January 2017

Growing up in the Law: Transitioning From a “New Lawyer” to “Lawyer”

By Michael Olinik

Attorney at Law

There comes a time in everyone’s life when they make the leap to adulthood; the same goes for attorneys in their careers. As a new lawyer, you experience a lot of firsts—first signature on a motion, first appearance in court, first deal closed, first contract signed, first client served. A lot of work goes into making those firsts a reality. You learn all about local rules, judge’s procedures and court customs that no one teaches you in law school. You learn how to communicate with and handle clients. You learn that being a lawyer also means you must be a mental counselor to some clients (and fellow attorneys) to really understand them and their needs. You learn more about how businesses work and issues your clients do not realize they have to face. Through trial by fire or through a mentor, you learn all the things you can only learn on the job.

As a new lawyer, there are a ton of resources that help you. The archives of For the Record alone contain numerous articles geared towards new lawyers. The SDCBA puts on a series of MCLE programs developed for new lawyers. Companies give discounts and incentives to new lawyers. Resources exist to help you succeed, and I hope you take advantage of all of them.

Eventually, however, you need to shed the title of “new lawyer” and step into a greater role. A role where you are no longer looking up local rules because you do not know what they are, but instead because you know you should always double-check them. Where you do not have to ask what clauses need to be inserted in a proposed deal, but are instead double-checking to make sure you changed the parties’ names. There comes a time when the judge knows you and greets you, even if he or she still doesn’t get your name quite right. There comes a time when you are the one making decisions. You are no longer new, but what does it mean to grow up? How do you transition? Fortunately, there are still many resources for you to utilize and guidelines to follow to make sure that your development, and career satisfaction, continues as you grow into your role as an attorney.

Consult a Mentor

Ever since you were preparing to graduate law school, the benefits of mentors have been ingrained upon you. There is great truth to those benefits, not the least of which is that if everything in the world seems to be going wrong, you will have at least one person on your side. As you get ready to take the next step in your career, though, you may realize you could benefit from additional mentors as well. Just as friends come and go throughout our lives, so may mentors. Whether you plan to specialize further in a certain area of law, need advice on issues unfamiliar to your current mentor, or never connected with a mentor in the first place, it is always helpful to reevaluate your relationships and see if you are maximizing your connections.

Be a Mentor

As a lawyer out of law school, you first may feel like you know everything, having aced that bar exam. After a few days of practice, you may realize you know nothing. Despite now knowing what you do not know, you are still in a prime spot to become a mentor to a new lawyer who knows even less. The difference just a few years of experience makes in practicing the law is huge, and you can now help guide new lawyers as they realize how little they know. This is really your first opportunity to pay all the benefits you received from mentors forward.

New lawyers often feel more comfortable asking questions to lawyers a few years in than those who have been practicing for a long time. Not only may the relationship benefit you from networking, but you never know what you might learn from new lawyers. If, for example, the Supreme Court changed how courts determine the citizenship of a corporation for the purposes of personal jurisdiction from the nerve center/principal place of business test to just the nerve center test, a development you missed concentrating on your work, your practice may benefit from your mentee’s knowledge. Being a mentor is a two-way street, and now it is your opportunity to benefit from the other end.

Participate in Organizations

Where once you needed to learn about the law to keep your head above water, you may now want to learn about the law to stay on top of your practice and have a role in developing the law’s future. Participating in organizations is the perfect way to help you transition into your new role. First and foremost, the San Diego County Bar Association is designed to encourage this development for lawyers of all languages, and is a primary organization for you to participate in. There are other legal organizations, however, that may also focus in your area of law and can help further your network. You can also join organizations that are not geared for attorneys where you can meet clients or further other professional skills. Alumni associations may be a great source for connections, too. If you get involved, your practice will be more rewarding for you on a daily basis and you will feel more included in the legal community.

Practice Pro Bono

Now that you know how to run a case, you have the option of working on a case pro bono. There are many organizations that will be happy to match you up with a pro bono case, and you have the option of working on cases in a variety of areas with a variety of complexities.

Pro bono cases have been one way firms give their associates courtroom experience they would not otherwise receive, and there is no reason you cannot do the same to gain experience in an area you are lacking. There are opportunities to appear before trial courts or even practice in the Ninth Circuit. As a new attorney, I participated in a Section 1983 civil rights pro bono program run by the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, where they provided attorneys a stipend for taking on a case. Teaming up with other associates at my firm, we ran the case from after the filing of the pro se Complaint all the way through summary judgment, participating in settlement conferences ourselves with the Chief Magistrate Judge for the district. It was by far our greatest opportunity to run a case ourselves. I even had the opportunity to participate in a death penalty case pro bono, getting to practice in an area of law I always wanted to, but would not have given my civil law specialization.

You can also use a pro bono case to team up with a new mentor or work with a new firm, again expanding your network. Though you do not charge for a pro bono case, you certainly receive a lot in return.

Keep In Touch With Non-Lawyer Friends

By the time you have been a lawyer for a few years, you have met and probably spend your free time with a bunch of lawyers. At this time of transition, it is important to reconnect with your friends who are outside the practice of law. Associating with people outside of the law gives you a better perspective of your own career and what it means to be a lawyer. Talking with people who work in other fields also may help you gain perspective about some of your cases—a free hypothetical discussion with people experienced in other fields.  Additionally, friends may be a great source of clients and cutting edge developments in industries. To move forward as a lawyer, it always helps to reconnect with who you are as a person, and there are no better people than your friends to remind you of who you are.

Make Sure You Work on Your Passion And Care For Yourself

All of your mandatory MCLEs have taught you that the rate of burnout and substance abuse is high in the legal profession, as well as the rate of depression and even suicide. Doubtlessly, the jobs of lawyers are full of conflict, pressure, deadlines, and sometimes old-fashioned battles. One way to guard against those issues is to make sure you work on your passion. If work is just work, you will wake up dreading every day. By loving what you do, you will at least tolerate your alarm in the morning (I never met someone who loved their alarm). You will sleep better at night and have more energy throughout the day. If you do start to get depressed or notice that you are no longer excited about work, go and seek the treatment you need. Treatment could be talking it out with your friends or professional treatment; I have utilized both.

It is important to remember that no matter how talented you are as an attorney, no one succeeds solely on their own. Growing up as a lawyer means recognizing that you are not invincible, and it takes a community to serve your clients. And it also requires you to take care of yourself so that you can perform for your clients.

What does it take to assert yourself as a lawyer? It turns out, it takes many of the skills and connections you used as a new lawyer. Most importantly, it takes the realization that you have learned much since law school, but also that there is always far more to learn. You must be willing to take that next step and put yourself out there, get involved, and seek the work you want to do. The label of “new lawyer” is something you shed as soon as you show others you are ready. Following these tips will help you grow up.