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Lawyers reveal the best advice they’ve received from their colleagues

Paula Boggs
Paula Boggs shares advice on legal careers during the ABA Young Lawyers Division Plenary during the 2019 ABA Annual Meeting in San Francisco. Paula Boggs and N. Cornell Boggs III (center)are two of the first African American siblings to lead legal departments at Fortune 500 companies. YLD leader Dave Morrow (left) served as moderator.

What may seem like offhand advice from someone you pass in the office hallway can actually be life-changing and valuable insight—if you’re paying attention. These lawyers were, and they’re grateful for the wisdom imparted by fellow lawyers at some point in their career.

Making clients feel at home, in so many ways

As a young lawyer hanging my shingle, I was hungry for any tidbits of advice. One of the best I received was from a veteran female lawyer. Her advice was to talk to clients. Let them see you as a human being, as a person to whom they can relate.

In her experience, she’d seen a trend where lawyers, under the guise of professionalism, kept clients at a distance. Lawyers were there to be the experts with the answers and not clients’ friends. That often translated into clients not trusting their lawyers, leading to an unpleasant experience.

With this in mind, I had made client experience the forefront of my practice. I want my clients to feel like family, especially because, as an estate planning attorney, trust and comfort is most imperative for my ability to give my clients the best service.

When I was a little further into my practice, I met an attorney on her deathbed. She had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and was looking for an attorney to whom to refer her clients. During our meeting, we talked about maintaining work-life balance.

I had two minor children and was struggling with being a mom and a solo practitioner.

Her best tidbit: When buying a home, be deliberate in picking one that would allow me to have a home office where I could meet clients. That would help me be available to my kiddos when they needed me while enabling me to keep practicing—the best of both worlds.

I worried about clients being uncomfortable with the notion of a home office. She explained that that had been her path and that the clients who minded weren’t the ones I should be marketing to, anyway. When it came time to purchase my home, I added the home office as a must-have.

For four years, I’ve operated a home office, and it hasn’t affected my practice at all. In fact, clients love the idea of the home office because it’s a lot more comfortable of an environment for them while discussing their end-of-life decisions.

All of this has affected me as an individual but also how I approach my practice and others with whom I interact.

Jan A. Meyer is the owner of the Law Office of Jan A. Meyer in Dana Point, Calif.

Goal-setting would have made things easier

The importance of having detailed 1-year, 5-year, and 10-year plans is the best piece of advice I’ve received from a colleague. It’s been instrumental in shaping my legal career as well as creating a trajectory for my law firm.

Back when I was getting my law degree, we were always told to have structured and well-thought-out plans for the future. I knew I wanted to run my own law firm, and while I realized that I’d need to work my way up from the bottom as a new attorney, the space between those milestones was all gray area. In retrospect, clarifying my goals and the steps to reach them sooner for both the short term and the long term would have helped make that process even smoother.

Some time after I graduated, I decided to buckle down and create short-, medium-, and long-term goals. They were all conducive to me opening the doors to my very own law firm—and I couldn’t be happier with my decision. The short-term goals dictate the day-to-day decisions.

They’re more easily attainable and you get quicker results. The medium-term goals are in terms of months or even years. Your short-term goals should work toward these.

Long-term goals are the ones that are past the horizon. To achieve these, you need to chip away at those medium-term goals.

The law firm was my long-term goal, but the most important thing is to never stop making these plans, even after you’ve finished a long-term goal. These will keep you motivated and constantly evolving and progressing as your life and career unfold.

Lance J. Robinson is a criminal defense lawyer in New Orleans.

Principles worth remembering for four decades

These are the index-card points I’ve kept for more than 42 years in federal service, private practice, and teaching:

  1. Efficiency is crucial, but you must remember that you need to leave at a reasonable time. Leaving work on your desk for tomorrow is essential and the sign of a booming practice.
  2. Learn to recover from a mistake. Think on your feet and anticipate problems, particularly at trial. If everything were black and white, there’d be no reason for litigation. Most trials are close calls, not 95 percent-5 percent questions.
  3. A settlement is better than a good trial. Ninety-five percent-plus of civil cases settle. Certainty and capping expenses and exposureare the goals of most clients.
  4. Prepare and over prepare. Hard work is crucial. You must both know the law and master the facts. Some lawyers are great at the facts; others are good on the legal issues. The most successful are masters at both.
  5. You’ll never find a case that can’t be lost. But not every case can be won.
  6. Know how and when a case should be settled.
  7. Never be overly optimistic in reports to clients. Be honest and accurate, but clients will be less concerned about unexpected good results than the failure to achieve overly optimistic goals.

Lawrence B. Brennan is an adjunct professor at Fordham University School of Law in New York City.

Offering respect shows your strength

I think the best piece of advice I ever received was at the start of my clerkship.

The first project I worked on was an opinion that had led to serious disagreements between two of the judges on the appellate panel and had generated a dissenting opinion. The correspondence between the judges as they circulated the draft opinion and dissent had grown unusually sharp, and at the time, it seemed like a crisis to me.

I asked the judge how he could have such a serious conflict with one of his colleagues and then go about working with that judge on other cases. His answer has stuck with me: “You can disagree without being disagreeable.”

What I took that to mean is that you can strenuously advocate for your client’s position, or indeed your own, and still treat your colleagues, opponents, and self with respect.

That’s an important lesson in this business because all too often, it feels like a weakness to maintain a pleasant and professional attitude when you’re frustrated by the actions of your opponent.

In reality, the refusal to let a professional disagreement provoke an emotional response is a strength.

David Lieberman is a member at Whistleblower Law Collective in Boston.

Trust translates to success

The best advice I received from a senior lawyer was: “Be the kind of lawyer you’d want to hire.”

In an industry that has a branding problem, this lawyer said the greatest compliment was clients who would refer him to friends and family with such comments as, “A lot of lawyers would overcharge you, but not Brian.”

His clients trusted him, and, in turn, he had a happy and successful career.

Michael Alexis is general counsel at Museum Hack.

You’re not networking; you’re meeting friends

The best advice I’ve ever heard was with respect to networking, a necessary word in the profession but one that can be dreaded by new lawyers. A colleague told me not to think about networking as a schmoozy type endeavor and instead to focus on building genuine connections with people you enjoy speaking to and spending time with.

When I began to approach networking this way, I found it much easier to interact with colleagues. It takes the pressure off if you just focus on having conversations with people about topics you enjoy, and the benefits from making those connections will follow.

Some more substantive advice I received relates to not stressing yourself out over things you can’t control. Obviously, we’re always trying to get the best result we can for a client, but it’s important to realize that some things are out of our control. Did your client beep his horn while running through a stoplight that had long since turned red, and the entire thing was caught on a nearby vehicle’s dash cam? Well, then, there’s very little you can do to demonstrate that he didn’t cause the accident—and that’s out of your control.

Another piece of advice that has been extremely helpful was from a colleague who advised me that new attorneys should treat all the more-senior attorneys they work with as their clients. Often, the way new attorneys are evaluated depends on the specific people they’re working with. The most valued junior attorneys are those with whom a plethora of attorneys in the office want to work.

Ashlyn Capote is an associate at Goldberg Segalla in Buffalo, N.Y.

What’s the deadline? Seriously, what’s the deadline?

I work for a small firm, but prior to this, I worked in BigLaw in Manhattan. The best advice I received from colleagues there was to always understand the deadline for assignments.

Often, you’re given assignments informally without definite deadlines. You want to make sure you have a definite, “drop-dead” date for the assignment so you know how to prioritize it. It’s never fun having your boss ask for something you haven’t even started.

Evan Reeves Alonzo is a lawyer and CPA at The Law Office of David S. Howard in San Jose, Calif.

Don’t pretend you know more than you do

One of the most important things I’ve learned from my father, who’s also a lawyer, is not to talk about something unless you know what you’re talking about. In my legal practice, this has meant that sometimes it’s best to hold my tongue in front of judges and other attorneys instead of pretending I’m well versed on a topic. This avoids uncomfortable situations and, I believe, builds my credibility.

The second most important thing I’ve learned is to try not to rely on others too much to get the job done and to never be afraid to learn more. There’s always something you don’t know, and consistently learning is important to being the best version of yourself.

Zachary Perecman is an associate at The Perecman Firm in New York City.

Leave the lawyer in you at the office

The best advice I ever got from an attorney is the best advice I can give. First and foremost, go home! Set a reasonable hour to leave the office and stick to it. My deadline is 6:30. Anything that isn’t done by 6:30 doesn’t get finished until tomorrow.

The second thing I’d say is to leave the attorney at the office. Our profession is adversarial by nature. You get used to being disagreeable. It’s our job to present the opposite position or to find the holes in the argument.

That might make you a good lawyer, but it also makes you a jerk if you do the same thing outside the office.

Don’t cross-examine your mate unless you want to find another mate.

Michael Dye is the founder of The Law Offices of Michael A. Dye in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Is what you’re about to do worth the outcome?

The best advice I’ve ever been told by a fellow attorney is: “It’s not worth it.”

Our capacity to bill by the hour always makes us think that more is better. It simply isn’t. Our job is to provide value to clients. A crisp, 2-page motion that took an hour is worth more than a 20-page motion that took 10 hours. This “more is better” philosophy becomes so blatant that lawyers end up cutting clients’ bills to keep clients satisfied.

Because most of a litigator’s work involves some kind of conflict, almost any action or reaction just fans the flames of that conflict. Again, in a holistic sense, any lawyer’s action has to be “worth it,” and often it just isn’t. The best lawyers know to ask that question: Is it worth it? They’re also able to not act when the answer is no.

Russell D. Knight is founder of the Law Office of Russell D. Knight in Naples, Fla.

Your time isn’t as valuable as you think

Before I opened my firm, I sat down with a ton of lawyers and asked them for advice and guidance, and my entire practice has been built around that advice. Here’s some that still really stands out:

  1. Keep your overhead low. This is immensely helpful, especially at the beginning, because it allows you to adapt to any opportunities that come your way as well as limit your losses when you have a bad month. Even now, four years later, when we’re bringing in upwards of $60,000 a month, I still try to cut wasted money here and there so we can keep investing in the firm.
  2. Your time is worth nothing. This is another one that really matters at the beginning. Lots of attorneys won’t want to do something because it’s not worth their time. That might be true, but at the beginning, your time is worth nothing. When I started out, I took some cases for whatever the client had and did any paid coverage I could. These led to more cases, better connections, and so on. Those still help me today, even if I now turn down a lot of cases because they’re not worth our time and efforts anymore (although we do keep a list of three to five attorneys for different matters to which to refer those cases so that we can build connections with them).
  3. Put yourself in your client’s shoes. A lot of the very successful attorneys I spoke to talked to me about empathy and how to use that to better my firm. Now that’s a huge part of our core values. Empathize with clients when you can, and realize they’re coming to you in their biggest time of need. You need to be cognizant of that.

Jordan Ostroff is the managing partner at Jordan Law in Orlando, Fla.

Don’t negotiate your deal breakers

During a recent young-partner panel at our firm’s associate retreat, the advice was to “never negotiate your non-negotiables.”

For lawyers who negotiate everything, that’s a mantra to live by. Think about your non-negotiables, write them down, and fight for them. Bumble date? Religious observance? Tucking your kids in? Make it happen. If you find it impossible, the answer isn’t to compromise those nonnegotiables. It may be to find a better fit elsewhere.

Krysta Gumbiner is a litigation associate in the Chicago office of Dinsmore & Shohl.

Follow your passion

I’m an immigration lawyer, and I wanted to open my own practice. My most supportive lawyer friends would tell me to trust my own gut, to take a chance on a calculated risk, and to live what I felt was my dream. Today, I have a $1 million- plus practice per year doing soul-fulfilling work. I’m grateful for that push, which led me to where I am today.

Renata Castro is the founding attorney of Castro Legal Group in Pompano Beach, Fla.

Watching a colleague be a superhero

Ever been blown away by someone’s grace under pressure? Here, lawyers recall moments when their colleagues made an impression— and the life lessons they took from those experiences.

Recently, I became involved in a trust litigation matter. Opposing counsel was difficult, to say the least. I ended up having to find co-counsel to assist me with the process. She was amazing in how she handled opposing counsel, calmly explaining the law to him when he was mistaken and never raising her voice, even when he became irate.

This was even more evident during our hearing, when opposing counsel became argumentative with her and the judge. My co-counsel was the consummate professional. She directed her conversations to the judge, never to opposing counsel.

The judge ruled in our favor, which was a victory in so many ways. I can’t imagine that remaining calm in the face of such behavior was easy for her, but she definitely handled that interaction with grace.

Jan A. Meyer is the owner of the Law Office of Jan A. Meyer in Dana Point, Calif.

Sometimes, it’s best to not act

I once had a case where a massive miscommunication could have caused a terrible, irreversible error. The attorney on the other side kept cool and said, “Let’s see what happens.”

Two weeks later, the possible irreversible error never happened, and everything went back to normal. I was so impressed.

Russell D. Knight is founder of the Law Office of Russell D. Knight in Naples, Fla.

Hey, life happens; roll with it

A couple of years ago, a young female partner at our firm found herself in a true pickle. Her nonnegotiable is that she gets her school-aged children out the door every morning and doesn’t leave for work until the nanny shows up for the youngest one.

One day, her nanny failed to show up for work, her husband was already at work, she had a hearing scheduled for 9:30 a.m., and her three-year-old, unfortunately, couldn’t babysit himself. In true superwoman style, she packed up her son, made it to court on time, and explained the situation to the judge and opposing counsel—both of whom laughed understandingly.

The hearing went forward.

I was in awe of her ability to seemingly handle it all, but I also realized that, despite the bad press, we work in a great profession. Our colleagues accepted that sometimes life happens, despite our best efforts, and accommodated that partner’s personal life so she could succeed professionally.

I was encouraged and inspired by it.

Krysta Gumbiner is a litigation associate in the Chicago office of Dinsmore & Shohl.

G.M. Filisko G.M. Filisko is the editor of Student Lawyer Magazine. She earned her law degree in 1998 from Loyola University Chicago School of Law. She practiced civil litigation at two large Chicago firms until 2005, when she became a freelance writer and editor.