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 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.•


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 The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s.


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  1. I think the cops are doing a great job locking up criminals. The Murder rates in the inner cities are skyrocketing and you think that too any people are being incarcerated. Maybe we need to lock up more of them. We have the ACLU, BLM, NAACP, Civil right Division of the DOJ, the innocent Project etc. We have court system with an appeal process that can go on for years, with attorneys supplied by the government. I'm confused as to how that translates into the idea that the defendants are not being represented properly. Maybe the attorneys need to do more Pro-Bono work

  2. We do not have 10% of our population (which would mean about 32 million) incarcerated. It's closer to 2%.

  3. If a class action suit or other manner of retribution is possible, count me in. I have email and voicemail from the man. He colluded with opposing counsel, I am certain. My case was damaged so severely it nearly lost me everything and I am still paying dearly.

  4. There's probably a lot of blame that can be cast around for Indiana Tech's abysmal bar passage rate this last February. The folks who decided that Indiana, a state with roughly 16,000 to 18,000 attorneys, needs a fifth law school need to question the motives that drove their support of this project. Others, who have been "strong supporters" of the law school, should likewise ask themselves why they believe this institution should be supported. Is it because it fills some real need in the state? Or is it, instead, nothing more than a resume builder for those who teach there part-time? And others who make excuses for the students' poor performance, especially those who offer nothing more than conspiracy theories to back up their claims--who are they helping? What evidence do they have to support their posturing? Ultimately, though, like most everything in life, whether one succeeds or fails is entirely within one's own hands. At least one student from Indiana Tech proved this when he/she took and passed the February bar. A second Indiana Tech student proved this when they took the bar in another state and passed. As for the remaining 9 who took the bar and didn't pass (apparently, one of the students successfully appealed his/her original score), it's now up to them (and nobody else) to ensure that they pass on their second attempt. These folks should feel no shame; many currently successful practicing attorneys failed the bar exam on their first try. These same attorneys picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and got back to the rigorous study needed to ensure they would pass on their second go 'round. This is what the Indiana Tech students who didn't pass the first time need to do. Of course, none of this answers such questions as whether Indiana Tech should be accredited by the ABA, whether the school should keep its doors open, or, most importantly, whether it should have even opened its doors in the first place. Those who promoted the idea of a fifth law school in Indiana need to do a lot of soul-searching regarding their decisions. These same people should never be allowed, again, to have a say about the future of legal education in this state or anywhere else. Indiana already has four law schools. That's probably one more than it really needs. But it's more than enough.

  5. This man Steve Hubbard goes on any online post or forum he can find and tries to push his company. He said court reporters would be obsolete a few years ago, yet here we are. How does he have time to search out every single post about court reporters and even spy in private court reporting forums if his company is so successful???? Dude, get a life. And back to what this post was about, I agree that some national firms cause a huge problem.