Confessions of A Law Partner

Serendipity can be a wonderful thing when it comes to casual reading. A friend recently gave me a reprint of the 1963 classic Confessions of An Advertising Man by David Ogilvy, founder of Ogilvy & Mather, which provided an unexpectedly entertaining, humorous and informative few hours. Ogilvy is a fabulous story teller, and the wisdom he acquired regarding business and leadership over the first 15 years running his firm is still surprisingly relevant today. I recommend the book to anyone with an interest in biography or advertising, and especially to fans of the series Mad Men, whose creators no doubt patterned the office drinking habits of partners Don Draper and Roger Sterling upon Ogilvy’s observation that “people are more productive when they drink. I find if I drink two or three brandies, I am better able to write.”


Perhaps more notably, Ogilvy graciously devotes an entire chapter, “How To Rise To the Top,” to advising those beginning an advertising career, and it triggered my own thinking about what advice I would give new lawyers on how to avoid some mistakes I made and otherwise how to succeed in their legal careers. Here are my top 10 tips.

1. Study your clients and their industries.

Our clients rightly expect us to be forward-thinking, to anticipate what is “coming around the corner,” and to provide guidance on how to avoid or minimize any problems or legal issues up ahead. To do so, you need to, on your own time, study the client’s industry, read the trade and other publications that the client reads, and think about how the client may be affected by developments in whatever your area of practice. Talk with opposing lawyers about what else they are working on — some may boast about their next targets. Any decent law firm can research and write a memorandum of law addressing an issue on the client’s mind today; where we provide real value is in identifying tomorrow’s issue, one the client has not yet considered, and in counseling the client on how to handle it.

2. Understand the assignment and the budget.

Don’t permit yourself to leave a client’s or a supervising lawyer’s office without understanding precisely what you’re being asked to do, the deadline, the expected deliverable (e.g., a short email or a longer memorandum) and the budget for the work. Ask questions and get clarity. Few clients or supervising lawyers need (or want)  a law review article; they want an answer, and they will have a budget in place or a known tolerance for legal spend for particular types of work. Understand the economics underlying your work and your role.

3. Always make a recommendation.

Never, ever present a client or supervising lawyer with a laundry list of “considerations” or “options” or “splits among the circuits” without ultimately making a recommendation or otherwise taking a position on the issue or question presented. We are, of course, hired as lawyers to “issue spot,” but our real value is in counseling our client on how best to resolve the issue and on the best path forward. Be brave and directly answer the client’s question.

4. Communicate clearly and often.

Keep clients and supervising lawyers aware of your progress on assignments, and especially let them know in advance if you are unable to meet a deadline.  Don’t force people to reach out to you for status reports, provide them on your own. Otherwise, you may find that they stop reaching out to you at all. And when you provide written reports and work product, always aim for clarity and elegance. Edit and rewrite until you are conveying precisely what you mean to say. If you do not take the time to write clearly, clients and supervising lawyers will suspect that you are unable to think clearly.

5. Be imaginative and creative.

Any well-trained law student can deliver a memorandum reporting on the “black letter law” in a plain vanilla manner. Step back from your assignments and ask yourself whether you’ve considered all of the potential angles, analogous cases, policy arguments, and themes that may advance our client’s interests or position.  Especially where your gut tells you that your client’s position is just, there is usually an extant cause of action, defense or legal theory, or one that can be developed, to get the client to the finish line first. Find it.

6. Don’t over promise.

Enthusiasm or a willingness to please can sometimes outpace your critical faculties. Don’t promise things you may not be able to deliver, whether it’s the projected date of completion of an assignment or the answer you expect to find. Better to be conservative and to give yourself wiggle room to turn something in “early” or otherwise impress with your actual results.  If you are asked directly to predict something, do so with extreme caution, and be clear about the various obstacles or circumstances that could arise to modify your prediction.

7. Grab ahold of your own career.

Most law firms offer training programs for their incoming associates and assign mentors to guide them. Such training is often a great start, but your career is yours to shape, and eventually you need to climb up on the edge of the nest, flap your wings and start flying. Be proactive in seeking out additional training and opportunities, and otherwise to appear to care about your own development.  Clients and supervising lawyers notice those associates who are taking affirmative steps to shape their own professional development.

8. Acknowledge email.

I’ve noticed with increasing frequency that new lawyers, when receiving an assignment by email, often do not acknowledge that they have seen it and are on the job. More experienced lawyers will provide some type of acknowledgment, however short. An acknowledgment comforts the sender that you’re paying attention and will deliver. This is especially critical if a client contacts you directly; if they don’t hear from you, they may find another lawyer eager to do the work. So take the time to send one.

9. Be yourself.

Some new lawyers succumb to temptation to conform to whatever they perceive is the majority way of doing things, or otherwise to act how they believe the more senior lawyers might prefer. They keep their personal interests and hobbies to themselves, they keep their heads down, they check their personality at the door, and I suspect they often are unhappy in the workplace, because they feel they are unable to be themselves. Don’t let that be you.  Lawyers spend an inordinate amount of time at work, and as long as you act professionally and with courtesy, being yourself will likely expand your professional and personal contacts and make you happier to go to work every day. And remember that your clients are people too. Most prefer to work with those with whom they connect on some level. Your interests may also be theirs, and you may otherwise learn and enjoy things about one another that strengthen the attorney/client relationship. Clients have many great lawyers to choose from, but far fewer people to hire as counsel whose company they actually enjoy.

10. Don’t forget your old friends, and take time to make others.

It’s often said, but bears repeating, that connections make careers. Don’t let your workload keep you from maintaining your existing friendships and relationships, and seeking out still others. Join committees and professional associations. Do favors for your colleagues—they will remember them. Treat everyone with whom you work as if one day they might become your client. If you do so, some of them very well may.

About the Author

Robb Patryk joined Hughes Hubbard & Reed as a summer associate in 1988 and is now a partner and co-chair of the firm’s Product Liability & Toxic Tort group in New York.

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