Are You A Goldfish In A Shark Tank? Things Every Lawyer Should Know When Getting Started.

By at 13 December, 2007, 10:30 am

For new lawyers, trying to learn the ins and outs of practicing law, office politics and dealing with clients is something they just don’t really prepare you for in law school.  I remember back in March 1989 when I started with the firm of Alexander & Cicero, P.C. in Rockford, Illinois. I figured I’d be mentored by one of the firm’s partners who would “show me the ropes” and work with me over a period of time to get acclimated to the firm and practice law, think of this as the “Cinderella” view. What I got was the “Matrix” – I reported on my first day and Cinderella was left laying in the gutter, crushed and bleeding. I spent the next 2 ½ days following around the collections partner who we came to call the “Warden” because he walked around like a prison guard making sure all of the prisoners (i.e. anyone who wasn’t a partner) didn’t talk or spend anytime not in their cell (I mean cubicle/office). On day three, I was handed a number of files and told to head to McHenry County on my own. That was it, that was my training – 2 ½ days and it was sink or swim time.

The one thing I knew was that there was a lot that I didn’t know. We had a saying in the Army “That which does not kill us only makes us stronger, and it looked like I was going to be trying to survive just to collect my first pay check. I now describe this as being like a "goldfish in a shark tank." I was the goldfish and the courts and the clients were the shark tank. I was going to have to swim pretty fast to avoid being eaten.  If I was able to pick up the necessary skills and conditioning I’d be able to out swim the sharks and I'd survive.  I ended up having a few bites taken out of my posterior, but I learned to swim fast enough to avoid the sharks and become integrated into the firm.  I don't recommend this approach for others, which raises the question: where can you turn for tips and tricks to help you navigate the shark tank when you are getting started.

Young lawyers today have a wealth of resources that they can turn to including practice management programs provided by state bar associations such as mine at the State Bar of Wisconsin, Oklahoma’s, Florida and others (for a full list of these programs throughout the US and Canada click here); the American Bar Association, books such as Jay Foonberg’s How to Start and Build a Law Practice, The Curmudgeon's Guide to Practicing Law, bar association magazine articles and blogs.  Sometimes the best advice is the simplest and doesn't require hundreds of pages to convey. While I may not agree with everything found in these books and articles, I always find some useful information that I know that if I would have had it back when I first started practicing law, life would have been much easier.  One example of this is a recent article by attorney David Dummer in the Texas lawyer titled "10 Survival Tips for New Associates"

Attorney Dummer has several good points, and I especially like his first three tips:

1. Don't be afraid to be a new associate. While being prepared is incredibly important, it is OK not to know everything — no one does. Supervising attorneys know that new associates need training. A first-year associate who is uncertain about an assignment should ask questions and seek clarification. Specific, thoughtful inquiries demonstrate attention to the matter at hand and a recognition of one's limits as a brand-new practitioner.

2. Managing supervisors' expectations is half the battle. An important aspect of new associates' jobs is understanding the scope of assignments and meeting deadlines. But projects can take on lives of their own. One lawyer may ask for a deposition outline in one case, while another asks for a response to a temporary restraining order in another. Don't rush to complete both projects when the allotted time makes competently doing so impossible. Keep supervising attorneys aware of time-management obstacles and other issues as they come up, so they can adjust staffing, deadlines and expectations. That kind of open dialogue leads them to perceive the new associate as responsible and prepared rather than sloppy and delinquent.

3. Learn to work with assistants, paralegals and support staff. New lawyers often are used to doing everything themselves, and they fail to utilize the many resources available at their firms. Every person at a firm plays an important role, and developing a strong working relationship with others in the office is critical to a successful career. Partners want to work with associates who complete projects efficiently. Someone who performs administrative tasks rather than utilizing an assistant will spend more time on projects than his or her peers — resulting in a competitive disadvantage.

Clients will not pay for the time it takes an associate to type, organize files and manage his or her calendar, and an assistant does a better job of those things. In fact, in the beginning, the assistants and paralegals probably know more about the practice of law than the associate does. They are also familiar with the resources and experts within the firm that can make the associate's life easier. For example, they will know when the last mail leaves for the day, how to format a pleading, whether a particular partner hates staples and who can fix computers. Taking advantage of their expertise and services will make you a better lawyer.


Too often, new attorneys are afraid to ask for help when they don't understand some aspect of the case or when they're given tasks that can be completed in the time specified.  You are better to seek clarification or assistance, than to blissfully precede in ignorance and make either the client or the firm look bad because of your lack of understanding or knowledge.

Another terrific resource is the 63 page book authored by attorney Bradley A. Winters of Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal, LLP in St. Louis titled The 48 Secret Rules of Lawyering.  Attorney Winter’s book provides straightforward and helpful advice and tips that should be mandatory reading for every new lawyer.  Broken down into 48 rules, his advice stands the test of time and is well explained by examples throughout the publication.  He starts off with Rule 1- RETURN YOUR PHONE CALLS AND E-MAILS.  NOW!: this is a piece of advice that you need to learn from the very beginning of your career as failing to do this is one of the greatest causes for client dissatisfaction and complaints. 

Another very appropriate rule is a Rule 14- YOU HAVE TWO EARS AND ONE MOUTH.  USE THEM IN THAT RATIO.  Attorney Winters writes that "… it may [be] the best advice in this book" and based on my years of legal practice and experience, I have to agree: this may be the best piece of advice any new lawyer can receive.  In a relatively short period of time you'll find that you have read through all 48 of his rules and if you're like me, you will be saying to yourself "I wish I had this when I started practicing law". 

Another relatively quick read is Herrmann's The Curmudgeon's Guide to Practicing Law which weighs in at 135 pages.  Written from the perspective of the hypothetical Curmudgeon, a senior partner in a law firm tasked with getting a new associate up to speed, the book tries to focus on the key areas that the Curmudgeon believes are the most important for new lawyers.  In Chapter 3- What They Didn't Tell You in Law School, the Curmudgeon points out some of the things they fail to teach you a law school including what he calls “forbidden” arguments:

Law schools also do not warn you about the arguments that are true, but forbidden to be made.  In the context of a motion for change of venue, for example, one possible transferee judge may have had a long and distinguished career in private practice and since become an immensely well-respected judge.  Another possible transferee judge may have had a short career as a dog-catcher before being elected to the bench last month because his surname rhymes with that of the local football hero.

In that situation, you may be tempted to explain, accurately, that the former judge would have the capacity to understand and handle your case appropriately, while the later judge is a train wreck waiting to happen.  Don't you dare!  Courts cling mightily to the legal fiction that all judges are created equal.  These are the true words that you may not speak in court: Some judges are better than others.

Another piece of sage advice can be found in Chapter 11-The Curmudgeon on Clients, when dealing with the issue of illegal or unethical requests by clients and how to determine if something is unethical.  Here's what the Curmudgeon has to say on these types of clients:

And we have clients who ask us to do things that are illegal or unethical.  Those are the easiest clients of all: Insist that they do what's right. If they won't, fire'em.

Here's our code of ethics: If it turns your stomach even a little bit, don't do it.

This is often difficult especially for someone who hangs out their shingle immediately after law school and is watching the bills pile up; however, if you follow these two pieces of advice from the Curmudgeon, you will be much better off. Life is too short to represent clients that want you to cross over the line for them.

While I may not agree with everything advocated by the Curmudgeon for new attorneys, the majority of the advice is sound and worth reading.

These are just a few examples of where lawyers can turn for advice and tips to improve their practice and should be something that every lawyer finds time to read. So what are you waiting on, get reading: self-improvement never stops.

Categories : Hmmm! | Practice Management | Tips and Tricks

Isabella Aguilar October 25, 2010

Great article! Thanks for the time. Keep up the good work. This is so informative.

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