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Letters to a new lawyer: Some general advice

October 27, 2010
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Indiana Lawyer Commentary

By Donald D. Doxsee, Esq.

Just prior to my graduation from law school over 45 years ago I received a complimentary booklet from the West Publishing Company entitled “Letters of a Lawyer to his Son” by Ewart Harris. I found it helpful in starting my practice. The law has changed a great deal since I received that booklet. I thought it might be useful to the starting lawyer today for a new set of letters. Indiana Lawyer will contact lawyers around the state and ask them to write a letter of advice they would give the new lawyer on their area of the practice of law. Like all advice you should take from it what is useful to you. We hope you find the series helpful.

You either have or you are about to enter a proud and honorable profession with a long history going back hundreds of years. I have often joked with my medical friends that the law was a learned profession when their predecessors were still cutting hair and putting leaches on people (the red and white barber pole of the middle ages indicated that it was a place where one could get medical attention). Some people will quote to you the line from Shakespeare’s “King Henry VII,” “The first thing we do is kill all the lawyers.” You should remind them that Shakespeare put these words into the mouth of a villain attempting to seize power illegally. Our profession stands as the guardians of the rule of law and the protectors of rights.

As you enter the practice you will have to decide how you want to practice. This may involve some trial and error in your early practice as you find out what you like and what you do not like to do. You may wish to put out your own shingle and practice solo, join a small firm, join a large firm, work for a corporation, or become a government attorney. You may also decide that you want a general practice or you may wish to specialize. Later letters will cover many of these types of practice.

Whatever you do, I cannot stress too forcefully to be polite, kind and considerate of other people–not just to those in your profession. Just because you are now a lawyer, you are not that special. In conversations with court staff, court reporters and workers in the court clerks’ offices and other non-lawyers, I have learned to my surprise that a few attorneys who have always been polite to me are rude and demanding of them. I learned early in my practice how important it is to be polite and admit that you are not sure of the proper form or procedure. I spent a few years working in the Office of the Indiana Secretary of State and observed that attorneys who tried to bluff their way with staff in filing papers which were clearly wrong got sent back to their offices to do them right. However, I saw clerks actually re-typing papers for those who were polite and admitted they were not sure they were using the proper form.

Regardless of how you practice, your word in this profession is your bond. If you say you will do something, do it. If you tell another attorney you will provide him or her with copies of certain documents, provide them. If you tell the court a fact or cite a case in support of your argument, make sure it is true. If you do not, it quickly gets around the profession and the courts that you are not trustworthy. You will run into attorneys who are either forgetful or dishonest in keeping their word. You will quickly become aware of them and deal with them according: with the former, by a written reminder and with the latter by the use of the discovery procedures in the court rules.

In Harris’ letters to his son he recommended keeping three records. I found this advice to be very useful. One is a list of all your current files with notes on what needs to be done next and any deadline dates. The second is a full page day calendar of all your appointments on which you should also note the days on which filing, court and other deadlines fall. Finally a pocket calendar you carry with you that has all your trial and hearing dates. Today, of course, the computer literate carry with them a little pocket computer in which you have downloaded all of that information. I keep my list of current cases up to date and review it frequently. This helps me avoid missing court dates and deadlines.

In your spare time, read the advance sheets or other service that advise you of recent state appellate court decisions. Also, in your computer, keep notes on cases and statute citations that you find important in your areas of practice. I started this early in my practice when I discovered that could not find cases I had recalled reading about. I keep all the notes in a single computer document by subject matter. This allows me to do a computer word search as well as a subject search. Before computers, I kept this in a notebook, but computers are better. My first note was the citation to the deadman statute, because my statute books at that time did not index the citation under that term and I had trouble finding it before putting it in my notes.

While the law is a means to earning your living and supporting your family, you must always remember that your professional obligation is to your client first and earning money is second. Some of your work will be pro bono and some of it may end up becoming pro bono. Always give your client the advice he needs, not the advice that will make you money.

The law is a demanding profession both in time and in intellect. Lawyers seem to have higher divorce rates than the public at large. Make sure your spouse understands the demands of the profession, but also make time for your family and to have interests outside the law.•

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Donald Doxsee is a 1963 graduate of the Indiana University School of Law, a past president of the Allen County Bar Association and is in the private practice of law in the association of Williams Williams & Doxsee. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s.

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