. I have and it’s neither productive nor enjoyable. After several cases like that, I said to myself at the beginning of each new case, (1) I am going to offer to buy opposing counsel a cup of coffee after the first hearing; (2) during our coffee, I’m not going to talk about the case; and (3) I’m going to ask opposing counsel about his practice and what he does in his spare. And while I cannot claim to have done this in every case, I have done it enough times to know that those cases have gone much smoother with opposing counsel.
2. Pick a paragon of professionalism
The law business a business and we have difficult judgment calls to make often in our cases. For example, your client wants you to be “aggressive” in objecting to a document request that will reveal the client’s business profits, but you think you’re going to lose on the objection. Do you follow your client’s instructions or tell your client that you should not go to court because you think you’re going to lose?
Ethical and professional dilemmas occur frequently in our practices and you often have make a judgment call on the course of action. One idea on how to resolve these dilemmas is to pick a role model whom you know and respect, i.e., a paragon of professionalism. Then try to figure out how that role model would handle the same situation and attempt to emulate how that lawyer’s expected course of conduct. When doing this, you will make the right call more often than not.
1. Practice within your own personality
You know yourself best. During your career, you will work with others whom you hope share your values, but many will have different personalities. To be happy, professional, and successful in our profession, you should try to find a practice area, firm and work environment that fits your personality.
Today, I’m the happiest that I’ve been practicing law. I have my own boutique firm. It’s the right balance for me of getting to pick my clients and practice areas. I get to create a firm culture of valuing excellent legal work where people are nice to each other and respect one another. I get to focus on marketing and client development – things I enjoy. And I get to serve in community leadership positions that complement my practice. For my personality, it’s the perfect fit.
If you find the right firm, practice area and work environment that plays to your strengths and personality, you likely will be happier, more successful, and, in turn, act more professionally.