The practice of law is a large leap from the halls of law school. In law school, you focus on learning the black-letter law and do not frequently venture into the practical side of the law. Internships and externships help bridge that gap, but they do not quite provide the same experience as the actual practice of the law does. When I began writing this column, I reached out to friends from my law school class to gather a few of the common things we wish we had known when we first entered practice. After gathering suggestions, I decided to include the three most common and strongly held opinions. I hope that the below items can be helpful to other new attorneys starting out in practice.
1. Workplace culture is very important to consider
One of, if not the, most important things to take into consideration for any lawyer — especially new lawyers — is the workplace culture of any office or firm you join. A toxic workplace culture can make any position in a firm a living nightmare, regardless of whether you are working in the exact area of the law you dreamed of. Not every firm is a right fit for every new attorney. Ask questions regarding work-life balance and other important workplace culture questions during interviews. If you do not get answers to those questions, or get answers you do not like, that position may not be right for you. When considering positions, do not let workplace culture fall by the wayside in favor of compensation and area of expertise. If you hate going to work every morning, you will get burnt out and underperform for both the firm and, more importantly, your clients. Most importantly, if you hate your job, you will not be happy, and that discontent can harm both yourself and those around in your personal life.
2. Sometimes your clients may not tell you the whole truth and nothing but the truth
One of the harder things to learn, especially for new attorneys who are new to handling clients, is that clients will not always tell you the whole truth. Sometimes they may even outright lie to you. While we as attorneys have an obligation to believe our clients to a certain extent, it is also important to recognize when a client is either stretching the truth or lying to you to either benefit themselves or avoid a bad outcome in the matter you are handling. If you believe that a client may be doing either, do not confront the client about it, at least not right away. You should first talk to a partner or managing attorney about your concerns and ask for guidance on how to move forward. The answer may be that you need to talk to the client about the issue. But you should make sure any “confrontation” is sanctioned by a managing attorney. When that happens, be prepared for the client to get angry. I myself have been yelled at by a client over the phone for over an hour after telling a client I could no longer assist them after they had failed to provide information to me that they swore they had, and had ever-changing explanations as to why they could not provide it. Those conversations can be very hard, but be prepared to handle them, because at some point or another, they will come about.
3. Know the trial rules and your local rules
For my last tip, I highly recommend that you learn and understand the application of the Indiana Trial Rules and the local rules of any counties you are likely to practice in. You should not expect to know and remember every local rule for every county in Indiana, but you should at least have a grasp of the rules in the county where your office is located, as well as the counties where you or your firm do the most work. This may seem like an obvious tip, seeing how we spend so much time during law school learning the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. However, application of the Indiana Trial Rules is likely to be more common during your practice and does not seem to be taught like it should be. More than that, every county will have its own local rules that can have slight or significant variations you should know about. For example, Lake County has a local rule for marriage dissolution cases that requires the parties to provide financial disclosures to each other after the dissolution filing. Most of the other counties, if not all, do not have this requirement. If you did not know that and fail to do the disclosure, you could risk the ire of the judge. Knowing your Indiana Trial Rules and local rules can keep you out of a lot of unnecessary trouble.
Hopefully the above tips are helpful to new attorneys starting out in practice. Practicing law is both exhilarating and terrifying. There is no one perfect guide on how to do the job. The best we can do is pick up tips and tricks along the way. Never be afraid to ask for advice and tips from colleagues and partners. Most are more than happy to pass along the knowledge and wisdom they have acquired during their practices. Stay thirsty for learning, and some day you will be the one providing the tips and tricks.•
Harrison Metz is an associate at Sanders Pianowski LLP in Elkhart. Opinions expressed are those of the author.