The following is advice, given at no charge, to Maryland attorneys whose law licenses are young and perhaps with greater emphasis to new lawyers whose bodies are young. Much of the advice may apply to lawyers generally, but I am not comfortable giving advice to lawyers in Kansas or Utah or Florida; indeed, I am not 100% sure that those places actually exist. Florida, in particular, may not really exist; it may just be a fiction created by the National Enquirer, which claims to be based in a placed called “Lantana, Florida.” I know a 30-year friend who claims to serve on the Florida Board of Bar Examiners there, however, so I suspect that Florida both exists and has lawyers, since he’s not the sort to fool around about that sort of thing.
So here it goes. Some of it will seem repetitive, but this is free advice, not an appellate brief.
1) The circumstances for new attorneys are arguably both the worst and the best that they have ever been. On the downside, the economy stinks, the economy for attorneys really stinks and U.S. lawyers are competing with Anglophone, common-law trained attorneys in India and elsewhere for certain types of work. On the upside, the barriers to entry to the solo practice of law are probably lower than ever in terms of capital outlay, access to legal resources online and networking opportunities both online and in real life and for attorneys seeking jobs, the Internet helps a great deal in terms of locating some jobs. There has probably never been a time when some aspects of life for new lawyers weren’t great and others conversely terrible. Do not focus on “the economy” or “the way things are” with any attitude other than to conquer it in a manner consistent with good business sense, fair play and strict compliance with professional standards (i.e. ethics plus the decency and wisdom that cannot be codified easily.) Do not focus on “the world” or “the market” or “the economy”; focus on self-development and ethical compliance.
2) Get over the idea of attorneys as attorneys being up on some pedestal as soon as you can, preferably by the 2nd week of your first year in law school but in any event at the earliest possible date. From my 160-odd law school class at Maryland, at least three attorneys have been disbarred or indefinitely suspended, two of whom are attorneys whom I regarded as substantially smarter than myself. Yet I am an attorney and they are former attorneys; go figure. Instead, focus on professional values, standards, ethics, skills, knowledge and good judgment, and go where you find those in the profession. Some of the people who may intimidate you now will have no law licenses or damaged law licenses in 10 years, either because they will leave the profession, die, get suspended or get disbarred. I interviewed early on with a bankruptcy attorney with a big mural of himself in his office showing himself as the “liberator” of his clients from debt or the like; I didn’t get the job. Then I found out he got suspended from the practice of law while I had a healthy federal court law license; go figure. No pedestals, just values, knowledge and skills.
3) Odds are, you will have at least one bad boss in your career. Accept this fact. Good bosses will aim to develop, or cause the development of, your skills and judgment for their betterment, yours and most of all the clients’ benefit. Bad bosses will waste time, money and opportunities – yours and theirs – for their own dysfunctional reasons. If your boss is not helping you increase your money, your skills, your confidence and your effectiveness, or worse is actively corroding or destroying the same, I suggest giving 120 days notice today and/or searching for a new job with vigor. Many more-or-less decent lawyers make lousy managers or, worse, lousy people for your continued development. Life is short; don’t waste time in negative environments that don’t promote professional development.
4) “Do not separate yourself from the community” – attributed to Hillel the Sage. Even if – especially if – the legal community seems alien or intimidating to you as a new lawyer, do not let yourself separate from the community. I suggest setting aside 2% of your net spendable income per month for connecting with other lawyers (peers and elders) over coffee, lunch, etc… Do not permit the fact that your career isn’t doing everything you want it to do for you to lead you to avoid other lawyers; that’s when you need to redouble your efforts. If you are looking for a job, be blunt (polite, but blunt) about your desire to find and get started with the next good opportunity. If you want cases, inquire as to who is overflowing with work or who is known to be working a 3-week trial, or whose associate just went out on leave or quit. Ask, ask, ask other lawyers (once you know them well enough and vice versa) whether you have their permission to email them a request for good advice once every 60 days; very few will say “no” and those who do you don’t want anyway. Join every email list-serv you can with other lawyers. Do not get disconnected from the community.
5) Guard both your character (i.e. your honesty, integrity and ethics) and your reputation for honesty, integrity and ethics with great vigilance. There will be many a time in your career where you will be trusted with something fairly large mostly or completely on the basis of your being an attorney in good standing and of sound ethics and repute. People will accept your escrow or even personal check as good money because they know you are a lawyer and lawyers don’t bounce checks. Conversely, judges will remember whose representations in court match up with reality and whose do not. Opposing counsel will remember, and spread the news, when they get double-crossed through a deception. Do not trust the integrity of your clients; instead, when you don’t know (not believe, KNOW) something is true, state that client ______________ informs you of X. Above all – above ALL – do not even think about doing any act with escrow money or other client funds (which almost always need to be escrow money unless waived validly with informed consent) that is not absolutely protected by state bar rules; such mishandling of other peoples’ money is the express train to disbarment.
6) You are not a salesman, but a fiduciary. You are more like a bank than like a used car salesman; the latter is a legitimate way to make a living but if you hold and use a law license, that isn’t the business you have chosen. You do need to have good business sense to maintain your job or your practice, and if the IRS says a law practice is a business, it’s a business since the IRS more or less runs this country. But the practice of law is only partially a business; it is also an exceptionally great public trust. There are lots of marketing professionals or coaches online or elsewhere who may suggest business models to you that are perfectly fine for commercial businesses, but radically destructive to you. If you need a few minutes to get sober on this point, go to the website of the Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland and read the examples of attorneys who received discipline in Maryland.
7) The practice of law is in the practice, i.e. the doing. You are, in the end, what you can and are willing to do, which requires first knowing what to do. The issues of “experience” and “expertise” for a young attorney are tricky. On the one hand, you need to get the experience and expertise (words derived from the same Latin root) to get the work and should immediately be attempting to develop that expertise. On the other hand, you cannot get most of the experience and expertise without already having it, nor may you deceive clients or potential clients regarding your experience. The best solution may be to request and obtain clients’ permission to share the work and share the fee with experienced attorneys, though many attorneys may be willing to serve as a sounding board without a fee split in some cases. The fact that you may not have much experience does not relieve you of the moral and professional duty to amass the experience and knowledge that you can amass, consistently with honesty and due diligence. Mentors are particularly helpful on this point. Another choice is to focus on low-risk endeavors at first, so that if there’s a failure you simply need to redo the work at minimal cost or risk (e.g. a name change that “fails” just needs a refiling, etc.) Get your mentors on your side to help you develop expertise more rapidly, and to borrow the expertise that you don’t possess.
8) Forget that career services at your law school or their marketing hacks ever existed. They lied to you? Sure they did. Of course they did, and will do so in the future. They will spend substantial amounts of students’ tuition to lie to them, to you and the general public in advertising and mailings. Quit being angry about those ridiculous liars, who may or may not get theirs for commercial fraud in current class-action law suits, and focus on building your own future. They lied to you, and others will lie to you in the future; it’s just a fact. Instead, think about your clients and your future, not the hired hacks on your law school’s payroll.
9) Mentors – you probably need 5-10 for each area of practice that you have. Does that sound like a lot? It shouldn’t. If you do for example criminal defense, you should have half a dozen lawyers with at least 5, arguably 10, years of experience ahead of you whom you can call or email. It doesn’t mean that you have to have day-long sessions with each one; just an email or a 4-minute call can sometimes help you a lot. I am willing to be a mentor to any Maryland licensee who does unemployment appeals for workers, traffic court or misdemeanor criminal court. Often with my mentees, just an email suffices. I have been practicing 17 years, and I am fortunate to have mentors and sages to consult on some topics even today just as I serve as a mentor to others.
10) Free help – there is a lot of free help out there. The Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service pairs attorneys who want to learn with good instructional programs, a first pro bono client or two and a mentor (and malpractice insurance.) If you look at the pro bono client as a burden, it’s a fail; if you look at the client as a sparring gym with a mentor and insurance in case you screw up, you feel like Rocky training by punching the frozen side of beef. In criminal cases, public defenders are almost always willing to share advice or an encouraging word in a criminal case. Most local Bar Associations put on informal CLE for cheap or for free. The MSBA list-serv for solo and small firm attorneys is great, as may be the speaking calendars of preemininent attorneys in your practice areas. Many of the specialty bar associations have similar list-servs for free or as part of the price of annual dues. Some resources even publish calendar feeds so that their events show up on your Google or other calendar if you set them up that way. In short, free help is more abundant than you may realize.
11) Finally, if you screw something up (or are accused of screwing something up), do not despair but address it like a professional. Contact your support resources, including your mentors, the MSBA ethics hotline, your malpractice carrier if necessary. If you have screwed something up and it’s beyond repair, you may need to notify the client. Sometimes, the sheer honesty of admitting a screw-up and offering a refund will so shock and stun a client that they will accept your apology, forgive you and move on, and maybe even refer you other work in the future, with your character trumping the mistake. I have personally witnessed clients bursting out laughing with surprise and open-heartedness when I have told them that I screwed something up and take full responsibility; those clients have referred me paying work thereafter.
In some cases, if you screw up you may have to offer to withdraw, or in fact withdraw whether the client wants it or not. Sometimes you may have to advise the client to consult independent counsel. Screw-ups happen, though we must take responsibility for them as professionals; that’s why even the most respected, preeminent “SuperLawyer” attorneys in this state carry malpractice insurance. Some screw-ups rise to the level of ethics issues, but it’s far better to “get in front” of the issue like a professional early – because it’s good business and because it’s the professionally required and ethical thing to do. If you believe you have a “red ball” problem, do not hide; contact your mentors and other resources soonest and do the right thing.
Good luck, new colleagues; if I can help, call me and I will try to help or get you to someone who can, if I am able.
Bruce Godfrey, Attorney (MD/DC)
Owings Mills, MD