Getting Experience as a Young Lawyer

I keep thinking about an interesting article I recently read about a Federal Judge raising a question that has certainly been on the mind of many an associate, especially those working in big law firms:

How do you grow as a lawyer and take your career to the next level if you never get the practical experience required to develop your skills?

Working at a big law firm can provide many great experiences to junior lawyers. You spend your days (and often your nights) working on a number of large, complex matters. You deal with complicated questions of law and fact, and the sink-or-swim environment forces you to develop management and delegation skills, hone your attention to detail, and manage your time if you ever want to do anything other than work. Sure, you start at the bottom, reviewing documents or assisting with the most minor tasks relating to a filing, but even these basic tasks help you to understand how large cases come together, and help you to be a better senior associate when tasked with delegating those tasks to junior lawyers years down the road.

Of course, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. Your daily work life can be a bit of a slog. And to what end? The path to partnership is long and incredibly uncertain as firms seem to be offering fewer and fewer partnership spots these days.

How do you distinguish yourself as someone who’s ready for promotion? The reality is that as an associate, even if you find yourself moving up the food chain at a good clip, certain tasks are beyond your reach or years away. It can take several years before associates act as first chair for a deposition on a billable matter. And even longer before they argue a motion in Court.

Now, you can learn a lot watching arguments in Court (assuming you get to go – with clients cracking down on bills, associates often find themselves left in the office while the partner goes to court). But there is a huge difference between watching an argument and doing one, and between preparing for a moot court, and standing in front of a judge hammering you with questions on the record.

So back to that article I read, where the Court identified and voiced concerns about this particular conundrum. Judge Grewal acknowledged that associates who “contributed mightily” to the case deserve their chance to develop their skills:

“All of this raises a question: Who will try the technology cases of the future, when so few opportunities to develop courtroom skills appear?” he said. “It is difficult to imagine handing entire intellectual property trials to a generation that never had the chance to develop those skills in more limited settings. Senior lawyer and their clients may shoulder some of the blame, but surely courts and judges like this one must accept a large part of the responsibility.”

http://www.law360.com/articles/769530/judge-tells-ip-trial-veterans-to-give-young-attys-a-shot (subscription required)

It will be interesting to see what happens in this particular trial, and in the future. Since Judge Grewal made his comments, I have heard of at least one other court asking counsel to present a plan for junior lawyers on the case to get more experience, which is a big step in the right direction. However, we all know that while many clients expect that junior associates will do a lot of the prep work to save on bills, at the end of the day, they hire the expensive partners for a reason, and they want the big guns arguing in the court room. So there’s a ways to go.

As a junior lawyer, what can you do? Well, there are a few options:

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Let’s Talk Money: How To Pay Off Your Student Loans

It’s no secret that many people graduate from law school with significant debt.  Tuition can run $30,000 or more per year, and many students take out extra loans to cover books, rent, and personal expenses during school. After graduation, they may take on more debt to cover living expenses while studying for the bar exam and before starting work. Some firms offer a salary advance or even a signing bonus to help students bridge the gap between school and work, but even with that extra help, you may end up owing more than six figures in debt by the time you graduate.

At least, I did.  And less than five years after graduation, I had paid it all off.

There are many ways to think about paying off your loans. How quickly you are able to do it depends in large part on your salary, but even if you’re not making biglaw bank, you can create a plan to pay down your loans quickly by setting your priorities and managing expenses.

Paying my loans off quickly was a priority for me because while I was fortunate to have a biglaw job after law school, I had no idea how long it would last. I also didn’t want to have to make all my career choices based on money while my loans were hanging over my head.

So here are the five steps I took.

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What To Do When You Make a Mistake

An uncomfortable truth of life as a young lawyer is that you will make mistakes. Over time, they will lessen in significance and number.  Whether big or small, the way you address and bounce back from making a mistake will matter a lot to your career. Here’s what you need to do:

Own up to it.

  • I’m assuming here that this is a mistake that needs to be addressed – if you make and correct a mistake with no broader repercussions, there is no need to raise it.
  • When you own up, should you apologize? Some say you should never say you’re sorry at work. I disagree. If you make a big enough mistake or error of judgment, you will look bad if you don’t apologize.
  • For example, let’s say a discovery response was due yesterday and you blew the deadline. When you let your supervisor know, it is appropriate to apologize. There’s no need to make it a long, drawn out show. Keep it short and move on. This shows that you recognize that a deadline was blown and that this was an error – YOUR error. Not apologizing makes you look completely tone deaf.

Propose a solution.

  • Ideally, you will do this at the same time you own up to the mistake. Your supervisor will think better of you if you admit to the mistake and either propose a solution or advise how you already fixed it.
  • In the example above, at the time you alert your supervisor to the missed deadline, you could let them know when you plan to serve the discovery responses. Or you could serve the responses and then own up to the error.
  • If you’re not sure which option to pick, present both to your supervisor and ask how they want to proceed.
  • If you have no idea how to fix an error, tell your supervisor ASAP and offer to come up with a plan together.
  • Whether you propose a solution or not, you should also think about how you can avoid similar mistakes going forward (and tell your supervisor). It does not need to be a complex solution. In our discovery response example, it may be as simple as asking the team’s paralegal to circulate a reminder of upcoming deadlines once a week.

Move On.

  • This is usually easier said than done. Try not to dwell on your mistake. Instead, take a short amount of time to feel bad about it. Then put it out of your mind and focus on doing good work going forward.
  • If you follow the above advice, the people you work with will also get over it – probably faster than you do. Doing good work and getting your relationships back to normal will help that process along.

In sum: fess up, fix it, and explain what you’re doing to ensure it does not happen again. Then forgive yourself and move on. Don’t let one mistake impact the rest of your work.

How to Handle the Billable Hour

Like many lawyers, I am beholden to the billable hour: a set number of hours I need to bill each year to stay in good standing at my firm and get my bonus. For many attorneys, young and experienced alike, the billable hour is a source of anxiety and one of the biggest complaints about the legal profession. It’s also a common source of the humblebrag: how many times have you heard a colleague “complain” that they’re sooo busy and on track to bill 250 or 300 hours this month, when you know they’re secretly hoping you’re impressed by their high hour count?

Every so often an article comes along promising the end of the billable hour. In my office, it seems pretty clear that it is here to stay. Since much of the stress surrounding the billable hour is tied to a fear that you will miss your yearly target, let’s talk about how to think about the billable hour in a simple way that helps you achieve your yearly goal.

To do that, we need to talk numbers… Continue reading

My Top 10 Email Tips

1. Include the case name in the subject line.

  • Receiving an email with an unhelpful subject line is almost as annoying as receiving an email with no subject. I like to use the name of the case plus a word or two describing the reason for the email (e.g., “Brady – research question”).  It will help you keep your emails organized and provide a frame of reference for your reader.

2. Follow office norms.

  • Do your colleagues skip email greetings and just get to the point? You should too. Is everyone very polite, prefacing each request with a please and closing with a thank you? You should too.  Pay attention and follow suit. If there don’t seem to be many dos or don’ts in your office, follow these: avoid overuse of exclamation points and never use weird fonts or backgrounds.

3. Skip read receipts.

  • Unless, of course, they’re the norm in your office (in which case: ugh).  Personally I hate getting emails with read receipts. It makes me feel like a clock has started on my response. Generally, assume that your intended recipient got your message.

4. Acknowledge receipt when appropriate.

  • This goes hand-in-hand with number three. If you receive an important email from a client or an assignment from a supervisor, or another email to which the sender can reasonably expect a response, send one.  Even if it’s just to say “Will do” in response to an assignment.

5. Use the “important” flag sparingly.

  • We have all worked with somebody who cannot resist adding the little red flag to all or almost all of their emails, rendering it essentially worthless. If something is truly urgent, try picking up the phone.

6. Be aware of email archiving rules.

  • You probably receive dozens if not 100+ emails a day. Make sure you know how your office handles old emails – are they deleted after a year or two? If so, put some kind of foldering system into place.  Deletion or archiving rules may also apply to your sent box. For this reason, you may notice that some people CC themselves on key emails so they can then folder them for the future.

7. Keep it short and sweet.

  • Get to the point quickly and clearly. Occasionally, long emails are necessary. If so, break them up with paragraphs or even headers. Just avoid a wall of text.

8. Proofread

  • This seems obvious, but make sure your email program is set up to spell check the body of your email AND the subject line.

9. Fill in the “to” field LAST, after drafting and proofing your email.

  • This decreases the chance that you will accidentally hit send on a draft or before adding an attachment.

10. Always include an email signature.

  • Do this for reply emails too, even if it is just your name and direct phone number. Make it easy for people to reach you.

Readers: Any more tips to share?

Friday – How to Be Productive: A daily plan for a more efficient and relaxed week.

This week, I’m discussing how to increase your productivity.

It’s Friday! You made it through the week.

Your main goal today is to wrap up your urgent matters for the week. After following the system, everything you need to get done today is already on your list. Just follow the usual practice of checking your list once in the morning and again post-lunch to stay on track.

Before you leave for the weekend: write up your to do list for next week. Put it somewhere you can access it on Sunday. It doesn’t need to be perfect. Remember, you will spend time on Sunday cleaning it up. But having it down in writing helps you to mentally close out this week and give yourself a pat on the back for getting so many tasks accomplished. In the worst case, it will also alert you to any task you forgot about. As always, think about future case needs and how future you will be feeling if you leave a project to another week.

Then on Sunday, you will open up your list, make any necessary tweaks, and head into Monday with a plan in place.

So that’s it! This may look like a lot to do when you see it all in writing, but in practice, putting your list together should be a quick and painless process. Staying on top of your daily and weekly tasks will help you plan your week, assess your schedule if new work pops up, and help you feel a sense of control even if, as a junior lawyer, you don’t actually have that much control over what work is assigned to you.

Let’s quickly recap the week:

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Thursday – How to Be Productive: A daily plan for a more efficient and relaxed week.

This week, I’m discussing how to increase your productivity.

On Thursday, focus on wrapping up this week’s time-sensitive projects.

Follow the same schedule as before: check your list in the morning and after lunch.  This is a time to make tough decisions about where things stand and stay late if needed. Think about future you – is it worth staying an extra hour tonight in order to wrap up a project that would otherwise be weighing on your mind over the weekend?

Friday: End this week on a great note and do some prep for the week ahead.

Wednesday – How to Be Productive: A daily plan for a more efficient and relaxed week.

This week, I’m discussing how to increase your productivity.

We’ve made it to Wednesday. Hopefully you’re getting into a groove with your list.  You check it once in the morning to plan out your day and again after lunch to assess your afternoon.

Before you leave for the day today, assess your list, just like you did on Monday and Tuesday, but with one key fact in mind: the end of the week is rapidly approaching. So, on Wednesday evening look at your list with an eye toward completing urgent projects by the end of the week.

Are you working on a client letter or a filing that needs to go out the door by the end of the week? Make sure you build in time to meet internal deadlines. You should have done this on Sunday, but you might need to refresh your list in light of the approaching Friday deadlines.

So how do you build in that time?

Let’s say that on Wednesday, you are asked to write a letter to the client.  The partner wants to send it out by 5pm Friday and will need to approve it first. This means you need to allow time for the partner to give you comments on the draft.  (In a perfect world, you would discuss this with the partner but we all know that doesn’t always happen, so you need to be proactive about planning ahead.) Depending on the length and complexity of the letter, a reasonable goal would be for you to send your draft to the partner by lunchtime Thursday. That way you can make any edits on Friday with enough time for the partner to give final approval.

When making an assessment about what needs to get done this week, don’t forget to think about:

  • Future you: Sure, deadline X is not until Tuesday, but will future you have time on Monday to knock it out? Or will you end up spending the weekend stressing about it?
  • The future of your matters: Is there oral argument scheduled for one of your cases in the next 2 weeks? Will you need to help the partner prep for it? Even if you don’t have the assignment yet, you can anticipate that you will have something to do, so try to keep some time clear.

This is also a time to reassess how much work is out of your control. As new work comes in, make sure you can keep up with what you already have on your plate. If not, reach out to your supervisors for help prioritizing. (As an aside, turning down work and juggling deadlines is another one of the trickiest things for junior lawyers to handle. I’ll be focusing on that in a future post.)

Tomorrow: Stay on track Thursday to wrap up your pressing projects on Friday.

Tuesday – How to Be Productive: A daily plan for a more efficient and relaxed week.

This week, I’m discussing how to increase your productivity and maintain some sense of control over your schedule, which can be hard to do as a junior lawyer.

Welcome to Tuesday, which for purposes of our productivity plan, looks a lot like Monday! This morning when you get to work, you should check out your to do list and adjust as necessary. Did any emails come in late last night? Were you too tired to re-order and update your list before leaving work on Monday? Spend a few minutes thinking about your day and re-work your list if needed.

Then do it again after lunch.  Before you leave work, make sure your list is up-to-date and re-prioritized for tomorrow.

Now that you’re getting into the groove of your daily to do list, a few notes:

  • Regular reassessments will take just a minute or two if you’re on the right track and should never really take you longer than 5 minutes.
    • Avoid the trap of using time spent updating your to do list as an excuse to procrastinate on the real substantive work on your plate.
  • Use your list to gauge your ability to take on more work. If it’s Tuesday, and you’re at full capacity for the week, use that knowledge to your advantage.
    • Example: if you get an urgent assignment on one of your cases, confirm with your supervisor that it takes priority over tasks A and B on your list, which you had been planning to wrap up this week.

Tomorrow: Updating your list with an eye toward ending the week on a high note.

Monday – How to be Productive: A daily plan for a more efficient and relaxed week.

This week, I’m discussing how to increase your productivity and maintain some sense of control over your schedule, which can be hard to do as a junior lawyer.

Happy Monday, all.  In yesterday’s post, I walked you through how to set up your to do list.  Mapping it all out on Sunday helps you plan ahead and gear up for the week.

So it’s Monday morning.  When you get into the office, reassess your priorities based on any urgent assignments that have come in over the last 8 or so hours, and get to work.

That’s it – just work through your list. Get a new task? Add it to the list. Finish a task? Cross it out or delete it.

Midway through your day – I like to do it right after lunch – pause and reassess your list for a few minutes. Shift tasks around if your priorities have changed. Maybe some legal research took longer than you planned but a meeting was cancelled so you’re still on track to complete all your tasks for the day.

But what if you received a new assignment? You estimate that it should take about an hour and it must be done today. That means you need to find an extra hour in today’s schedule.  Maybe you already had the time – great. Or maybe you can just stay an hour later – less great, but doable.  Or maybe you can shift a non-urgent project to another day.

Here’s an example of how to shift priorities: Let’s say you need to review 10 document review assignment batches by the end of the week. You planned to break those up evenly by reviewing two batches a day.  But it’s not necessary that you do it that way, just a preference. This is an important distinction: flexibility and adaptability are key to success as a young lawyer.  Don’t get so tied down in how you wanted to plan your day that you struggle to adapt if (when) things need to change.  Here, you can safely shift one more assignment to tomorrow’s list in order to fit in your new work.

Finally, before you go home for the day, reassess your list one more time. Make sure you don’t leave before any urgent tasks are done.  If you’re following the plan, you should be all set on that front. Don’t forget to reorder tomorrow’s list to include the top priority tasks for Tuesday morning.

Check back in tomorrow for more tips!