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Everyday work practices and techniques for new lawyers

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The day to day life of a young lawyer is one of the aspects of the profession that is almost impossible to teach during the law school.  In my first post, I talked about working on your work product. While the nature of a specific practice will certainly impact the day to day work life of an attorney, there are practices and techniques that can increase your efficiency, output, and overall quality of life.  Building good work habits will save you time and frustration and create a positive perspective on your abilities.

Learn your negotiation approach
There are many functional and successful methods for negotiation, but not every style works for every lawyer.  For me, calm and measured communications is key to successful negotiations.  Learn and perfect what works for you in relation to your personality, your strengths and weaknesses, your type of legal practice, and the circumstances you encounter.

Establish your organizational approach
Much like negotiation approaches, there are many potential means of organization.  Again, the key is to find what works on a personal level.  Regardless of which approach to organization an attorney selects, organization is fundamental in keeping your practice in order and addressing obligations in a timely manner.  Some attorneys are naturally organized and will intuitively keep their practice in order, but many attorneys must take careful action to be and to remain organized.  My approach to organization is to maintain an overall case/project list, a to do list, individual project files, and a tidy office. I often receive friendly ribbing about my obsessively tidy office from colleagues, but it is the approach that works for me.  If you are not a naturally organized person, seek out organizational approaches from colleagues or other organizational resources.  Take advantage of work that has been done to avoid reinventing the wheel.  Build yourself templates and standards for types of work that you do regularly to give yourself a head start.

Triage your work
It is inevitable that you will face times where your work load feels unbearable.  In those circumstances it is useful to take a step back and develop a plan of attack.  Evaluate all of the tasks you need to accomplish, determine what tasks can be broken into smaller, more manageable components, and then triage based on importance, time commitment, and complexity.

Be on time
Always be on time.  Being late inconveniences and wastes the time of others.  This is simple, but a point that many fail to grasp throughout their career.  I once saw a criminal defendant come to his own hearing half an hour late; obviously, this did not create a positive light for that defendant.

Be aware of your surroundings and audience
Situational awareness is an invaluable tool for young attorneys to acquire.  Learn to read your surroundings and adjust your approach and techniques based on the circumstances.  For example, as a transactional attorney, you are likely to take a more collegial approach to a regular meeting with a long term client; while you should take a firm and measured approach when meeting with a counter party for a contract negotiation.  Similarly, when presenting to a jury, monitor their demeanor.  If the jury looks bored, they are bored.  Prevent jury boredom by being direct, avoiding over litigating, and keeping your speech entertaining and varied.  Do not be a robot, nor a comedian.

Keep unusual and hard to find sources
If you come across a relevant source or reference that is unusual or difficult to find, keep a copy (online bookmark and physical).  The ability to produce that reference at a later date may save you hours of additional searching and could make you a hero.

Understand the law you are working with
Whether you are working in a transactional or litigation practice, learn the law relevant to your practice as a whole and specific cases/projects specifically.  In the transactional context that may be understanding the applicability of Freedom of Information laws or the UCC.  In the litigation context, that may be understanding the local case law that applies to your area of practice.  Within that context, it is also important to understand the difference between evolving and/or ambiguous law and well established and/or on point law.  While there is value in noting the differences between the facts of your case that warrant a change in law or distinction from existing law, it can be counterproductive to ask a judge to change existing law simply because it works against your position.  Doing so can easily turn a judge’s perspective of you.

Learn to say ‘I don’t know’
There will be times when you are asked questions to which you do not know the answer.  It is better to simply reply that you do not know the answer than to give incorrect information or simply make something up.  But, when you say “I don’t know,” follow it up with, “but I will find out.”

Chris Bidlack Chris Bidlack is a Senior Attorney with the Colorado Springs City Attorney’s Office – Utilities Division. He previously clerked for Judge Farnan (Ret.) of the U.S. District Court of Delaware. He graduated from the Michigan State University College of Law and the University of Michigan. He can be reached at chris.bidlack@gmail.com.