I wish there were such a thing as “introductory, intermediate, and advanced lawyering.” You would assist clients in a gradually confident and competent fashion, such as physicians who have their internships and residencies to acquaint them with the real-life aspects of patient care before being totally independent with their own patients.
When you accept a matter from a client as a newly admitted attorney, you are in the same arena as the opposing counsel who may be vastly more experienced. You must learn, absorb, analyze, and act based on the facts, circumstances, protocols, procedural rules, ethics, and interpersonal relations norms related to the matter all at once, without the gradual experience of “lawyering” gained with time.
Use the following checklist as you plot the course of your career.
☐ Choice of Practice Area Drives the Whole Practice
Your area of practice determines all aspects of your daily work. Have a practice of choice—not of necessity. That means to know whom you are: personality, past experience, level of organization, people skills, hobbies/interests, attention to detail, etc. Examples to help you assess your preferences are:
|YOUR PREFERENCE||POSSIBLE RELATED PRACTICE AREA|
|Environment||Real Estate, Land Use, Environmental, Mineral Rights, Agricultural Law|
|Social Work||Guardian Ad Litem, Family Law, Juvenile/Elder Law, Workers Compensation/Labor & Industries|
|Arts||Artist Contracts, Business Law for Arts Organizations and Artists, Mediation/Arbitration for Artists; First Amendment Law|
|Science||Patent Law, Health Law, Personal Injury, Medical Malpractice|
|Entrepreneurial/Business||Business Law, Mergers & Acquisitions, UCC, Contracts, Leasing|
|Justice/Constitutional Rights||Criminal Defense, Civil Rights, Bankruptcy, Creditor/Debtor, Employment/Labor Law|
Consider the types of clients associated with a practice area. Ideas for niche practice areas make be taken from http://expertpages.com or similar websites.
Your practice area(s) determines the following “working conditions”:
- The clients are novices to the legal system or they are experienced users of legal services. The client’s expectations of you vary based on her past experience (or lack thereof) with lawyers. Does the client understand his obligations and responsibilities to you and to the matter? Are you prepared to spend the time to educate each client about these concerns?
- The practice area may demand travel that may disrupt your personal life.
- How much paperwork the matter generates can be related to the type of practice area. Are you good with organizing paperwork and files? Even electronic files require organization.
- Many meetings may be required with certain practice areas, perhaps using your evenings.
- Living in a particular geographical area may enhance your ability to generate work in your practice area. An example is agricultural law and being nearer to farm clients.
- Certain practices are subject to interruptions by the telephone, walk-in clients, and the need to be at the courthouse or jail on short notice.
- Commercial representation carries potential to continue and to expand the work for your clients. Such clients become “institutional clients” of your law firm.
☐ Cultivate as Many Lawyer-Mentors as Possible
Discuss the nuances of each practice area with your mentors. A way to reach out to possible mentors is to search your jurisdiction’s lawyer directory by practice area. This is possible to do in Washington. The more experienced lawyers are usually listed first. Write a real typed letter to these names, introducing yourself and offering to buy lunch. The letter will be opened because it comes from a lawyer and because it is now a novelty to receive a letter! The result of these meetings may be a new friend, mentor, referral source, contract work, or possible inheritance of the entire practice. The downside? I cannot think of a downside. Even if you receive no response from several names, they now know about you in case a future need arises.
☐ Use a Matter Intake Form
Use a “matter intake form” to ensure that you have all of the contact information for all parties and facts for your conflict of interest database and for future reference in the file.
☐ Manage the Client Relationship
Managing the client relationship is as important as doing top-notch legal work. The reasons to properly manage the client relationship are:
√ to manage the client’s expectations;
√ to encourage the client to return to you; and
√ for the client to refer other clients to you.
The clients have their own expectations of you and of the results of the matter, whether stated or not. Are these expectations reasonable? Have they used counsel before? Are you their third lawyer on this matter? Certain “red flags” like these become apparent as you gain experience. “Go with your gut” and turn down the matter if in doubt about taking a matter. Know the objective of the client and note whether more than one separate matter may require different actions.
Be sure to return telephone calls within a reasonable period of time. For matters that are dormant, call or email the client every two months and say that nothing is new on the matter. This actually says two things to the client:
- “Nothing is new.”
- “I remembered you and you are important to me.”
Consider your several “reputations”:
- Your professional reputation establishes you among colleagues. Your practice area, integrity, honesty, level of service, knowledge of the law and how easy you are to deal with are all factors.
- Your social reputation establishes you among colleagues, friends, family and staff. Your social reputation includes how others perceive your table manners, use of alcohol (if applicable), and general social bearing as you engage in professional activities, hobbies, sports activities and cultural interests. Are you available at all or always “busy?”
- Your web reputation establishes how you are perceived by the world through your various web platforms. Choices include website, AVVO profile, blog, Facebook page, LinkedIn profile, email etiquette, Twitter activity, etc.
- Your street reputation establishes how staff and vendors perceive you. Your street reputation describes your office and how you handle the management of your practice. Examples are your level of professionalism and respect when communicating with your staff, non-monetary fringe benefits such as staff scheduling flexibility, and your management of anger and how you communicate reprimands.
A lawyer’s service include some elements of social work, as you listen carefully to the issues and offer a measure of solace. The client will feel more at ease as you express your concern for the matter and your earnest wish to help alleviate the problem. That helps the client to write the check to pay your bill.
Being a lawyer is not only about appearing in court. Today, a client expects the lawyer to be a good listener and an advisor about a range of matters, whether legal, business, or personal. In essence, the client wants to feel cared for. After the matter is concluded, the client may not remember much of what you said or much detail about what you did, but the client will remember how you made him or her feel.
☐ Be Friendly But Assertive About Being Paid
Rule #1: All or a large percentage of fees paid up front.
Rule #2: See rule #1. If they won’t pay you when they need you, they likely won’t pay you after they don’t need you any more.
Rule #3: It’s better to not work and not get paid than to work and not get paid.
☐ Check the Checklist
You are embarking on a noble and necessary “flight” as a lawyer in our society. You will experience amazing accomplishments and bizarre disappointments. Use this checklist to help you think about the many choices that lay ahead.
About the Author
Peter Roberts is a management consultant for lawyers, and is the former Practice Management Advisor in the Law Office Management Assistance Program (LOMAP) of the Washington State Bar Association. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
(Image Credit: ShutterStock)