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Letters to a New Lawyer: Building blocks for a successful legal career

February 16, 2011
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LetYoungLawHollingsworthAfter practicing law for nearly four decades, it is a joy to share some thoughts with new lawyers who are beginning their practice. These universal principles should provide building blocks for a successful legal career whether you are in private practice, a corporation, or government service.

1. Be inquisitive. One of the most enjoyable and helpful times in the practice of law is to talk over an issue or a sticky problem with another lawyer. It is amazing how fruitful a short discussion of ideas can be to give you assurance and confidence that you are on the right track. It also helps you avoid tunnel vision or a pitfall by missing an important point. Find a colleague where you work who will mentor you and who is willing to be your sounding board. This process is not confined to new lawyers. I still ask other attorneys in my firm for their input on a case, and I greatly appreciate their feedback and insights in working out a difficult issue. If you are in a solo practice or lack an internal mentor, take advantage of the mentoring program of the Indiana State Bar Association. Visit the ISBA website at www.inbar.org and select the Mentor Match option in the drop-down under ISBA Links. You will be glad you did.

2. Be prepared and be particular. “Winging it” in court, writing letters, drafting contracts, or taking depositions usually leads to trouble. Study your task and devote enough time to it to properly represent your client. Handle every matter entrusted to you with thoroughness and professional preparation. Sloppy work product with typing errors, spelling errors, grammatical mistakes, wrong facts or law, and poor appearance of the document will turn off judges, your clients, your assigning attorney, and your opposing party. Value your work product enough to proofread and cross-check again and again. If your task involves writing, remember the axiom of the late Paul H. Buchanan, judge of the Indiana Court of Appeals: “There is no such thing as good writing; there is only good re-writing.”

3. Be proactive. Respond promptly to all inquiries whether they are from your clients, your partners, the court, or other lawyers. Ignoring inquiries or phone calls just makes matters worse. You are better off communicating that you have not finished a task or do not yet have an answer than keeping the other party guessing in the dark. Remember the advice your mother gave you to do the hard stuff first. Often, a new attorney’s nightmare is the case or assignment that has been sitting on the desk far too long. This sage advice from Warren Buffett is posted on my computer: “One’s objective should be to get it right, get it out, and get it over. You see, your problem won’t improve with age.”

4. Be actively involved in bar organizations and a charitable or community organization. One of the most rewarding and career-enhancing things you can do is to be an active member of bar organizations. In Indiana, we are fortunate to have strong bar organizations such as the Indianapolis Bar Association, your local county bar association, the Indiana State Bar Association, the Defense Trial Counsel of Indiana, and the Indiana Trial Lawyers Association. They have sections and committees in many specific areas of practice where you will meet and work with other attorneys in similar practices. In some committees, you will meet attorneys with different specialties that you might otherwise never have the opportunity to know. It doesn’t do you much good to be a member of these bars unless you are willing to devote time to committee and section work. That is where you meet people, establish lasting relationships, become known to other members of the bar and, as a consequence, enhance your reputation. If your time permits, try to be active in at least one community or charitable organization. You will provide a service to the public good as well as become acquainted with some amazing people in the process.

5. Be courteous. Consistently be polite in your dealings with everyone: the court, the court staff, your clients, your firm’s administrative staff, and opposing attorneys. Act with dignity, civility, decency, and courtesy in all your professional activities and refrain from rude, disruptive, disrespectful, obstructive, and abusive behavior. Remember, it is possible to disagree without being disagreeable. Dr. Albert Schweitzer wrote: “Constant kindness can accomplish much. As the sun makes ice melt, kindness causes misunderstanding, mistrust, and hostility to evaporate.”

You will be well served in your new legal career by keeping these principles in mind.•

__________

Martha
Schmidt Hollingsworth is a retired partner of Bingham McHale in Indianapolis, practicing complex litigation and insurance law for 38 years. She is a past president of Indiana University School of Law – Indianapolis Alumni Association and Defense Trial Counsel of Indiana and has served on the boards of the Indianapolis Bar Association and Indiana State Bar Association. Contact her at mhollingsworth@binghammchale.com. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s.

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  1. Frankly, it is tragic that you are even considering going to an expensive, unaccredited "law school." It is extremely difficult to get a job with a degree from a real school. If you are going to make the investment of time, money, and tears into law school, it should not be to a place that won't actually enable you to practice law when you graduate.

  2. As a lawyer who grew up in Fort Wayne (but went to a real law school), it is not that hard to find a mentor in the legal community without your school's assistance. One does not need to pay tens of thousands of dollars to go to an unaccredited legal diploma mill to get a mentor. Having a mentor means precisely nothing if you cannot get a job upon graduation, and considering that the legal job market is utterly terrible, these students from Indiana Tech are going to be adrift after graduation.

  3. 700,000 to 800,000 Americans are arrested for marijuana possession each year in the US. Do we need a new justice center if we decriminalize marijuana by having the City Council enact a $100 fine for marijuana possession and have the money go towards road repair?

  4. I am sorry to hear this.

  5. I tried a case in Judge Barker's court many years ago and I recall it vividly as a highlight of my career. I don't get in federal court very often but found myself back there again last Summer. We had both aged a bit but I must say she was just as I had remembered her. Authoritative, organized and yes, human ...with a good sense of humor. I also appreciated that even though we were dealing with difficult criminal cases, she treated my clients with dignity and understanding. My clients certainly respected her. Thanks for this nice article. Congratulations to Judge Barker for reaching another milestone in a remarkable career.

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