We Were All Young Lawyers Once: Survivor Tips

No matter how long you’ve been practicing, every lawyer will remember one or two experiences they had as a new lawyer. Some of those memories will be of moments of triumph, some unexpectedly positive moments. But some of the memories, even many years later, make us cringe–they were those moments we’d love to be able to recall, edit and re-do.

But, now comes the good news, young lawyers. We were all in your shoes once, and many, hopefully, most of us, have come through those early years wiser (yes, older too, but we won’t talk about that now). We’ve had experiences, good and bad, and learned lessons that we then honed over years of practice. While as a newer lawyer you may be weary of hearing about “the olden days” or “the golden days” of law practice sometime between 10 and 50 years ago.

But trust me, we’ve learned some lessons that will be helpful. In speaking to lawyers just starting out in their practice who come to Practice 2.0, our practice management advice program at the State Bar of Arizona, some common themes have emerged—some issues or concerns they have more times than not. What follows are what I hope will be helpful tips for navigating those first few years of your practice.

Find a mentor.

It’s not always easy to find a mentor. You may be fortunate to be in a firm or organization that assigns someone to you as a mentor. This may or may not be helpful to you. A mentor/mentee relationship works at its best when the two of you connect on a personal level. The random assignment of a more experienced lawyer as a mentor may or may not result in that kind of connection. Your bar association may offer a mentor program. While this may be just what you are looking for, the same connection problems may occur, so it’s not a sure thing.

Start by networking.

To find a mentor on your own, you’ll need to network, unless you have a very broad professional circle other than people in your law school class. Yes, you’ll have to put yourself out there and talk with people. If the thought of “working the room” in a social but professional setting brings feelings of dread, I feel your pain. While I’m generally extroverted, walking alone into a room where I don’t know anyone makes my teeth clench. If you can, go with a friend, but don’t make the mistake of clinging to and only talking to each other. You’ll have to step out and engage. Want some help? Start by reading Carol Shiro Greenwald’s great book, Strategic Networking for Introverts, Extroverts, and Everyone in Between.

Networking requires some preparation and effort. Practice with family members (supportive ones) or in the mirror. Perfect your elevator speech. You need to meet people of all experience levels and in a variety of practice areas. Don’t pigeon-hole yourself too soon. By that I mean, don’t rule out the value of a mentor who may not have the same practice area or setting as you.

Find a mentor, then cultivate a champion.

What? What do I mean by that? A mentor can be a valuable guide, your go-to for those questions you wouldn’t want to ask your supervisor, or maybe even your co-worker. If you are fortunate, your mentor can become your champion. While a mentor is a great resource, a champion is someone who actively promotes you—introduces you to the right people, helps you get involved with groups or committees, etc. that will help propel you into leadership or toward your ultimate goals.

What do I mean by cultivating a champion? It is certainly not a manipulative effort on your part; you don’t want to be obsequious or insincere. Honesty and integrity are the hallmarks of any good relationship. To encourage a mentor to become your champion, you will have to prove yourself to them, and assure them that their efforts on your behalf are not wasted.

As you interact with your mentor, be sure you don’t just take, but that you put as much into the relationship as your mentor does… and then a little more. Go all in. While you are an unknown quantity and you’ll have to demonstrate your integrity, your ability and your drive, don’t underestimate your ability to contribute to the mentor relationship. The best mentorship relationships are two-way streets.

Learning doesn’t end with law school.

We know, it’s a challenge. You have been so busy during your first year or two of practice. Maybe you’re building your book of business as a solo or small firm lawyer. Maybe you are an associate in a big law firm and required to bill many hours. Remember, the best and most impressive law school education cannot fully prepare you for your life in the practice of law, even if you’ve done internships, externships or clerkships. Making time to continue to learn must be a priority, not an afterthought.

The best practitioners continue to learn from colleagues, through continuing legal education seminars, by observing others who provide both good and bad examples, and by being self-aware during your first legal activities. In Delaware, for example, before you are admitted to practice after passing the bar exam, you must complete a variety of legal tasks under the supervision of an experienced lawyer. Don’t hesitate to ask well-respected lawyers, or more experienced colleagues or friends if you can shadow them for a day, or for a case. It’s a great way to learn.

As a new lawyer working in a prosecutor’s office, I learned not only from my own cases and research, but also from observing my more experienced colleagues’ trials during my downtimes. I saw some of the best trial lawyers at work; and I also saw some who I would never want to emulate, regardless of the results they obtained. I learned from colleagues, when serving as co-counsel, in team meetings or during strategy sessions. Keep an open mind and a note pad (paper or digital) handy; you’ll want to take notes on what you are hearing so you’ll remember the best tips when you need them.

Don’t be afraid, or embarrassed, to ask for help.

I get it; you never want to appear to lack knowledge, be unable to complete an assignment, or not know what to do next. There is always someone to ask. This is where your state, local or affinity bar association can be your best friend.

Many bar associations have practice management advice programs like my program, Practice 2.0 at the State Bar of Arizona. Each program works a bit differently in what they offer, but help is out there—usually free, and usually confidential. Folks like my PMA colleagues and I have a primary goal to help you be the best lawyer you can be.

Many bar associations have sections—voluntary groups within the association, usually organized around a specific practice area. Join one or more sections and then get involved. Not only is it a great way to network, and perhaps find a mentor, it’s a great professional development opportunity. By interacting with lawyers in your practice area, or a similar practice setting (solo, small firm, you get it) you will not only build your professional network, you will also find people who are usually more than willing to serve as a resource to you. Affinity bars may serve much the same purpose—because you already have some connection that you will enhance by being an active member—you may find the help you seek.

Remember, we were all new lawyers once. We all had the same anxieties and challenges you are facing, and anyone who claims they emerged from law school and the bar exam all-knowing and completely self-reliant has amnesia. If it is daunting to cold call a lawyer who is a stranger to you, your mentor may introduce you, or your Bar’s practice management advisor can introduce you. We went through the lack-of-experience gauntlet, emerged and thrived. Don’t hesitate to ask for help, particularly from bar association staff. We are here for you.

About the Author

Roberta Tepper is the lawyer assistance programs director at the State Bar of Arizona, where she advises lawyers on starting, running, and winding down their practices; technology; lawyer well-being, and trust accounting. Roberta is the co-vice-chair of ABA TECHSHOW 2020 and serves on the Law Practice Division Council. Contact her at Roberta.Tepper@staff.azbar.org, @AZPractice2_0, and www.ReadySetPracticeAZ.com


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