A Roundtable Discussion: What Young Lawyers Need to Do Now

For young lawyers, today is the best of times. The legal industry is more exciting and dynamic than ever, with technology bringing about rapid change in the practice of law as well as new opportunities. In other ways, these are the worst of times, too. Attorneys face extraordinary competition for a shrinking number of positions, record levels of law school debt, and uncertainly about whether their ambitious career goals are realistic. Our roundtable discussion brings together three managing partners and two associates to explore the opportunities and challenges facing young lawyers, how they are being leveraged and addressed, and some practical advice for achieving success.

Moderated by Nicholas Gaffney

Nicholas Gaffney (NG) – Nick is a member of the Law Practice Today Board and veteran public relations practitioner.

Our Panelists

Eugene C. Blackard, Jr. (GB) – Gene is managing partner of Archer Norris in Walnut Creek, CA, where he focuses on insurance defense with particular expertise in mass and complex environmental and toxic torts, catastrophic personal injury, premises liability and Americans with Disabilities Act claims. Gene received his J.D. in 1989.

John D. (Jack) Arseneault (JA) – A partner at Arseneault and Fassett, LLP, Jack received his J.D. in 1979.  A decade later, he established his own litigation boutique with long-time partner, David Fassett, in Chatham, New Jersey.  Since 1993, Jack has been featured in The Best Lawyers in America, and is listed in the National Directory of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Thomas M. Fahey (TH) – Tom has served as the managing partner of Ungaretti & Harris LLP for 20 years and heads the Healthcare and Government Group.  He has extensive experience in all facets of corporate healthcare and public finance law, serving as corporate counsel for various healthcare institutions and representing borrowers, banks, and issuers in public finance transactions. Tom received his J.D. in 1980.

Sabrina Axt (SA) – An associate at Archer Norris and member of the firm’s Litigation and Environmental groups, Sabrina focuses her practice on general civil law, including products liability and toxic torts related to high-exposure asbestos claims.  Sabrina received her J.D. in 2005.

Patrick F. Ross (PF) – Patrick is an associate in the Litigation, Creditors’ Rights and Bankruptcy, and Finance and Restructuring practice groups at Ungaretti & Harris LLP. Patrick’s practice focuses on bankruptcy litigation, corporate reorganization and insolvency matters, and business disputes.  He has represented a variety of clients in preference transfer and fraudulent transfer litigation.  Patrick received his J.D. in 2008

John Roberts (JR) – John is an associate of Arseneault & Fassett, LLP, a boutique white-collar criminal defense and civil litigation firm with practices in New Jersey and New York.  Prior to earning his law degree from Seton Hall Law School in 2008, John worked for fifteen years as a successful book editor.


NG: How are the challenges and opportunities young lawyers face today different than those you encountered at the start of your career? 

GB: Changes in the legal community, including client needs, put added pressure on today’s young lawyers to be not just a better attorney, but also a better business person. The need to practice law efficiently has increased, and there is an expectation that young lawyers will also perform community service and pro bono work as part of their overall job.

JA: There appears to be far more young attorneys competing for positions in a smaller pool of good opportunities. Over the last 20 years law school enrollment increased until the great recession thus creating a glut of licensed attorneys. We have received resumes from licensed attorneys seeking paralegal positions.

TF: As for challenges, the bar has been raised in terms of the need to develop special expertise in your area of practice.  You need to become a “must have” member of the client team.  As for opportunities, the combination of baby boomer partners who will retire at some point in large numbers, and the void created by the hiring freezes of five years ago, creates leadership and client service opportunities for young lawyers who will be able to fill needs created by those two phenomena.

NG: What is the most significant change the legal landscape has undergone in recent years, and how does it impact the ability of young lawyers to thrive?

GB: For many practices, there are client pressures to operate efficiently based on auditing and benchmarking. Combined with the refusal to engage young lawyers, it can make it more difficult for them to develop their skills.

The slowdown in legal jobs in general means we can no longer bring in law clerks with the expectation they will stay for their entire careers.  In fact, laterals today do not see their law firm as the place they will spend their career.  If a young lawyer doesn’t give himself the chance to learn the ropes and build his practice within one organization, then it turns the concept of partnership sideways.

JA: We are primarily trial lawyers so the change in landscape we have seen is many fewer opportunities to try cases. Young lawyers therefore have fewer opportunities to second/third chair trials, which we believe is invaluable experience.

TF: There is a bit of a “new normal” that exists in terms of the attorney-client dynamic.  Legal budgets are tighter; the demands for efficiency and value are (appropriately) at a very high level.  Meeting these demands will be essential for lawyers providing client services going forward.

NG: What concrete things does your firm do to help young lawyers develop and maximize their potential for success? 

GB: We provide our young lawyers immediate access to clients, so they understand the needs of our clients directly, without a supervisory filter.

JA: We attempt to involve young attorneys with the clients at inception of the matter. That involvement then provides a better understanding of the potential complexities making assignments more meaningful. It also makes the young attorney more accountable to not just a partner but also to the client themselves. We have found it provides an added sense of responsibility.

TF: We have a well-staffed marketing department that provides our young lawyers with marketing education, coaching and support.  We make certain our technology, and our technology professionals, are top of the line.  We provide client contact opportunities at the earliest possible junctures and make certain that appropriate mentoring is provided by senior attorneys.


NG: It’s a new associate’s first day on the job and she asks for concrete advice on how to ace her first 30 days. What one thing would you tell her to do every single day, and what one thing would you tell her to never do?

GB: Reliability is one of the most important aspects in the practice of law. Quality is assumed; reliability never is.

Never be afraid to ask for direction on how to practice law more effectively. Everyone is afraid to look foolish, but the practice of law is a collaborative endeavor. You don’t get to practice law by yourself – that’s why we are a law firm.

JA: Listen, listen and listen some more. Don’t try to impress by showing how bright you are, you already have the job. Let your “product” shine for you.

TF: To do: Read, read, read materials pertaining to your area of practice.  You will learn much on the projects on which you are working; you need to supplement that knowledge base by keeping current on legal developments.

Don’t do:  Go off on a project without checking back in regularly with the assigning attorney.  You will risk going down wrong paths, and create anxiety over the timeliness and efficiency of the work product.  Talk regularly to the assigning attorney!

NG: What advice would you give to young lawyers at your firm who aim to achieve a satisfying work-life balance – and still become a partner?

GB: Structure your time and allocate your resources accordingly. Make sure to accomplish your work tasks while you are in the office. There is nothing wrong with spending 9+ hours focused on the job. If you take this approach during working hours, you will have a better chance of achieving work-life balance outside of work.

JA: Deprive yourself and no one else.  Don’t “steal time” from your family or your firm; steal it from your sleep time. Establish a “time routine” and stick to it except for emergencies. As a young lawyer I would begin my workday at 5 am (stealing sleep time) but be home with my family by 6 pm for dinner or earlier when my children were young. If your product is strong most good lawyers/partners should not be impressed by continuous 12-hour days.

TF: Be very communicative.  Firm leadership will typically support reasonable work-life balance decisions, but you need to be clear about your needs and maintain an appropriate focus on the work part of the equation.

NG: Do you think creating a culture of diversity within law firms is more important now than it has been in the past, and why/why not? What are you doing to diversify the associate make-up at your firm? 

GB: Diversity is important to our law firm to reflect the practices and cultural values of our clients, and approach problem-solving from different angles. The question assumes we are not diverse in the first place, when we are justifiably proud of the many diverse lawyers already at the firm. We attempt to locate individual lawyers from different backgrounds who will work well with us, because we know our clients benefit from the different perspectives they bring to the table.

JA: Opportunity can breed loyalty and that loyalty can “infect” a firm’s culture in a positive way. Background differences based upon real diversity also tend to create more outside of the box thinking.

TF: The importance of a diversity initiative has remained at a high level in recent years.  Maintaining a diverse attorney force requires a consistent approach to recruiting and retention efforts. We are always proactive in our search for qualified diverse candidates, both in the law school recruiting process and in the lateral market. Once a diverse candidate joins the firm, we make sure that they receive the mentoring they need to succeed.


NG: How do you think your firm is helping prepare you for the challenges and opportunities of a legal career?

SA: I benefit from working at a firm with so many practice areas, in addition to which Archer Norris actively encourages cross-practice. While my practice focuses on toxic tort litigation, I have had opportunities to work on products liability, premises liability, unlawful detainer, and estate planning matters. I have been provided great options for my legal career and encouraged to spread my wings. The variety of practices at the firm provides a great platform for me to become a well-rounded advocate to better serve our clients.

PF: The partners here continually provide me with sophisticated work, put me in direct contact with clients, set high expectations, allow me to challenge them appropriately and ask questions, seek out and respect my advice, assist and advise me in my own marketing efforts, invest in the technology and legal tools I need to succeed, support me with terrific administrative staff, and let me shape my own practice; I haven’t experienced any micromanagement.

JR: My firm is relatively small and provided me with a much broader experience much earlier than the big firms provided some of my classmates.  I was appearing in court just a few months into my career, while some classmates had not gotten on their feet until several years after graduating.

NG: What proactive steps are you taking to ensure you’ll continue to thrive in the rapidly changing legal industry?

SA: Similar to the first answer, I am proactively diversifying my practice by reaching out to others in the firm.  I work with partners and senior counsel in at least three other practice areas. I think it is important to experience working with different lawyers, in different areas of practice, to learn as much as I can.

PF: Mastering new technology and maintaining my files electronically allows me to be efficient, thorough, and responsive, and stay ahead of the curve. I can locate template pleadings and discovery from hundreds of bankruptcy or litigation cases or key research containing my electronic highlights and comments from previous cases with just a quick search on our cloud-based document management system. The firm’s virtual computers and VoIP phone system recently allowed me to coordinate a privilege review and document production taking place in Chicago for one case while I was in London preparing for a deposition in another case. I also stay active in the Chicago Bar Association, Illinois State Bar Association, and American Bankruptcy Institute and use the terrific resources they provide at nominal cost. There are many powerful online legal research tools out there besides Westlaw and LexisNexis. Finally, I read a lot. It still surprises me how frequently I come across an article or case that’s directly relevant to something in an active client matter, or could be of interest to a client or contact.

JR: I try to keep abreast of a wide variety of areas of the law, not just our primary practice areas.


NG: Think back to the day you graduated from law school. How is your legal career different than you had anticipated then?

SA: Litigators spend a lot less time in the courtroom than they do on TV.  I spend much of my time writing and strategizing about my cases. The majority of the work I do outside the courtroom makes me an effective advocate, so it is time well spent.

PF: Honestly, I had no idea what to anticipate about my legal career the day I graduated from law school. As a brand new associate, I wanted to do great work but there was so much to learn on the job first – things you cannot learn just from books. It took me several years to gain that confidence, “gee, I guess I do kind of know what I’m doing sometimes.”

JR: Fortunately I think my law school and my firm prepared me from the start for what to expect: lots of research and writing and client contact, and less time in court than many law students may expect.

NG: Again, thinking back to that day: what advice would you have given yourself knowing what you know now?

SA: Going to court doesn’t happen every day, so it’s important to make the most of every opportunity to see a seasoned trial attorney in action.  If you can’t see a trial live, then read the transcripts. Everything that happens in the courtroom, from opening statement through cross-examination of a witness, derives from the questions you ask during deposition. Your deposition can make or break a case, so you need to see how it all fits together.

PF: Be patient with yourself, don’t forget to take a deep breath, and tackle difficult projects one issue at a time. Don’t be afraid to ask questions if something doesn’t make sense. Practice becoming a better listener every day. There’s a lot more to the practice and being a successful lawyer than just knowing and being right on the law.

JR: Research skills are key, followed by the ability to translate research into effective written product.

NG: In which areas of the law, or within the broader legal industry itself, do you see the most opportunity for growth and success?

SA: Hands down, alternative dispute resolution – already big, this area continues to grow.  In my experience, the growth is driven by the need for mediation and arbitration as an alternative to civil trials.  Ongoing budget cuts have overburdened the courts. Already challenged to provide timely trials in criminal proceedings, the courts are repeatedly forced to push back civil trials.  Many of my cases have had trial dates repeatedly continued in order to make courtrooms available for criminal cases, which take precedence. In my practice and in our profession, I see a growing need for ADR services.

PF: I suspect the “hot” areas of law will always be changing. However, opportunities for growth and success largely will remain the same across the legal industry. Lawyers will have to adopt and understand the latest technologies not only to attract and retain clients, but also how to comply with their ethical duty of competence. Online social networking and marketing will become mainstream and perhaps even a predominant means of attracting new clients, particularly once the baby boomers begin retiring en masse. Law firms with inventive alternative billing models that maximize value for the client and the firm will foster long-term relationships and dominate the industry over firms that stick with only the billable hour model.

JR: I am always surprised by the number of inquiries I get about bankruptcy, which is not one of my firm’s practice areas.

NG: What is the best career advice a managing partner or other mentor has ever given you?

SA: Early in my career, a managing partner told me, “The worst thing you can do is not make a decision. Your decision may not always be the right call, but you need to take a stand.” I don’t mean a young associate should forge ahead without talking it out with the partner in charge of the case.  But before you meet, review your research and figure out the answer to the problem.  Take the initiative to sit down with the partner and suggest a solution, with well-thought-out reasoning to support your conclusions. Regardless of how the issue resolves, taking the initiative to figure it out is really the only way to learn, and ultimately advance your career.

PF: Think twice before doing anything that could possibly tarnish your reputation; you don’t get a second one. Also, exercise restraint and don’t respond in kind to your opponent’s uncivil conduct – no matter how gratifying it would feel.

JR: Stay in close touch with law school classmates. They can be a prime source of client referrals.

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