Advice for the Recent Law Graduate

Now that the bar exam is done, new grads are either looking for work, or about to start, or looking for tasseled loafers.

And, just like that, this email on the subject came into me yesterday with a relatively simply query:

If you find any time at all, I would love to hear any and all advice you would give to a recent law graduate in my situation with my goals.

My first bit of advice, of course, is to stay away from tasseled loafers. But while I’ve given advice on how to dress in the past, I don’t think that’s why my correspondent corresponded with me.

Since the type of situation/goals that the writer described in his email is my field of law I could probably write a few thousand words. Which most of you won’t read and which wouldn’t appeal at all to the non-PI lawyer readers.

So I’ll give the broader answer, for all recent grads, assuming that they have actually found a position in a significantly difficult job environment for lawyers.

And here is the nutshell version: Find a good mentor.

I write from experience. When I had my first job — after taking the bar in the summer of 1985, and finding out my results had been lost — I went to work for Fuchsberg & Fuchsberg, a large personal injury firm. Large, in a field known for solo and small practices, means about 30 lawyers or so.

I was told, when I started to work, that my secretary made more than I did. She was, after all, a hell of a lot more valuable to the firm than a know-nothing first year associate who had yet to be sworn in.

And my first supervising attorney had this to say when I started:

“For the first year, there are no stupid questions.”

And that statement was, I think, one of the best things that ever happened to me in my training. I was told, quite bluntly, to ask and re-ask and learn. Telling me that there was no such thing as a stupid question inoculated me, psychologically, from the fear of asking what I thought were really stupid questions, the answers to which everyone must know. Even if they just pretended to know.

Sure, you can read a book and get tips on taking depositions. You can take a class on trial tactics. There are form books to work from in drafting complaints and bills of particulars.

But the practice of law is a million other little things to go with it. Trying to figure out  which clerks to go to to present an order to show cause, for instance, and in which order to see them, is a different kettle of fish. (Clerk one approves paper, clerk two takes money, back to clerk one to file papers, return at another time to get order, bring copy to conform your copy to original, etc. Of course, if there is no existing proceeding, you may need a completely different process. Etc., again.)

Learning how the machinery of the courthouse works, and the constant changes amid jurisdictions and how they interrelate (or not) to the actual substance of what you are lawyering about, is a never-ending process. At many firms, lawyers never learn this stuff as it is relegated to clerks, which is to say, they don’t always know how things are getting done, which is usually important if the statutory clock is ticking on a matter.

There will be a gazillion questions to ask, and the focus of the young lawyer should be to find the mentor who is open to hearing all manner of questions, foolish or not, and lets you ask those question without looking down at you.

In fact, for those who are in a supervisory position, it’s the best thing you can do for the newbie lawyer; keeping the door open to all manner of questions, no matter how trite they may seem. If there is a fear of asking questions — because the young lawyer is afraid of looking ignorant — then the mentoring process has completely failed. Big time.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that the supervisor has to give THE answer, but at least direct the young lawyer as to how to find the answer. Directing someone toward a small book on differing municipal statutes of limitations and where service can be made, or to an authoritative text on obstetrics and gynecology, can open whole new doors of learning. That which is routine for the old-timer can be bewildering for the newcomer.

And that is the best advice I can give to the new grad. And the supervising attorney. Get a good mentor. Or be a good mentor. And forget the tassels.

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8 Responses Leave a comment

  • Richard Hershberger 2012.8.14 at 13:07 | Quote

    In addition, they assigned you that well-paid experienced secretary for a reason. At a minimum it was to keep an eye on deadlines to protect their malpractice premiums. But experienced support staff have seen and done a lot over the years. An experienced paralegal can help with matters such as drafting complaints, motions practice, legal research, and just generally bouncing around ideas. (Full disclosure: I am a paralegal. I do all those things with my boss. I have had other bosses who would never think to discuss such things with support staff.)

  • Eric Turkewitz 2012.8.14 at 13:18 | Quote

    In addition, they assigned you that well-paid experienced secretary for a reason.

    You are absolutely correct. And another reason it was important was because, when I came on board, each of the other lawyers in the malpractice unit was told to give me a few of their files…and they got to pick.

  • TouroGrad 2012.8.14 at 14:07 | Quote

    I’m a relatively new lawyer and one of the things I did a few months ago was I compiled a table of all of the block quotes I had used, cited and broken down by topic so that I don’t waste time researching things twice. It also cuts down on me asking repetitive questions because I have case law on most of the recurring problems that we deal with.

  • Eric Turkewitz 2012.8.14 at 14:24 | Quote

    I did a few months ago was I compiled a table of all of the block quotes I had used, cited and broken down by topic so that I don’t waste time researching things twice.

    Just be careful that the stuff is still current when it gets used three years from now. :)

  • TouroGrad 2012.8.14 at 14:36 | Quote

    Of course, but it makes ongoing research a lot faster too. Some of it the courts have been giving consistent decisions for a hundred and sixty years, and I still research it every time it comes up and add a case or two to my table.

  • Jordan Rushie 2012.8.18 at 00:18 | Quote

    True story…

    “Hey Turk, it’s Rushie.”
    “What’s up, man?”
    “Can I ask you something?”
    “Sure, what’s up?”
    “I really like making objections in court. They sound so lawyerly, like on Law and Order, you know? But when I make them, I feel like the judges get mad at me. Can you teach me how to make really cool objections?”
    [click]

  • Eric Turkewitz 2012.8.18 at 06:35 | Quote

    Rushie has obviously confused me with Greenfield.

  • David Hussey 2012.8.18 at 09:40 | Quote

    Questions need to be addressed properly for newbies lest they loose their vision and tread another path that may not take them anywhere. Its a common problem where senior attorneys make statements to their juniors not to ask stupid questions whereas the reality is that asking questions is an integral part in the practice of law.

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