By Barath S. Raman
First and foremost, congratulations to those who just graduated from law school. After passing the bar exam, many of you will embark on your journey as a newly-licensed practicing attorney in Indiana. I graduated from Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law in May of 2014. It is hard to believe that nearly four years have passed since I walked across the stage, received my diploma, passed the bar exam and started practicing law at Lewis Wagner LLP. While I have had some success during the early stages of my legal career, I have also made my fair share of mistakes. However, as with anything in life, my success is dependent on my ability to learn and grow from each misstep along the way. Given this information, I wanted to provide new lawyers, especially those who just graduated from law school, with some tips that I believe are critical to hit the ground running.
Work product — challenge yourself
When I started at Lewis Wagner, the most critical piece of advice I received was to focus on my work product. The marketing, business development and community involvement would follow in due time. While this may sound obvious, as a new lawyer, my mind raced on how I could build my book of business from day one and bring in a client within my first year. However, the most important client that a new lawyer will have in the first few years of practice are the senior associates, partners or direct supervisors you will work for. The better your work product, the more “repeat business” and, more importantly, trust you will earn from your supervisors.
Here are some practical tips to keep in mind as a new lawyer: Your work product likely will be used in either court pleadings and/or status updates to provide to a client. Do not believe that your work product is merely being used to “educate or inform” the senior associate, partner and/or direct supervisor on what the issues are in a matter. Your work product should be good enough that your supervisor can utilize your analysis to forward to the client.
Additionally, contemplate any follow-up questions your supervisor may have as it relates to your analysis, and pre-emptively address them in your work product. Don’t wait for your supervisor to raise issues with your analysis that you could have addressed. For example, analyze (or at least research) the exceptions to a rule that you believe governs the underlying issues in a lawsuit and/or anticipate and address what you believe opposing counsel’s response may be to your analysis. This will show your supervising attorney that you have carefully thought about the issues, evaluated the alternative arguments and have gone beyond “surface level” issue-spotting, which is ultimately what clients most value.
The easiest tip to improve your work product is to always proofread your work before you submit it to your supervisor. As a practice tip, you can ask your legal assistant to help proofread your work product before you submit it to your supervisor.
As a new lawyer, everything initially will be challenging and novel. However, as the years pass, eventually you will probably develop a niche or a specialization in a specific area of law, and what you once considered novel could become routine. When you find this happening, if possible, seek out work from attorneys in different practice areas. By exposing yourself to different areas of law, you not only challenge your mind and combat boredom, you become a well-rounded attorney.
In a profession inherently adversarial and argumentative, civility goes a long way toward a new lawyer’s reputation in the community. It has been ingrained in me from the likes of Robert Wagner, John Trimble and Tom Hays that civility among lawyers — especially in Indianapolis, where the community is incredibly small — is critical, not only for a lawyer’s reputation, but also for your client. A common mistake for new lawyers is to come out with “guns blazing” and send overly stern and aggressively worded emails, or to make meaningless objections during depositions or hearings. I get it — as a new lawyer, you immediately want to end the perception that you can be “taken advantage of,” given your lack of experience. However, as a new lawyer, you should refrain from these tactics unless necessary. Through the years, I have realized that being polite, civil and personable has made my practice much more enjoyable and has also yielded great results for my clients. There are a handful of cases that I have been involved in where civility among the attorneys has been placed on the “back burner.” Ultimately, those cases have been more difficult, less enjoyable and made me question the practice.
Keeping perspective is critical for new lawyers to understand how and why civility is important. Ultimately, as lawyers, we represent our clients’ respective positions and desires. Nothing more than that. By taking personal exception to another attorney, you have lost sight of the underlying reason why you are involved in the case in the first place. There is a line between zealous advocacy and civility that is often blurred by new (and even seasoned) lawyers. In my practice, I try to refrain from referring to opposing counsel directly in either brief writing or oral arguments. It is either your client’s position/argument or the opposing party’s position/argument.
The importance for a new lawyer to find a mentor cannot be overstated. The legal profession is vastly different from law school. Trying to navigate the challenges of being a new lawyer can be difficult, and therein lies the value of a mentor. The question I hear most is, “How to do I get a mentor?” Often, the best mentor/mentee relationships develop organically either through your own firm/entity, bar associations and/or other nonlegal organizations. Otherwise, as a new lawyer, you have to put yourself out there and not be afraid to initiate the relationship or reach out to others that you may not know. Easier said than done. However, I have found that our profession understands the value of a mentor and seasoned attorneys are genuinely interested in helping the new generation of lawyers. When reaching out to mentors to develop a mentor/mentee relationship, be persistent. During the early stages of a mentor/mentee relationship, the frequency of meetings and the overall responsiveness from the mentor may be lacking (I am guilty of this). Instead of giving up on a promising relationship, new lawyers should understand that persistence is critical to ensure that a one-time coffee or lunch session develops into a meaningful relationship.
Finally, as a new lawyer, remember to “pay it back.” I was recently told this by a one of my colleagues, and it has truly resonated. You will one day find yourself four years removed from law school. At that point, remember the difficulties you endured while trying to navigate the first few years of your practice. So when a new lawyer persistently reaches out to you for advice, try your hardest to give back to that person and your profession.•
• Barath S. Raman is an associate at Lewis Wagner LLP, where he practices in the defense of personal injury, product liability, construction accident and defect, and environmental insurance coverage cases. The opinions expressed are those of the author.