This past Friday I was fortunate enough to speak on a panel entitled “Pathways to Practice” at MCLE here in Boston. The program was aimed at third year law students and recent graduates with the goal of imparting some wisdom that would make it easier for those individuals to navigate the current economy and legal job market. Basically, it covered all the stuff that I’ve had to go about learning the hard way over the past two years (and some that was new to me), and I highly recommend that anyone looking for a legal job, establishing a solo practice, or thinking of doing either, go back and watch the free archived webcast here (you’ll have to register with MCLE to do so).
Unfortunately, my time ran a little short and I completely disregarded my outline as soon as I started talking, so there were some points that I had wanted to make and some advice that I had wanted to give that I wasn’t able to. So here’s my Pathways to Practice bonus material:
1. Be Nice to Everybody
By everybody, I mean absolutely everybody: clients, court employees, opposing counsel, the barista at the coffee shop, random people in the street, everyone. Being nice to clients just makes sense. A satisfied client is any attorney’s best marketing tool and it’s often impossible to know what kinds of random connections clients will have that they can choose to exercise in your favor. Granted, at times clients can be maddening. However, as an attorney it’s your job to manage your clients as much as it is to stand up and make arguments in court. If a client situation has gotten to the point where you no longer feel you can be nice, you’ve probably done something seriously wrong in managing that client, and if you’re at least partly culpable for a bad situation, the least you can do is be nice.
Court employees are hugely important people to be nice to because they hold the keys to the kingdom. Court employees know all the attorneys who come in and out of that Court regularly, they know all the judges and their habits, they know all the other Court employees, and they know all the administrative procedures that are all too frequently more important in a given case than any brilliant legal argument. Simply put, you want every Court employee to be your friend. You’ll get more done, you’ll be happier, you’ll serve your clients better, and you’ll be kept abreast of the latest changes and opportunities in the courthouse.
It’s also crucial, if counter-intuitive, to be nice to opposing counsel. The first time I ever went to Court was the first time I ever had to interact with opposing counsel. It quickly occurred to me that I had no idea how to act like a lawyer and how to interact with an adversary. Like many young attorneys I fell back on a vague notion of how a lawyer should act derived from entirely too many late nights watching Law and Order reruns. In other words, I was overly aggressive, argumentative, and demanding. This didn’t help me feel more like a lawyer and it certainly didn’t help my client. What’s crucial to remember is that, despite the personal investment of some attorneys in their clients’ matters, we’re all professionals here. As attorneys we’re supposed to be disinterested third parties helping our clients reach their most advantageous outcome. Looked at from this perspective, there’s simply no reason (outside of tactical considerations) not to be nice to opposing counsel.
From a tactical perspective, I think being nice to opposing counsel typically helps reach the client’s most advantageous outcome as well. Most cases are better off not going to trial. Most parties are better off writing the terms of an agreement they can live with rather than placing a bet on the decision of a judge or jury. Being nice to opposing counsel from the get-go helps facilitate these agreements. The more efficiently you can reach these agreements, the better for your clients.
Moreover, whether you’re a volunteer attorney getting experience while looking for a job or a solo practitioner, it’s important to be constantly marketing yourself and networking. By being nice to opposing counsel, you’re doing both. The first time I was in Court I didn’t know how to act, but I quickly wised up. Over the course of the next few months, I had a lot more opportunities to be really nice to opposing counsel (including agreeing to continue a review hearing when he accidentally double booked court appearances), I even sent him a quick email when the case concluded telling him how good it was working together. Meanwhile, he had a chance to see that I was a competent attorney and find out more about me and my practice areas. The result of that quick email I sent him? He offered to put me on his firm’s referral list for my practice areas and provide a referral fee for any cases I sent his way.
On the theme of constant marketing and unexpected results, just be nice to everyone you meet, anywhere. This is just a good way to go about life, but it’s also, selfishly, really good marketing. You never know where your next referral or job offer is going to come from, and more than likely it’s going to come from somewhere completely unexpected.
2. Find Something to be Excited About
When I first graduated from law school I floundered for a long time. During that time, I had no direction, I had no plan, I was about as unhappy a person as you could ever expect to meet, and it showed. When you’re like that it becomes very difficult for people to help you. This is true whether that person is a parent, a friend, or someone you just met at a networking event.
To begin with, when you have nothing to be excited about the person you’re talking to has no reason to be excited about you. Secondly, if you don’t have some kind of focus that you can show some enthusiasm about people have no idea how they might be able to help you. You have to give them more guidance. In contrast, when you speak to someone and you’re genuinely enthused about what you’re saying that shows as well. That person gets excited because they feed off of your energy. Even if they’re not particularly interested in what you’re saying, they recognize your enthusiasm and that makes them interested in you. You stick out in their memory in a good way. Additionally, you provide more of a road map for how they might be able to help you.
By way of example, I had an informational interview with a friend’s father, a senior partner at a large firm, the Monday after the bar exam. I didn’t yet have any direction, and, more than anything, I was just completely put out by the state of the legal job market and the prospect of finding gainful employment. I wasn’t excited about a single thing. So I went to the meeting looking to receive direction, looking to receive something to get excited about rather than looking to provide something for this person to get excited about. The result: bubkus. I didn’t make a good impression and I didn’t really get much information or help. This was my fault.
About a year later I saw this person again. Naturally, he asked me how the job search was going. This time, I immediately launched into my spiel about how I was thinking about starting my own practice and my various plans related thereto. I was clearly excited, and I gave him something to get excited about. If nothing else, I showed that I had some direction, some ambition, and some enthusiasm. The result this time: without prompting (and while still on the golf course no less) he emailed a solo practitioner friend to ask him to sit down with me and give me some advice. The meeting with that friend ended up being the thing that pushed me to finally take the solo plunge.
3. Try Everything
Thus far in my short legal career, I can honestly say that the only things that haven’t worked are the things that I haven’t tried yet. Granted, some things haven’t always worked as well as I had hoped they would or in exactly the way that I had hoped they would, but I haven’t outright failed in any of my networking, marketing, business development, or substantive practice efforts. Everything has made me a better lawyer, a better marketer, and a better business person.
A really easy example of the way things have worked for me, if not always in the way intended, is my decision to begin volunteering in Housing Court. I started volunteering essentially as a way to grow my legal skills and gain experience. When I undertook that effort, it was a big step out of my comfort zone and something that I regarded with more than a little bit of trepidation. A few months later, not only have I gained a whole new set of legal skills I never had, but I’ve opened up a for-profit practice area for myself, gotten referrals, done a ton of valuable networking, made friends, and gotten a speaking engagement. Obviously, not everything I’ve tried has had such spectacular and unexpected results, but I’ve learned from everything I’ve done and I’ve grown as a person and as an attorney. So again, try everything, close yourself off to nothing.
That wraps up my Pathways to Practice wrap-up. Again, I thought that the information presented was invaluable for law students and young attorneys alike, and I highly recommend that you go back and watch the archived webcast. If you went to the program or watched the webcast live, watch it again (also, thank you).
Lastly, remember that everybody wants to help you as much as possible, everybody wants to see you succeed, and lawyers love to talk. That includes me, so feel free to ask questions in the comments, by email, or if you see me in the street (just be nice).