The new year is traditionally a time for reflection and recommitment to personal and professional goals that may have been neglected in the prior year. It is also traditionally a time for those goals to quickly be forgotten once the demands of everyday life return.
For lawyers, there are many resolutions that can help improve their personal and professional lives and that require relatively limited time commitment. As a result, lawyers can make improvements that will not be disregarded as soon as their task list fills up again. These include common, relatively straightforward practices—from eating healthier to taking the opportunity to give back—that can have a dramatic impact and, in many instances, can help law firms reduce risk. Even the most common resolutions have application to the practice of law. Below are some resolutions for lawyers to consider in 2021.
You are what you eat
Perhaps the most common resolution across the nation is to get healthy by eating better while limiting alcohol intake or other vices. The motivation behind trying to watch what one eats in the new year can also be applied to the practice of law: Lawyers can consider what they put on their metaphorical plate.
Screening potential new client representations, like monitoring one’s diet, is an important prevention tool to avoid legal malpractice claims. That is because a problematic client typically does not get better with time and can create more risk, or even loss, than the potential financial gain. It is important to remember that not all new business is “good” business. Indeed, taking on a new client notwithstanding the red flags can create significant exposure down the road.
Because client screening involves individual judgment, there is no singular formula for deciding when to take on a new representation. But just as people may check the nutritional label of their food, so too lawyers can check the characteristics of a potential new representation. Some factors to consider include whether the client’s expectations seem unreasonable, whether the client is asking for unrealistic deadlines, or whether the client has already fired a number of lawyers to do the same job. Those may be the type of clients who look for someone to blame when a representation concludes. Like the little voice that tells us that something on our dinner plate may not support our nutritional goals, lawyers can also listen to that same little voice saying that a new representation may not be worth the risk.
For others, lawyers watching what they eat may mean not biting off more than they can chew. Even when clients or representations are solid and in line with a lawyer’s business and professional goals, there is a risk of overloading one’s plate to the point where some things either inadvertently fall off, cannot be consumed, or are consumed to one’s detriment. Over-commitment to matters can exceed one’s capacity, which may make it more likely for a mistake to occur.
Help those in need
The legal field takes pride in promoting and recognizing pro bono services. An easy way for lawyers to “do good” is to take on a pro bono matter. The State Bar of California has adopted a “Pro Bono Resolution” in which it encourages lawyers to provide at least 50 hours of pro bono services each year and to contribute financially to legal aid and pro bono programs.
If lawyers find that they have unexpected downtime, there are volunteer opportunities that do not require a long-term commitment. For instance, many organizations sometimes only need lawyers to serve as intake/screening lawyers monitoring the hotline. Although these volunteer tasks require less of a time investment, they are essential to many programs that have a constant influx of potential clients and require skilled lawyers to monitor.
Further, lawyers may have a specific skillset that makes them uniquely qualified to help with important social causes. This past year has helped shine a light on social justice and other initiatives that would benefit from legal assistance. There are many volunteer opportunities through the local bar or other local or national advocacy and service organizations.
Focus on physical and mental health
A common resolution involves a new dedication to fitness. A lawyer’s mental fitness—and fitness to practice—is just as important as their physical fitness. Lawyers more recently admitted to practice may actively seek out opportunities to take on challenging assignments to develop legal skills. In order to flex their legal muscles, law firm associates may benefit from boot camp programs or from mentoring programs to learn from more experienced lawyers. In addition, regularly seeking constructive feedback can help lawyers identify areas of growth and develop a “workout” plan to address any areas of weakness before the ultimate fitness test—the annual review process.
Adopting a physical exercise plan—with the consult of a physician where appropriate—can also be helpful to lawyers as a tool of stress management and mental health management.
Expand your horizons
Learning a new skill or taking on a new hobby is another very useful resolution. Lawyers who are willing to innovate and continue learning are often much more likely to be successful than lawyers who stay within their comfort zone.
Even without a significant time commitment, lawyers can develop a habit of staying abreast of new and emerging trends, issues, legislation, or significant decisions that affect their clients. Many bars, firms, and other organizations for lawyers routinely offer CLE courses or webinars on a host of topics, ranging from broad summaries of recent case laws to particularly niche areas. Published legal newsletters also help lawyers stay current on what is happening in the practice of law, which ultimately helps lawyers reduce risk.
Happy New Year!