A Geezer Lawyer’s Letter to a 3L

Smith Debnam Narron Drake Saintsing & Myers, LLP

Smith Debnam Narron Drake Saintsing & Myers, LLP

The following article originally appeared on NCBarBlog, the home of the North Carolina Bar Association’s blog community, and is republished with permission.

Dear Megan,

Congratulations on the completion of your 2L year! The rest of your law school career will pass a lot faster than you might think it will. The tedium of your 3L year will quickly give way to terror of the bar exam. I predict you will pass. Your license will mean you can begin to learn how to make a living as a lawyer. Word has it that you will choose to enter private practice, preferably as an associate in a law firm. Good.

Law school has done a good job of teaching you how to think. I doubt it has done a good job of teaching you how to build a law practice. I know my law school did not. Those hard lessons came later for me, with a painfully high tuition of experience. You are at the threshold of a long legal career, just as I am concluding one of 40+ years. It’s time someone whispered the secret truths and showed you the secret handshake. Let me.

I want you to flourish in this difficult profession. With your burden of student loans to repay, so do you. Indulge me long enough to read my whole letter. I had to learn this . . . stuff . . . the hard way. Perhaps I can spare you from the costly tuition of experience. I promise (to try) to be brief. I consider these to be eternal truths. You may consider them one geezer’s tedious opinions.

Eight hard lessons I learned in pursuit of a career in private practice, in no particular order:

  1. Late nights and lots of billable hours alone are no path to partnership.

    Dedicated diligence and hard work are usually rewarded with more hard work, period. As a new associate, you are mostly a cash machine for the firm. (Indeed, for the first few years of your career, you are probably a positive threat to your clients’ cases.) Your firm’s first job is to see you are worth your paycheck, not to foster your career. Yours is to develop an expertise and a clientele. Yes, you must accomplish both jobs at the same time. Yes, that means more stress. Welcome to the profession.

  2. Find something different you can be good at, and then do it a lot. 

    It may not be something you particularly like, but you must become adept, and it cannot be for free. Try to choose something a bit different from what the geezer who hired you is doing. (There’s no reason to be viewed as a competitive threat). Find some novel facet or seize on some aspect that no one else in the firm is doing. That does not mean trying criminal law in a residential real estate firm. It means learning condominium law or commercial leasing, for example. Whatever you choose, command it—and the sooner, the better.

  3. Acquire your own clientele. It means at least as much to your career as technical competence. 

    Absolutely everyone already expects you to be technically competent. Even brilliance won’t guarantee you will flourish. The coin with which you will purchase partnership (or independence) is your own book of business, not a history of being a faithful and efficient workhorse. Pursue a clientele of your own. I have seen associates with modest intellect offered a partner’s office because they captured and kept repeat-business clients, while their more gifted but selfless contemporaries still toiled in their cubes. Cubes are dreadful. Even if partnership is denied, your own book of business will buy your next job.

  4. Don’t ever refer a client you are not ready to lose forever. 

    Remember we lawyers are competitive, by nature or training or both. Inside your own firm, your colleagues will be grateful for the work you found and handed off. They will also recognize the chance to claim your new client for their own. Make sure you remain your new clients’ contact inside the firm. You want clients to view you as their lawyer, not the firm. Even if you must enlist a colleague’s assistance, control access, take part in all conferences and ask your colleague to collaborate in your communication, not the opposite. The first client I ever originated was my own dentist, who wanted a will. I had never written a will, so I proudly introduced him to our probate and estates partner. That partner wrote two wills—and a trust, and powers of attorney—and I never saw the client again. And the partner did not teach me how to write wills. It was a bitter lesson, and hard-learned.

  5. Good paralegals make good lawyers into better lawyers. Find one fast. 

    Do your best to find and keep the loyalty of a good paralegal. Overpay, if you can. No one else will ever reliably watch your back as well. As a newly-minted young lawyer, I was assigned to a veteran paralegal. She was a person of a certain age, widely experienced, battle-weary and impatient with my naivete. By luck or by chance, I quickly recognized she knew more about practicing law in that firm than I would know for years to come. I made it my business to shut up and listen, even though her suggestions were usually salted instead of sugared. Until she retired, that paralegal made it her business to make me look good. God bless her sainted soul. Find your match, hang on, and you will flourish. Alone, you will struggle.

  6. Avoid the “Young Lawyer’s Disease” hubris. 

    Most larval lawyers know better than to spout and strut in front of a senior colleague or opponent. Yet when confronted with a paralegal or “staff person” who bridles or questions a dumb decision or directive, some newbies wrap themselves in their law degrees and condescend. Don’t be a snot. Pause and reflect. You might avert a mess. Remember your first weeks as a 1L, when you realized you were no longer the hotshot undergraduate because everybody else had a Phi Beta Kappa key too? Embrace that humility again. Remember, after all, you probably are a positive threat to your own client’s case. Better to avert a mess than to mop up a mess.

  7. At all costs, keep your word—especially to other lawyers—or don’t give it. 

    Your reputation for truth will be at least as valuable as your reputation as an accomplished attorney. For your entire career, your regard among your colleagues in the bar will be only “one lie deep.” So it is with us all. Lawyers are not only competitive, but we are also unforgiving of deception. Make it your practice to remain scrupulously, tiresomely truthful. That does not mean disclosing confidences. It means recognizing the difference between what you know is true and what you have been told. Confuse the two in your dealings with the rest of us, and you will never escape the stain of a forked tongue.

  8. Treat the lLs and 2Ls kindly next year. It will pay dividends later. 

    By my own 3L year, I was thoroughly weary of law school. The cold terror of the 1L students was a distasteful memory. The exhaustion of the 2Ls was just bitter satisfaction. To impatient 3Ls, they were all just so much hallway clutter underfoot, who snatched the best parking spaces and ate all the open-house cookies. We 3Ls tended to ignore them at best. Our eyes were on the horizon. I did not realize then that I would spend most of a long legal career practicing with, against, or beside so many of them. Chances are, you too will see all three classes from your own law school for decades. Treat them all kindly next year. It will make it easier to address some of those lLs someday as “Your Honor”—as I do now.

That’s it. There’s nothing left for me to offer from a lifetime in practice. Maybe I have helped you. Maybe I should just be satisfied that you respond to none of my remarks with, “Well, duh!” Good luck, kid. May you flourish.


Your geezer friend

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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