Sommers and Willard: Pointers from the ’prentice and the practiced

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By Joanne R. Sommers and Theresa M. Willard

Congratulations! You’ve graduated from law school, passed the bar exam, and are sworn into the Indiana Bar. So … now what? What does it take to be a successful practicing attorney?

When we sat down to write this article, we thought it would be interesting to compare the perspective of a young attorney with that of a — ahem — less young attorney. But the more we discussed it, the more we realized that there isn’t much of a gap between our generations after all. So here we offer just a few of our collective thoughts and suggestions about the adventure ahead.

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• Work hard. Seems obvious, we know, but it’s too important not to mention. Working hard and being productive makes us feel good emotionally and psychologically, it helps us learn our craft and become comfortable in the practice of law more quickly, and it allows us to bestserve our clients and our colleagues.

• Civility is more than a buzzword. Be respectful — to the court, court staff, your own colleagues and support staff, opposing counsel — anyone with whom you interact in the course of your day. It’s the right thing to do, it enhances your personal and professional reputation, and it costs you nothing. Zealously advocate for your clients, but do so in a way that does not degrade the profession. If opposing counsel has behaved unprofessionally, do not respond in kind or by attacking their civility. Instead, win by focusing on the merits of your case. If you receive a ruling from the court that you do not agree with, accept the order with grace but fight vigorously on appeal. The merits — not snarky comments — win cases. And never, ever, demean the people who work for you.

• Good mentors are invaluable. Both of us have benefited and still benefit from relationships with more senior members of the profession who generously offer wisdom, guidance, understanding, and advice on everything from legal concepts and rules, to practice in the private versus public sector, to finding work-life balance. Cultivate and appreciate those relationships. And when you have the opportunity, mentor the next class of lawyers.

• The most effective marketing is excellent work. There are a lot of ways to advertise and grow your legal practice, such as writing, speaking, networking, and social media. Some will be a better fit for you than others. But when it comes to business development, there is no substitute for doing good work.

• Embrace failure, avoid disaster. Not every failure is a disaster. The first few years of practice can be, well, terrifying, because pretty much every task is a first. You will make mistakes; we all do. But you will also learn from those mistakes. Don’t be so terrified of failing that you don’t take ownership of the task before you. Remember, preparation can be the most effective confidence booster. Also, don’t be afraid to ask questions. No one expects you to know everything. The most experienced attorneys we know still ask questions. Of course, recognize when you are patently outside of your knowledge and comfort zone and seek help (potentially from your mentor) when you are in this dangerous territory.

• Give back. Take on pro bono clients. We have a responsibility to help those who most need, but can least afford, legal representation. Besides being the right thing to do, pro bono matters offer opportunities to learn and to take the lead on a case — opportunities you may not otherwise immediately have as a newer attorney. And you never know, a pro bono representation may lead to a paying client down the road.

• Nurture the relationships in your life. Sometimes we can get pretty wrapped up in our work, our deadlines, our case management, our business development, our career progression. The law, like most professions, can be stressful and all-consuming if we let it. Don’t. The people who count on you to be part of their lives need your time and attention, too. Tend to those relationships carefully and constantly. Do not let yourself lose sight of them.

People say the practice of law is changing rapidly and that being an attorney “isn’t what it used to be, back in my day.” But both of us, despite our generation gap, agree that the above tips for building a successful life and career as an attorney have remained constant. Welcome to all our newly sworn lawyers, and best of luck as you begin your careers. You’ve got this!•


Joanne R. Sommers is an associate and Theresa M. Willard is a partner at Plews Shadley Raucher & Braun LLP. The opinions expressed are those of the authors.

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