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Living the life of a lawyer: A primer for new attorneys

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The people most disappointed with law school and the legal profession are those that decide to become a lawyer based on loving legal television shows. The second most disappointed group are those who believe they will be arguing before the Supreme Court to save the world from their preferred form of injustice within three weeks of passing the bar.

The reality is that the legal life has highs and lows, just like any other profession. The following is some advice, and some things that are really just warnings, hopefully, to make the life of young lawyers easier, or at least less surprising.

You will feel stupid
Know that as you start your career, and as you continue it, you will feel stupid. You will feel lost. You will feel unprepared. Fight through those feelings, take the time to improve yourself and over time those feelings will come less often. But, as far as I can tell, they never go away completely.

Find your work/life balance
Young lawyers often burn out quickly because they do not find a work/life balance that brings them happiness. Evaluate your opportunities based, not only on salary, but on nature of work, schedule flexibility, and hour requirements. One of the best decisions I made early in my career when presented with several job opportunities, was to pick the one that paid less, but gave me evenings and weekends to spend with my family.

Continuing education
As clichéd as it is, you are never done learning, and even need to take steps to make sure you are still learning. You will be required to complete a number of continuing legal education credits every year, make them count and make them valuable. If you are going to sit through a class, pick a class that teaches you something of value and you find interesting.

Mistakes will happen
You will make mistakes. No matter how carefully you work and how many times you double check something, you will make mistakes. When you encounter a mistake: (1) determine the best way to address it, (2) address it, (3) learn from it, and (4) move on. Do not harp on mistakes; most often, you are the only one who is upset about them.

Understand the politics around you
Make sure you understand the politics that surround you and your practice. While I work hard to avoid being drawn into the political battles around me, I cannot effectively practice without knowing how different groups and people relate and interact.

Learn the non-legal ‘stuff’ you are dealing with
Take the time to gain a basic knowledge of the issues you are working on, whether it is a software purchase, a dispute about a patent, or a warranty claim on an electric transformer. You do not have to be an expert, but a basic understanding of the technology or circumstances you are dealing with will make it much easier to address the legal issues. This is the one area of legal practice where I endorse using Wikipedia.

All hell will break lose
At some point, and for many, at many points, all hell will break lose. Your boss, client, or the court will drop something on you that you were not expecting and you will have to make that a top priority. Take the thirty seconds you need to curse under your breath, then regain your composure and get the job done. Do not waste half the day griping about fairness or someone else failing to do their job.

Stand up for yourself
When you find yourself in disagreement with a boss or client, stand up for yourself. Be respectful and professional, know that you may not win in the end, but stand up for what you think the right answer or position is. More often than not, you will gain the respect of the person you are disagreeing with. Good bosses do not like yes-men and bad bosses tend to be surpassed over time.

It’s not personal
Professional disagreements and tactics are not aimed against you personally. The actions taken by opponents and colleagues are generally taken to comply with their professional obligations. If you let those actions affect you personally you will constantly be upset. Learn to quickly move past such actions and to leave them at the office when you head home.

Do not… (I am amazed I have seen the following)

  • List magic and juggling skills on your resume, it looks ridiculous.
  • Cite to Harry Potter in the middle of a trial. Good books, poor legal reference materials.

Change is inevitable
People will come and go. Embrace the new people who join your team. Keep good relationships with those who leave, because you never know when they may be a useful resource in the future. Similarly, do not take it personally when people leave; people change jobs for many reasons, and you may not know their motivations. Do not fault someone for putting themselves in the best position for their family and their career. You will do the same thing at some point in your career.

Track resources
Make yourself a catalogue of useful resources. Know what tools work for you and keep them at the tip of your finger. Two of my favorite resources are (1) the Princeton University WordNet, an excellent online dictionary, and (2) the Internet Archive, an extensive archive of prior versions of thousands of websites.

Conclusion
Entering the legal profession is exciting and terrifying. It is a career path that can be both satisfying and frustrating. While you will never eliminate all potential sources of stress and frustration, there are many tools and tactics you can use to make your work life simpler. Try to take these tools and mold them to fit your life and as catalysts to develop new tools that work for you. But remember, there are times when you will feel stupid. Those times will pass.

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.