Branding became very important to me when I decided to open my own practice two months after being sworn in. From my website to my business cards, work attire, and professional reputation, I wanted to appear capable and knowledgeable in order to sell myself to clients and to other attorneys. From other attorneys, I was hoping to create opportunities for contract work and case referrals. I wanted to build a reputation that I am easy to work with, have a good work ethic, am energetic, have fresh ideas, and that I can get things done.
Certain opportunities fell into place for me by my networking while in law school, and some were a result of being in the right place at the right time (and I might add, with the right attitude). Looking back on these experiences and the doors they have opened up for me, I share with you some tips on networking, and how to capitalize on the strengths we young lawyers possess. Some of my suggestions apply to young solo practitioners who start their own practices straight out of law school. However, these suggestions have broad applicability to any young lawyer seeking to capitalize on some of our greatest assets—the value of our time and the power of yes.
Time and Energy: Some of Our Greatest Assets
Attorneys who have been in practice for several years are busy. Those who have been practicing for several decades may be experiencing burnout or a dip in energy levels. Enter you: the young lawyer. Fresh-faced and enthusiastic, we bring to the table a high level of energy and a strong work ethic. We are adept at technology and can better meet the changing demands and expectations of clients today.
You have time on your hands, at least compared to the attorneys who have been in practice longer than you. Super-busy attorneys will need and appreciate you (the ones that do not may not be good people to associate with). If you want to gain experience in a particular area of law and create a reputation among those attorneys, I suggest the following: identify the top practitioners in the area of law you wish to practice, have another more experienced attorney facilitate an introduction (even if it is by email), and then position yourself to work with that attorney. Communicate to them that you have the time available to work for them.
When I first started out in solo practice, I wanted to become a criminal defense attorney. I networked with criminal defenders and gleaned from various CLEs, conferences and social events who the best criminal defense attorneys were. I made sure that those attorneys were also good teachers, role models and human beings. With the help of my mentors, who wrote introductory emails for me, I asked those top practitioners out to coffee and developed and sustained a connection with them. I conveyed to them that I was available to cover court appearances, write motions, and to do any other work they would need from me. I told them that I would work evenings, weekends, and that I would be available at the last minute as well.
As a result of positioning myself in this way, I’ve been able to cover court appearances in many counties. The attorney I worked for provided me detailed instructions to familiarize me with the layout of local courthouses and local procedures. I also have been able to write to motions for top-notch attorneys who have vouched for me and recommended me to other attorneys.
When the attorney you want to work with reaches out to you about a project, say yes. If you have conflicting appointments that you can reschedule, reschedule those appointments. And give the attorney a realistic timeline of when you can complete the project. These two things—your time and the power of yes—will go a long way in creating a reputation for yourself that will attract business and future referrals.
The Importance of Mentors
The importance of mentors has been drilled into us since law school. That is because we work in a profession where advancement starts from within, by counseling and training among our colleagues. Mentoring is a tradition in law. Most lawyers we know have been influenced by a mentor and are mentors themselves.
Mentors are invaluable. Mentors can help facilitate introductions for you, keep their ears to the ground regarding job opportunities, review cases with you, provide tips regarding trial strategy, shed light on how to best deal with particular attorneys and judges in the community, guide you through salary negotiations and other conversations with partners in your firm, and counsel you through ethical or work/life balance issues. It may be a tall order for one mentor to fulfill all these roles.
A person can have several mentors. I was a solo attorney involved with minority bar organizations who practiced criminal defense and family law. So naturally, I had a solo practitioner mentor, a diversity/life mentor, a criminal defense mentor, and a family law mentor. My friends at big firms have mentors within the firm and mentors outside the firm. Some of the advice they seek about work/life balance and how to negotiate salary increases should best be given by a confidant from outside their own firm.
If you don’t yet have a mentor, try to find one. You may need to meet with several people to find someone who has the time and who is the right fit. As far as time is concerned, and understanding how busy we all get, it is important to be flexible. To reduce the emails back and forth concerning scheduling, send your potential mentor a list of dates and times that you will be available. Also, try to send a follow-up email the day before or the day of reminding him or her of your meeting. If you develop a relationship with your mentor and he or she is particularly outstanding, try to nominate them for an award through your local bar organization.
Take on Low Bono or Pro Bono Cases
Taking on low bono or pro bono cases may not seem feasible for a young lawyer. Young solo attorneys may be concerned about how to pay the bills that month. Attorneys in mid- to large-size firms may feel like they do not have the time or ability to take them on. However, if you set a goal for the number of low bono or pro bono cases you would like to take each year, it might be more achievable. When you make the proposal to your law firm, emphasize the value added to the firm in terms of recognition in the legal community by taking on such cases. And if you offer to take on the cases yourself, it shows initiative and hopefully makes it a little harder for your firm to say no.
Taking on low bono or pro bono cases can be very rewarding. For solo practitioners just starting out, low bono cases may be your bread and butter. Young solos are in a unique position to help increase access to justice by providing legal services to clients who are unable to qualify for free legal services, yet are also unable to pay the full hourly rate of attorneys who have been in practice for several years. For young lawyers in mid- to large-size firms, taking on low bono or pro bono cases may be the breath of fresh air you need. For young lawyers who do not often handle a case from inception to the end, taking on a low bono or pro bono case will be your opportunity to do so. Depending on the practice area, these cases may allow you the opportunity to see the inside of a courtroom, if that is a goal you want to achieve. Additionally, low bono or pro bono clients may present you with different challenges than you are used to facing with your current clientele. These challenges are valuable because they teach you new skills or allow you to sharpen existing ones.
Volunteer with Your Local Bar Organizations
One of the best ways to demonstrate that you are a “can do” person is to join a subcommittee of a local bar association. Subcommittees are tasked with putting on specific events or working on specific projects. It is best to choose something that you have a genuine interest in, because working on the subcommittee will be a time commitment. It will allow you to develop deeper connections with other attorneys on the committee, attorneys who will learn about your work ethic and cooperative and pleasant working style. Depending on whether or not your subcommittee puts on one event or recurring events, being associated with the event gets your name out there. Other more experienced attorneys will notice your name and you will be fresh on their minds. Being fresh on people’s minds for working on a subcommittee reminds them that you are capable of getting things done. This is a great way to create a reputation for yourself when you do not have years of legal or trial experience to speak for you. This reputation will put you on people’s radars and generate business for you in the future.
About the Author
Mae Lee Browning is an attorney with Cohen & Coit PC in Portland, OR. She can be reached at 503.231.3419 or email@example.com.