Tips for New Lawyers: Give Yourself Some Grace

Congratulations new lawyer! You are out of school, the bar exam has been conquered, and you are ready to step into the next phase of your life. It’s funny, sort of, that as the world is talking about the “new” or “next normal” in the post-COVID world, you are encountering the same thing. Your life as a lawyer will not be entirely different from your pre-lawyer days, but there will be important differences—the specifics of which will vary depending on what you decide to (or are able to) do next.

In thinking about what words of wisdom I thought might be useful to you, I wanted to make them general enough so that regardless of whether you are joining Big Law or going it on your own, or something in between, at least one of these tips would be helpful to you. While your day-to-day may be different than those of your former classmates, there are some commonalities experienced by new lawyers. So, here it goes:

Live frugally.

Whether you are looking forward to a new mid-to-high-five or six-figure salary, most new lawyers emerge into the practice with significant law school debt. We regularly hear about new lawyers with $200,000 or more in law school debt. It is so tempting after years of ramen noodles—not the fancy kind, the ones in cellophane packages—and scrimping to avail yourself of a taste of the good life. Whether that is a new car, dining out, vacations, etc., we get it. It’s time to live like a person again, rather than a starving student, right?

The best advice I’ve heard given to new lawyers about finances is this—be frugal. Live the way, or close to the way, you lived in law school. That may mean postponing vacations, cars, and nicer apartments. So why continue to deprive yourself?

Let’s consider some good reasons. First, those loan payments will soon start, and they will challenge you. What otherwise may become disposable income (well, in a few years) will go to repayment of the loans. Next, staying in the frugal financial lane will open possibilities for you, career-wise. What if the first job you get isn’t a good fit? If you have plunged yourself deeper into debt, you could find yourself stuck—unable to seek something else because you will have become dependent on a regular paycheck. If you have been able to save—even a little bit—and have not increased your regular expenses, perhaps you will be able to leave or take a job that pays less but makes you happier.

The future awaits.

Several years ago, the leader of our Young Lawyer Division did a presentation to our Board of Governors about the frustration felt by many newer lawyers. Some feared that they would never reach the point where they could buy a house, start a family, or start another life venture that required savings. To this, I first refer you to my first point. But then, and this may seem counter-intuitive at a time when you feel cash-poor, start working with a financial advisor.

Not every financial advisor is willing to take on new professionals, but I’ve found that there are quite a few—both individuals and with larger companies—that are willing to work with you from the ground up. I’m not talking about just an investment counselor or a stockbroker, I’m talking about a financial advisor who can help you craft a long-term financial health plan. As lawyers, we are fortunate that many in the (reputable) financial advisor profession see our earning potential as a plus for us and for them.

Creating a long-term financial plan now will help you in your professional life, and most certainly will help you as you look down the road to a time when you can retire to a sunny beach, mountain retreat, or—you fill in the blank.

Balance, or something approaching it.

At the most recent ABA TECHSHOW, I attended a well-being session co-presented by (not so new) lawyer Stanley Tate. His comments about his well-being journey really resonated, and with apologies for paraphrasing his remarks, it went something like this. Tate strategizes his own well-being journey by deciding that at the end of his life he wanted to be remembered well—I believe the words he may have used were “good dude” or something similar. He has then planned backward from that desired endpoint, intentionally crafting his practice and life to accomplish that goal. Of course, that path, or individual choices, will be different for each of us.

Remember, as you (hopefully) engage in this exercise, that you are your own most valuable commodity. It is you—your talents and skills, your abilities, and your growth potential—that is valuable to your clients, friends, and family. As for your career, to be the best lawyer you can be, to offer clients the best services you can provide, you must be well mentally, physically, and emotionally. While lawyer wellbeing became a mainstream topic about six years ago, many have been trying to work on this issue for far longer.

What do you need for yourself, to be sure you are giving yourself the space to relax, refresh and renew your own energy, drive, determination, and well-being? It’s important to give yourself permission to prioritize yourself. Whether you are a new associate in a Big Law firm or trying to build a book of business for your solo/small practice, I know, this exercise is difficult. But your friends, your family, and your clients need you at your best, not drained, tired, and dysfunctional.

Boundaries are important.

No one is entitled to all of your time. Some of you may have heard me say this before, but everyone needs downtime. I know, I just talked about well-being, right? Part of the work you will have to do to maintain wellbeing is setting boundaries. By this, I mean boundaries between work and your personal life, but I also mean boundaries between your life and your client’s lives—both factually and psychologically.

Reams have been written on vicarious or secondary trauma. The plain fact is that for most practice areas, people don’t come to lawyers because their lives are perfect. People come to lawyers because something is going wrong, because something needs to be fixed. Am I suggesting that you cannot or should not care about your clients and their welfare, success, etc.? No. But I am suggesting in the strongest possible way that you do not take on your client’s strife or problems as your own. Should you want to do the best for your client? Yes, of course. Should you let their issues invade your inner life, your relationship with those you care about and who care about you? No.

This can be difficult, and there is no shame in seeking mentoring or even professional help to aid you in insulating your wellbeing from your clients. But doing this work, making this effort, will bear fruit—in your life, in the longevity of your practice, and in the satisfaction you gain from it.

It’s a marathon, not a race.

The practice of law allows us to be remarkably resilient. There is no reason you cannot continue to practice law for decades. But who lasts? Who is still happy to be a lawyer after 30, 40, or more years? Many lawyers still think that this is the best profession ever. There is, however, no one way to achieve or maintain that state.

The truth is, you are not as accomplished today as you will be in a year, in five years, in 10 years, etc. No one learns to be the best lawyer they can be in a short amount of time. As lawyers, we are hardwired to fix things, to control, to be the most knowledgeable person in the room (or one of them). But this is truly the work of a lifetime.

So, give yourself some grace to figure it out, to learn to achieve balance, to learn to be adept, to care for yourself, your client, and those in your personal life. There is usually an element of judgment in the practice of law. Try not to punish yourself with excessive judgment as you make it through this fantastic marathon that is the practice of law. Allow yourself time, and self-compassion.

About the Author

Roberta Tepper is the chief member services officer for the State Bar of Arizona and was formerly the director of the state bar’s Lawyer Assistance Programs. She was the co-chair of the 2021 ABA TECHSHOW and is on the Law Practice Division Council. Contact her on Twitter @azpractice2_0.

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