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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. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  2. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

  3. Diversity is important, but with some limitations. For instance, diversity of experience is a great thing that can be very helpful in certain jobs or roles. Diversity of skin color is never important, ever, under any circumstance. To think that skin color changes one single thing about a person is patently racist and offensive. Likewise, diversity of values is useless. Some values are better than others. In the case of a supreme court justice, I actually think diversity is unimportant. The justices are not to impose their own beliefs on rulings, but need to apply the law to the facts in an objective manner.

  4. Have been seeing this wonderful physician for a few years and was one of his patients who told him about what we were being told at CVS. Multiple ones. This was a witch hunt and they shold be ashamed of how patients were treated. Most of all, CVS should be ashamed for what they put this physician through. So thankful he fought back. His office is no "pill mill'. He does drug testing multiple times a year and sees patients a minimum of four times a year.

  5. Brian W, I fear I have not been sufficiently entertaining to bring you back. Here is a real laugh track that just might do it. When one is grabbed by the scruff of his worldview and made to choose between his Confession and his profession ... it is a not a hard choice, given the Confession affects eternity. But then comes the hardship in this world. Imagine how often I hear taunts like yours ... "what, you could not even pass character and fitness after they let you sit and pass their bar exam ... dude, there must really be something wrong with you!" Even one of the Bishop's foremost courtiers said that, when explaining why the RCC refused to stand with me. You want entertaining? How about watching your personal economy crash while you have a wife and five kids to clothe and feed. And you can't because you cannot work, because those demanding you cast off your Confession to be allowed into "their" profession have all the control. And you know that they are wrong, dead wrong, and that even the professional code itself allows your Faithful stand, to wit: "A lawyer may refuse to comply with an obligation imposed by law upon a good faith belief that no valid obligation exists. The provisions of Rule 1.2(d) concerning a good faith challenge to the validity, scope, meaning or application of the law apply to challenges of legal regulation of the practice of law." YET YOU ARE A NONPERSON before the BLE, and will not be heard on your rights or their duties to the law -- you are under tyranny, not law. And so they win in this world, you lose, and you lose even your belief in the rule of law, and demoralization joins poverty, and very troubling thoughts impeaching self worth rush in to fill the void where your career once lived. Thoughts you did not think possible. You find yourself a failure ... in your profession, in your support of your family, in the mirror. And there is little to keep hope alive, because tyranny rules so firmly and none, not the church, not the NGO's, none truly give a damn. Not even a new court, who pay such lip service to justice and ancient role models. You want entertainment? Well if you are on the side of the courtiers running the system that has crushed me, as I suspect you are, then Orwell must be a real riot: "There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always — do not forget this, Winston — always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever." I never thought they would win, I always thought that at the end of the day the rule of law would prevail. Yes, the rule of man's law. Instead power prevailed, so many rules broken by the system to break me. It took years, but, finally, the end that Dr Bowman predicted is upon me, the end that she advised the BLE to take to break me. Ironically, that is the one thing in her far left of center report that the BLE (after stamping, in red ink, on Jan 22) is uninterested in, as that the BLE and ADA office that used the federal statute as a sword now refuses to even dialogue on her dire prediction as to my fate. "C'est la vie" Entertaining enough for you, status quo defender?

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