By the time that they graduate law school and pass the bar, young attorneys have just closed out two long decades of schooling. The shift from studying law to actually practicing law can seem a bit intimidating and leaves a lot of new attorneys wondering if they are doing anything right.
To help make the transition into practice a little easier, we pulled together some tips and words of advice from our tenured attorneys at Watts Guerra to make sure that the transition goes as smoothly as possible.
Self-doubt is normal when any human starts something new. New experiences are humbling but fight off worries that you are not doing enough, that you are not qualified for your role, or that you are a fraud. Remind yourself that you went to almost as much school as a medical doctor, passed the bar, and earned your position in this field. Look around yourself at the talented people you can trust to guide your practice, ask questions, soak it all in, and practice until you get it. This will help put those insecurities to rest.
Having a full schedule is a side effect of being an attorney and the key to combat that is to always stay organized. Caleb Rackley, Watts Guerra Appellate Counsel, emphasized the importance of planning for and meeting deadlines – whether they are informal deadlines relating to superiors or clients, or formal deadlines imposed by courts or procedural rules. His simple (but sage) advice is to make sure you understand the deadlines for every task that you are responsible for. If you don’t understand when each task must be completed, you will never be able to properly prioritize your time. Stay organized by putting them into your calendar with draft and final product due dates. This will ensure you never miss a deadline.
On top of staying organized, being prepared is crucial to the practice of law and particularly to adversarial hearings and trials. There is no such thing as overprepared when dealing with a case. Robert Brzezinski, Watts Guerra Partner, identifies how to be successful (and keep your sanity) in the legal profession, “Preparation, preparation, preparation! Not only is being prepared the best way to ensure you do a good job, it will also help keep your blood pressure down as you’ll stress less when you feel ready for the task. Learning to manage stress as a trial lawyer is literally a life-saving skill to acquire. “
Even though you are finally done with school, never, never stop learning. As an attorney, both new and seasoned, you will learn something new every single day of your entire (hopefully very long) career. If you are unsure of something, ask a question. It is inevitable that you will make mistakes, so when you do, own up to it, and learn from it. You might embarrass yourself along the way but if you acknowledge it, apologize and fix it, and move forward, you will be more respected than if you shrugged it off or dwelled on it.
Write your goals down! According to Forbes, people who vividly describe or picture their goals are more likely to successfully accomplish them. By physically writing down your goals you are creating a document that you can access and hold yourself accountable with at any time. Writing them down also means that you are also internalizing your goals. You are generating better odds of remembering your goals. There are many planners that are out there to help you map out your goals and break them down into actionable steps. In fact, PopSugar recently rounded up a list of top journals to help you organize your goals and set a path for you to achieve them. Professional goals should be simple and clear. Ask a mentor to help set yours as you start your practice.
Develop real and true professional relationships with lawyers that you respect and whose career path you want to emulate. A mentor can help guide you, answer your questions without judgment, and make sure that you stay on track with your goals. They can save you from a thousand mistakes they already made and learned how to avoid themselves.
You can also get involved by becoming an active member in your legal community. There are Young Lawyers Associations, Trial Lawyer Associations, and others that allow for networking with peers. (At the end of this article is a list of Texas young lawyers associations in San Antonio.)
It is intimidating doing a deposition, hearing, or trial for the first few times, especially with confidence. The best way to get comfortable is to learn by observation and practice. Alicia O’Neill, Partner and Director of the Mass Torts Office, provides a tip to stifle the intimidation of being a first-time litigant, “go to the courthouse and watch great attorneys try cases. Listen to their objections and pay attention to what they don’t object to. Watch how they interact with each other and with the jury. Go to their depos. Read their depos. Then volunteer to cover the depo, take the witness, try to case. Even if you’re scared, you will find your own voice. It’s the only way to learn who you are as a trial lawyer.”
Bob Brzezinski reiterates that the best experience is gained through observation. “Teach yourself to be silent, listen, and pay attention not just to what’s being said but how it’s being said and what the person’s body language is conveying. Too many lawyers like to hear the sound of their own voice and are frequently so busy moving on to the next question that they miss crucial signals given off by the other person. We can often accomplish much more by being silent and paying attention than we can by trying to be clever with our next question.”
It is also always important to remember the legal community is a tight-knit circle. Be grateful and nice as you observe and practice. Alicia emphasizes how important it is to strive to be a positive member of your professional community and to not burn bridges, “remember that your career is long. A large part of your life will be lived surrounded by the same other lawyers, judges, and legal staff. Don’t be a jerk.”
As you begin your career as an attorney, do not allow yourself to get swept up in thinking that you have to have it all figured out on day one. It is the practice of law after all. As you find your path as an attorney you might go in a direction that you previously had not considered. Be adaptable to change and embrace it. Regardless of your career path, treat your peers and clients with respect, never forget your ethics, spell check everything, get a friend to edit your work, and be the kind of lawyer that you would want to have and work next to.
Links for Young Attorney Associations: