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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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  1. IF the Right to Vote is indeed a Right, then it is a RIGHT. That is the same for ALL eligible and properly registered voters. And this is, being able to cast one's vote - until the minute before the polls close in one's assigned precinct. NOT days before by absentee ballot, and NOT 9 miles from one's house (where it might be a burden to get to in time). I personally wait until the last minute to get in line. Because you never know what happens. THAT is my right, and that is Mr. Valenti's. If it is truly so horrible to let him on school grounds (exactly how many children are harmed by those required to register, on school grounds, on election day - seriously!), then move the polling place to a different location. For ALL voters in that precinct. Problem solved.

  2. "associates are becoming more mercenary. The path to partnership has become longer and more difficult so they are chasing short-term gains like high compensation." GOOD FOR THEM! HELL THERE OUGHT TO BE A UNION!

  3. Let's be honest. A glut of lawyers out there, because law schools have overproduced them. Law schools dont care, and big law loves it. So the firms can afford to underpay them. Typical capitalist situation. Wages have grown slowly for entry level lawyers the past 25 years it seems. Just like the rest of our economy. Might as well become a welder. Oh and the big money is mostly reserved for those who can log huge hours and will cut corners to get things handled. More capitalist joy. So the answer coming from the experts is to "capitalize" more competition from nonlawyers, and robots. ie "expert systems." One even hears talk of "offshoring" some legal work. thus undercutting the workers even more. And they wonder why people have been pulling for Bernie and Trump. Hello fools, it's not just the "working class" it's the overly educated suffering too.

  4. And with a whimpering hissy fit the charade came to an end ... http://baltimore.cbslocal.com/2016/07/27/all-charges-dropped-against-all-remaining-officers-in-freddie-gray-case/ WHISTLEBLOWERS are needed more than ever in a time such as this ... when politics trump justice and emotions trump reason. Blue Lives Matter.

  5. "pedigree"? I never knew that in order to become a successful or, for that matter, a talented attorney, one needs to have come from good stock. What should raise eyebrows even more than the starting associates' pay at this firm (and ones like it) is the belief systems they subscribe to re who is and isn't "fit" to practice law with them. Incredible the arrogance that exists throughout the practice of law in this country, especially at firms like this one.

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