by Cali Franks
Every young lawyer has been sitting at their desk, two years into practice (or longer), and something just “clicks.” The same way students in law school are told, “one day, the law will just click;” how some young lawyers argue that their “brain has changed” or “the way they view the world” has changed after graduating from law school and taking the bar. However, the scarily audible “clicks” that occur once you become a young lawyer come the hard way: through mistakes and practice which can carry a hefty price tag in the way of billable hours. While most young lawyers will “get it” at some point at the beginning of their career, anything that can be done to speed up this process will make the young attorney more valuable to their firm and the legal profession, aside from adding years back to their life. The advice below is not a map to the “fountain of youth,” but instead assist as small, action-orientated tips that you can enact at any stage of being a young lawyer. They don’t promise to earn you the coveted “Rising Star” or “Star Attorney” award, but they do aim to help young lawyers in their pursuit of a fulfilling career.
- When You Can’t See the Forest for the Trees
My Property Law Professor used to refer to only seeing the trees and not the forest. This is a common phrase used beyond the legal profession, but it seems to be tattooed across the forehead of struggling young attorneys. In its most basic sense, this phrase refers to being so focused on a single issue that you forget the bigger picture. It is what happens when someone becomes obsessed with the location of a single puzzle piece in a 1,000-piece puzzle; you will never be able to tell what the puzzle creates based upon one single piece. The 999 remaining pieces must be considered and placed together for the puzzle to “come into focus.”
The same can be said for cases. When most young attorneys start their first job (or a new job), they are given specific assignments for cases. For example, one of my first assignments for my first-ever job as an attorney was to research and determine the timeliness of a pleading the opposing counsel had filed. I cracked open the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure, went to the section for that particular pleading, and went through each and every singular “triggering” event for the deadline. After my research, I turned in my memo confident I had “cracked the code” and would receive an email detailing how grateful they were to have me at their firm. As you could probably assume, my inbox “dinged” a few moments later, listing all the other issues I did not consider that “trigger” and delay the deadline. Had I looked through the file before my research? No. Had I considered what we were truly trying to accomplish? No. At the bottom line, I was focused on a tree (filing deadline) and did not consider the forest (the entirety of the case). Not seeing the forest was detrimental to my analysis of the issue.
Anyone can look up a deadline in the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure, but a “5-Star Associate” will understand why that deadline is important and how the entirety of the case is affected by a deadline or how the facts of the case can affect a deadline. I would venture to say that every assignment and task you are given as a young attorney can only be completed (at least to the caliber that is expected) if you take the time on the front end to see the forest and understand the layout of the trees before you tackle the work you were given.
- Deadlines and Tasks
Speaking of deadlines, it’s safe to say most associates/young lawyers have a list of deadlines (either electronically or old-fashioned paper) next to them, or at least accessible to them, at all times. Many professions have deadlines, but the life of a case is run, sustained, and sometimes dies on deadlines. Lucky for us, there are so many deadlines all triggered at a different time without any regard to formality or regularities. I’m looking at you discovery deadlines. Why do young attorneys care? How can young attorneys possibly keep up with deadlines?
Young attorneys should care because the more “checks” there are in law firms, the better. While Partners and Senior Associates have experience and years on their side, they also have many more responsibilities. Knowing the deadlines for the cases you are working on, and being ahead of them, will only help you and those you report to. To keep up with deadlines, all you need to do is ask and research. Then, ask your support staff and the attorneys you report to what the standard deadlines are for your specific discovery levels, client guidelines, and other important deadlines that frequently come up. Take that information and implement them on your calendar, consistently checking and ensuring your deadlines align with those you report to. Eventually, you will know what deadlines are coming up and what needs to be completed in association with those deadlines before the attorney you report to realizes they are coming due. Automating this process will help those you report to and help you more clearly understand and prepare for those tasks.
A “5-Star Associate” avoids the 8:00 A.M. phone call from someone in their firm saying something is due by 5:00 P.M. that day and circumvents the need to reach out to opposing counsel to request a Rule 11 against a looming deadline.
- The Outlook is Good.
Deadlines and tasks can both be approached in the same way: organize, organize, organize. After you ensure your deadline calendar is accurate and up-to-date, you can plan for, and prioritize, the tasks you need to complete. Along with an Outlook Calendar to store your personal deadlines/dates, use the Outlook email function to send yourself “notes to self.” I am sure many young attorneys receive phone calls daily from attorneys in their firms regarding tasks. Nothing can prepare you for tasks assigned via phone call, and rarely do hand notes (or memory) capture every detail and/or request related to the assignment. Inevitably, a case, detail, issue, or other vital information is missed in the telephone exchange. I have received many of those calls and thought to myself, “I will remember every detail of this,” only to hang up the phone and immediately receive an unrelated phone call. After handling the unrelated phone call and responding to the ten emails I received in the duration of those calls, I have forgotten the important details of the assignment I received. Although the handwritten notes will jog my memory enough to recall the outline of the assignment, I have lost details that will help in the assignment, and more importantly, that the attorney assigning me the task felt important enough to point out. Is there a solution?
Yes, or at least it will help. When I receive a phone call, I am usually no more than an arm’s length away from an electronic device; usually, it’s in my hand. I use that electronic device to take detailed notes in email form (usually in Outlook), which I will then send myself (“Note to Self”) after the call. This method ensures two things: (1) details regarding the assignment/tasks are more likely to be captured since typing (even on a cell phone) is usually faster and more reliable than handwritten notes or memory; and (2) I have created a “to-do” list in my Outlook inbox. I will only delete or move a “Note to Self” from my inbox if the task/assignment is complete.
Making your Outlook (or any email account) work for you to keep you better organized and ensure your tasks are completed to the senior attorney’s specifications will go a long way to helping you maintain your workload and in your endeavor to be a “5-Star Associate.”
- Don’t Be a Goalie.
“I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.” – Wayne GretzkyHockey and the practice of law have a few things in common, but nothing is more applicable to a young attorney than the idea of “skating to” (determining) where the puck (lawsuit) will go, not where the puck (lawsuit) has been. For example, a goalie’s main job (some would argue only job) is to keep the puck out of the net at all costs. A goalie rarely, if ever, takes the puck down the ice and scores. While there are times in law where “protecting the goal” (i.e., handing/reacting to issues when they occur) is necessary, when a young attorney begins anticipating the issues and needs of the cases, they can begin moving the case “down the ice” to where the case is heading. This can refer to, among other essential responsibilities, determining the need of an expert, strategizing potential pleadings, and ultimately shaping the trial or settlement of the case. Anticipating where the case will go and what will be necessary to get there is the next step in taking responsibility for and managing cases.It is easy for young attorneys, especially with the propensity to get lost in the trees and disregard the forest (See Tip Number 1), compile and complete a task off the list, and move on. In other words, it is much easier for a young attorney to keep the “puck out of the net” than to move the puck down the ice or anticipate where it will go next.A “5-Star Associate” does the tasks/assignments assigned (keeps the puck out of the goal) while looking forward, anticipating tasks, and strategizing where the case is going.
- Be Valuable.
The value of a young attorney is not always reflected in their monthly billables, a famous trial, or a million-dollar book of business. Instead, the value of young attorneys comes from their understanding of the cases, their absorption of how the attorneys they report to practice law along with their expectations and moving the case forward. Sounds easy enough, right? Well, throwing in the struggles of learning to practice law and the workload that many young attorneys face becomes clear (and understandable) the difference between doing tasks/assignments and being valuable. Recommending or taking the initiative to do those items you believe are necessary or anticipate will be necessary to keep moving the case along towards successful resolution, is where your value is displayed. The managing attorneys/partners/senior associates will eventually know what needs to happen next in the case. However, for them to anticipate the next steps, they will have to review and understand the case, issues, and information you had to do to complete the tasks assigned to you. An associate attorney can be valuable by saving those above them time, energy, and effort by anticipating, suggesting, and executing (when necessary) the following items/steps in a case. For example, suggesting and identifying necessary medical records to be subpoenaed after reviewing discovery responses will expedite the timeline. Those records will be received and moved up when depositions might be taken. Thus, mediation might occur sooner than anticipated had someone else had to review the discovery responses in search of and with the sole purpose to determine subpoenaed records needed for review of the claims.
Most people who practice law can do tasks/assignments given to them to some degree. While some argue there is value in getting any task/assignment (no matter how good the product) done, I believe that actual value comes when a young attorney stops checking items off their “to-do list” and utilizes the concepts and tips discussed above in tandem. When an associate attorney can (1) fully see the forest (i.e., facts of the case and how they correlate with the applicable law), (2) learn and take responsibility for deadlines, (3) enact streamlined, automated organization, (4) anticipate future/further needs of the case, and (5) take definitive action to move the case along, they become a standout attorney.
The above tips are lessons and advice I had to learn the hard way. I am in no way holding myself out as being a “5-Star Associate” but instead hope to show ways you can improve and learn. The aforementioned “click” that occurs when you finally understand something, as with the practice of law, will continue to develop and be heard throughout a young lawyer’s career, or so I have been told. I would encourage all associates, no matter their time practicing law, to take a moment to reflect on their first few days, months, and years of practicing law to nail down when certain things “click” for you. This can help in your growth as an attorney and enable you to pass along any tips and wisdom you have. Being a young lawyer is not easy, but if young lawyers work together to show and share experiences, it might save other young lawyers from learning things “the hard way.” There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to being a “5-Star Associate.”
Cali Franks is an associate attorney at Bocell Ridley, PC and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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