By Reba Letsa, Esq., Joshua Kahn, Esq., Victoria Thornton, Esq., and Jonathan T. Huddleston, Esq.
Recently we shared survival tips for new lawyers at a meeting of the MSBA Young Lawyers Section. There were many good questions.
What do you wish you knew when you first started?
- Embrace the fact that you don’t know everything. That’s probably a new experience for a high achiever like you. You knew a lot in school, but school probably didn’t teach you working-world skills, like meeting etiquette. Don’t let the brand new learning curve discourage you.
- Don’t reinvent the wheel. The pleading or instrument you need to draft has been drafted successfully many times before. Find one that suits your needs in your firm’s document management system or a bar association’s document library, and use it as a template. Doing that will show you what a successful draft looks like and save you time.
- Ask for help. Yes, lawyers are supposed to be autonomous and independent professionals, but you’re also human. Ask for help if you’re stuck — it gives you knowledge, it assures your employer that you’re on the right track, and it obviously benefits your client.
How do you organize your work?
These tips apply to litigators, but basic organization applies to any kind of matter.
- Look at the scheduling order immediately. The scheduling order will let you know how much time, if any (!), you have before the next deadline. In school, missing a deadline might hurt your GPA; in law practice, missing a deadline might hurt your client.
- Graph out basic case information. Make a one-stop shop for all nuts-and-bolts information on the case so you can get that information quickly on demand. The kind of information to include would be the identity of experts, their deposition dates, same for other witnesses, the location and identity of the judge, opposing counsel’s contact information, etc. — all the basic information. It will save you time later hunting down these small but crucial details.
- Develop an efficient file naming convention, and stick to it. For paper or digital files, an efficient naming convention enables you to track and retrieve files quickly. It will save you time as you progress through the case.
What’s important to ask when you’re assigned a matter?
- Ask for the deadline and how to prioritize the matter. Asking the assigning lawyer for this information will help ensure they receive your workproduct when they need it, and protects you from missing a deadline or prioritizing the wrong matter in your queue.
- Ask what kind of workproduct you should produce. Assigning lawyers want different types of workproduct depending on their preferences, the type of case, etc. Asking the assigning lawyer what kind of workproduct they want (e.g., memorandum, brief, synopsis, etc.) resolves any ambiguity and ensures you’re providing exactly what they expect.
How do you maintain work/life balance as a young associate?
- Let colleagues know when you’re taking time off. Communicating with your colleagues regarding time off gives them fair warning in case they expected you to be available during your time away. Let them know as far in advance as you can, and remind them as your time off gets closer. If there is an organization-wide calendar that logs off-time, make sure yours appears there.
- Pro tip: Even though your supervising attorney should know when you’re off, remind them anyway.
- Ask colleagues if they need anything before you go. When you let them know you’ll be out, ask them if they need anything beforehand. Doing that helps them get what they need from you and protects you from unreasonable, last minute requests (though it’s not a guarantee).
- Turn off the phone when you’re away. Record a vmail that says when you’ll be back and who to contact if the caller can’t wait. If colleagues persist in calling you, then that’s some evidence that they don’t respect your boundaries. You might consider looking elsewhere for employment.
- Pro tip: Remember to let your substitute contact know that they are your substitute contact.
- Prioritize what you enjoy during your free time. Reflect on what you like to do in your free time, and with intention make time for it during your free time schedule. Nobody else will.
How do you avoid hitting the wall?
Everyone’s wall is different. You’ll know when you’ve hit yours. A classic scenario is it’s 1 a.m. and you’re beginning a brief due that’s at 10 a.m. In this scenario, you’re harming yourself and very possibly your client.
- Practice schedule awareness. Deadlines that are simultaneous or close in time can generate angst if they surprise you. Staying aware of your schedule, and allocating sufficient time for your matters, helps prevent that from happening.
- Time yourself on tasks. Once you know how long it takes you to complete a routine task (e.g., drafting an instrument or researching new legislation), you’ll get more realistic about how long it takes to complete a task. Time-tracking apps help.
- Pro tip: “I love tracking my time,” said no one ever. But it’s part of the profession you have chosen.
- Build a work schedule. Use what you know about how long it takes you to complete tasks to build a work schedule, based on time-tracked tasks. If you work without tracking the reality of how long it takes to complete tasks, you increase the chance of hitting the wall.
How do you find a mentor?
- Ask around. There are different kinds of mentoring programs — firm diversity mentoring programs, bar association Section mentoring programs, etc. Ask people within your workplace or bar association.
- Recognize an organic mentor. Sometimes the best mentors are those who emerge organically, borne of camaraderie within your office or volunteering with someone at a bar association practice group, etc.
- Consider an internal and external mentor. A mentor within your place of work can help you navigate your workplace’s best practices and politics; a mentor outside your place of work can help you navigate career development questions, which sometimes may not involve your current employer.
- Pursue someone you want to emulate. Identify someone you want to emulate and ask them for an informational meeting. It may develop into a mentoring relationship; if they don’t respond then try again. Don’t be discouraged — they may be busy (if so, that’s a sign that they’re a good choice for emulation).
- Pro tip: If you’re cold-calling a possible mentor, make their gatekeeper your ally. Turn on the charm and respect, and they may help you get that meeting. (You should try to be charming and respectful anyway.)
How do you build a good reputation?
- Don’t be a [insert your favorite pejorative]. Be nice to people no matter who they are. People talk.
- Keep a positive attitude. Colleagues, and especially supervisors, appreciate a can-do/will-do attitude. It relieves them of the burden of wondering if they can rely on you.
- Do consistently good work. Look at each task like it’s a brick in structure, and the structure you’re building is your professional reputation.
- Be these adjectives: reliable, reasonable, collaborative, and cooperative. You can probably think of more.
- Give back if you can. Time is short when you’re starting out. If you have time, do pro bono work or other volunteer work to benefit a community in need.
How do you handle an antagonist?
You might get your very own antagonist — someone who for whatever reason wants to impede your success.
- Don’t allow them to alter your behavior. Doing that gives them power over you, which is manifestly a bad thing.
- Avoid them if possible. Antagonistic people self-sabotage and make people not want to be with them. You won’t be alone in avoiding them.
- Wait them out if possible. Sometimes antagonists move onto another workplace. If they don’t, or gain a degree of organizational power over you, then you may consider working elsewhere.
How do you manage remote work?
- Professionalize your home office. Make it feel as professional as you can.
- Limit distractions, including home tasks. Doing laundry is necessary, but not for work. It amounts to a distraction and multiple small tasks can consume a significant part of your day.
- Caution #1: Working from home may cause you to miss out on the informal mentoring that happens at the workplace, which happens when people chat about their cases or share war stories. You can pick up a lot of good information listening to others.
- Caution #2: It’s good for your more senior colleagues to see you in person. It helps establish a personal rapport that is far more difficult to establish via video. Video tends to formalize communications and diminish opportunities for people to become acquainted personally.
What is the best legal advice you ever received?
- Start business development early. Today’s acquaintances may be tomorrow’s clients. Everyone you meet is part of your network. Let your network know what you’re doing from time to time — LinkedIn is a great platform for doing that.
- Enjoy what you do or jump ship. If you don’t enjoy what you do, you may be in a practice that doesn’t suit you, or in a work environment that’s unhealthy for you. There’s no need to lock yourself into a bad situation if there are other opportunities.
- Keep your eye on the forest. And don’t get lost in the details of the trees. As an associate it’s your job to focus on details, but practice zooming out from the details and being cognizant of the big picture.
Reba Letsa is with Baker Donelson in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., where she maintains a broad litigation practice with a focus on labor and employment and business litigation matters.
Joshua F. Kahn is with Schochor & Staton, P.A. in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., where he specializes in tort law with an emphasis on cases involving catastrophic personal injuries.
Victoria Thornton is with Goodell, DeVries, Leech & Dann, LLP in Baltimore, where she handles a wide range of intellectual property law and litigation matters, as well as general business matters.
Jonathan T. Huddleston is with Schochor & Staton, P.A. in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., where he focuses on all aspects of medical malpractice litigation in his role as a litigator.