Ten piece of advice for young lawyers, in no particular order:
- Don’t Send Emails When You’re Angry: It happens to the best of us. You’re in the middle of intense litigation. You’ve been working on the case for a year. The case itself is ugly and contentious. Say theft of trade secrets. Both sides are locked into their positions. To make matters worse, opposing counsel is a complete jerk. You know the type: He signs his emails with the phrase “govern yourself accordingly”, which I believe is supposed to be vaguely intimidating. He talks down to you. He is always mentioning his 25 years of litigation experience. He makes outlandish accusations against you. One day, you get another absurd email from him and you hit your breaking point. You start typing out the most ruthless response ever, hammering away at the keyboard 120 words a minute. You’re about to light this sucker up. But you know what? You shouldn’t. Instead, you should take a deep breath. Take five minutes. Hell, shut down your computer and go walk around the block. If you can, just put it away for the day and come back to it in the morning. Don’t send emails when you’re angry.
- Never Send an Email That You Wouldn’t Want Published: While we’re on the topic of sending angry emails, never send an email that you wouldn’t want published, or even worse, filed with the court. Emails last forever. Choose your words carefully. Read your email through a couple of times before you hit send and ask yourself this: How would a neutral observer perceive this email? How does this email reflect on me, my firm and my client? If you don’t like the answer to that question, then rewrite it.
- Never Say, “That’s Not My Job”: I’ve heard this one before. Some young lawyers (and older ones, too) have this notion that, as a lawyer, their job is solely to do the substantive legal work. That’s wrong. When it’s crunch time, it is everybody’s job to get it done, period. It doesn’t matter whether that means putting together a binder, doing a cover letter, cite-checking a brief—- Law is a team sport. Everybody’s job is to get it done no matter what.
- You Are Responsible for Everything: For every aspect of every case you’re working on, you have to take responsibility for everything. Say an important deadline needs calendared. Confirm the deadline then confer with the calendaring department to make sure it’s calendared correctly. Working on a motion? You’d better know the page limits. Strange local rules? You’d better be on top of them. Even as a first or second year attorney and even if you’re working on a team with 3 other more senior lawyers, you need to feel personally responsible for everything. You need to be on top of everything. That’s how you really add value.
- Master the Facts: Learning the law takes time. It takes years before you’ll have a solid foundation when it comes to procedure, doctrine and substance. Even for the most brilliant lawyers, it will take 3 or 4 years to get a set of what we call “first principles.” So yes, strive to learn and master the law. But in the meantime, while you’re working on mastering the law, master the facts. One of the most valuable things young lawyers can contribute to their cases is a complete and absolute master of the facts. Know the factual record inside and out. Know key dates and players. Know the timeline of events. Know key documents. Commit this stuff to memory. Master it and use your knowledge during team meetings and strategy sessions. Again: This is a huge value add and your team will thank you for it.
- Don’t Make Excuses: No matter how brilliant and hard working you are, you will inevitably make a mistake. You will mess something up. It’s all a question of magnitude. Usually, you’ll make mistakes that aren’t world-ending. You’ll miss a typo. You’ll file something the wrong way. You’ll miss an important line of questioning at a hearing. Bottom line: You will make mistakes. The worst thing you can do is make excuses (“I had a long day”); blame other people (‘Well the paralegal should have done that”); or make light of the mistake (“It isn’t that big of a deal”). So what do you do? Accept complete responsibility for your mistakes. If you spot the mistake before a colleague or partner does, then figure out if corrective action is necessary and have a correction plan. Go to your direct report with a solution. And going forward, figure out how to prevent that mistake from happening again.
- Never Double Down on a Bad Idea: This one needs an example: You’re a first year attorney. A partner asks you to do a memo evaluating a client’s possible liability for fraud. You do the research, do the memo and say definitively no. The partner is not convinced; she says are you sure; asks you some follow-up questions. Some young lawyers take the following approach, “I said the answer was no. So I have to defend that answer, otherwise I’ll look like an idiot.” So rather than trying to get the right answer, the young attorney with that frame of mind goes back into the research project with the goal of defending his initial answer. I call that doubling down on a bad idea. Look: In law, we work in teams and we work with ideas. Invariably, you’ll have an idea and it will be the wrong idea. Or you’ll have an idea and someone on your team will have a better one. There are a lot of egos in law. Unfortunately, a lot of those egos are pretty fragile. Real talk: If you really are smart, confident and secure in yourself, then you have no problem admitting when your original concept wasn’t the greatest, or, when someone else’s is better.
- Always Check the Rules: Before you do anything, whether it’s write a motion or prepare a set of jury instruction, you should always ask yourself: What rules apply? Consider this question expansively. Before you dive into the project, you should be consulting – at a minimum – the Federal Rules, the Local Rules, the judge’s individual rules and any relevant court order (scheduling order etc.). This is part of adding value early in your career. Yes; you’re working on mastering the law. Yes; you can contribute great written product, even in your first couple years (I did). But while you’re still figuring all of that out, you can immediately add value by being the rules person.
- Ask “What Can I Do Better?”: In every arena, not just in law, this question separates winners from losers. In my practice and in my business, I am constantly asking myself, “What can I do better?” As young lawyers, if you really do have guts and confidence and want to improve, then you can go to someone more senior who you respect and ask them to tell you what you can do better.
- Don’t Be Miserable: Law is a challenging, stressful profession. But it doesn’t have to be miserable. In fact, some of us actually like it. True story, about 90% of the time, I love what I do. And yes, 10% of the time it really sucks. But overall, it’s good! If you wake up every day and hate your life, then you need to go do something else. Maybe you stick with law but in a different arena. Maybe government work. Maybe non-profit. Maybe in-house. And if that’s not your scene, maybe you get out of law entirely. In spite of what Liz Ryan might tell you, you’re never going to find a job where you are completely happy all the time. But are you pretty happy? Is it pretty good? If not, then you need to make some changes.
Jonathan Pollard is a competition lawyer, writer and consultant based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He has extensive experience litigating non-compete, trade secret and trademark disputes. His office can be reached at 954-332-2380.