A Message to Young Lawyers: Ten Things About the Practice of Law Somebody Should Have Told Me Thirty Years Ago
David W. Henry, Esq.
Guest Column // The Briefs // August 2020, Vol. 88 No. 7
Some time ago, I was asked to speak to the Young Lawyers Section of the Orange County Bar Association. I called the talk, “Ten Things I Wish Someone Would Have Told Me Thirty Years Ago.” This article flows from that presentation. Balancing work, family, personal interests, fitness, and other commitments is hard, and most commentators now suggest “balance” is probably the wrong word. My own experience for thirty years in practice was only as a litigator and now civil mediator, so my perspective is necessarily through that lens. I think litigators have a tougher time than most because they are at the mercy of court-imposed deadlines and must react to often frustrating or problematic conduct by others, resulting in constantly changing work-related priorities. My thoughts are intended to be of some modest help to newer attorneys in any practice area—although some of this material could apply to lawyers at any stage of their career.
- Play when you play and work when you work. Being absolutely focused in every moment is one of the biggest challenges. Be present for spouses and children. Litigation and the law—in an age of cell phones and tablets—is far too attention-grabbing and fixating. Manage your client’s expectations. Immediate responses are not required except for medical emergencies and fires. Stop checking email constantly. Limiting your after-hours phone calls to true emergencies is not a sign of mental illness nor is it rude. We practiced law and made a living without smart phones and instantaneous responses for decades. The clients were fine. We made money. Constant electronic stimuli lead to shallow thinking and stress; you must get off the hamster wheel.
- The “staff” matters. Serial abusers of staff pay the price. Make your staff part of the sales equation. Hire quality people, pay a decent wage, and pay attention to their needs.
- Continue to look for work that pays better and that you enjoy. It sounds simple, but you never know what you might like until you try it. Only after you look around should you then focus on becoming intellectually expert in something that people will pay for. Having expertise is attractive to clients, and leveraging expertise is enjoyable and usually profitable. Chasing low-dollar high-volume work is very hard and so is trying to know it all.
- Stay fit and healthy. It is a marathon not a sprint. Clients normally do not want to hire out-of-shape lumps of clay who smoke cigarettes, and your family deserves better, too. You had to work hard to become a lawyer, and your station warrants better care of yourself.
- For goodness sake, read something other than advance sheets and bar news, and listen to something other than podcasts about serial killers. There is a ton of good content available through podcasts, and used bookstores are an amazing repository of great books you cannot find on Kindle. My podcast subscriptions include Hidden Brain, This American Life, Freakonomics Radio, Against the Rules, and anything by Malcolm Gladwell.
- If you are representing new clients, and particularly those of modest means, get a retainer and do not finance the client’s legal needs or litigation. It is better to decline work than accept a sketchy client; that leads to an uncollectible bill. You must know when to say “no.” There are also clients who present with a strange problem outside your skill set for which you should occasionally decline representation. Giving a referral of work that lies outside your skill set might lead to a reciprocal referral of a matter that is within your wheelhouse.
- If you have corporate or institutional clients, go and meet the people you represent (when COVID wanes). Email introductions are a poor substitute for face time. Everybody likes professionals who make “house calls” no matter what kind. It is hard to get new business or referrals if you have never met in person. You are more likely to get paid if the client sees you as a person and not just as an email address.
- Watch out for those who think success at a firm is a zero-sum game and that there is only so much success that can be shared. The rising tide lifts all boats. Beware of those who think they cannot share the limelight lest their own luster be diminished. Most every firm has one of those people.
- Get out of dysfunctional law firms and companies quickly. Almost no one who ever left said they made a mistake leaving early. Talk to other professionals if you have concerns so you can get some perspective on your situation. Loyalty is important but so is leaving organizations that lack vision and are poorly managed. On the flip side, be careful about moving to a new position just to chase a few more dollars.
- Keep your monthly living expenses or footprint to a minimum and, in return for a frugal lifestyle, treat yourself, spouse, or family to occasional special events or trips. You or a spouse will likely want to change jobs at some point, and one of you may need to take a pay cut in the short term. A small footprint gives you flexibility and freedom. Avoid high-end automobiles and car payments like the plague. A car is transportation not a reflection of self-worth. If you someday plan a trip on a cruise ship, always book a room with an outside balcony. If you cannot afford a balcony, do not go. Interior staterooms on a boat reflect no light—only bad judgment.
In addition to these specific thoughts, I have always believed that law is a collegial endeavor and I never wanted to practice law alone. If you do not have one or more colleagues, find someone who does what you do or at least understands it. Utilize available mentorships and get as many informal advisors as you can. It helps to have another set of eyes on your path, plans, and problems, or you can do what I did and marry a smart, kind, and insightful person who happens to be a lawyer.
David W. Henry, Esq., Henry Mediation P.A., has been a member of the OCBA since 1995.