It’s part of what you don’t know you don’t know.
By Katie Dearing, JBA President
One of the perks of being the president of the Jacksonville Bar Association is that I get to participate in the swearing in of new lawyers, like the one that took place last month.
All those newly minted lawyers, relieved to have passed the Bar exam, joining a profession they don’t really understand.
Nineteen years ago this week, I sat in their place and stared up at Chief Judge Donald Moran as my parents stood behind me beaming with pride. Little did they know how many mistakes I already had made in the few weeks between taking and passing the Bar.
Thankfully, I had several good mentors along the way to help me.
As I stood before the newest members of our profession last month, realizing that the lawyers who gave me counsel over the past two decades were right, I summoned some of the advice I received along the way:
Be the best lawyer you can be
In this profession, sweat the details. They are important.
Proofread before you show your work to a senior lawyer, know your deadlines and read all case citations and the last argument in a 20-page memo.
Attention to detail matters. Being prepared and doing good work not only will impress your partners and judges, but it will result in better assignments because you will be trusted with more responsibility.
Seek out new opportunities
If your workload can handle it, ask for more work and seek out new opportunities.
For example, if you are a junior member of a litigation team, look for chances to go to court and ask to make arguments. Ask for challenging assignments, take risks, be prepared to make mistakes and continually strive to improve yourself while making yourself invaluable to the team.
Though you want to earn your own reputation, this profession isn’t a zero-sum game. Offer to help colleagues and they will remember it.
Ask questions of senior lawyers and partners
Many young lawyers entering the profession think admitting to not knowing something shows weakness.
The truth is that senior lawyers do not expect newly minted attorneys to know much of anything, and asking questions is a way to learn and demonstrate interest.
You want to get the assignment right, rather than let the client or the senior attorney down by handing in the wrong work. Just be smart about when, how and of whom you ask questions.
Hone your skills
An early mentor of mine told me to jump at the opportunity to cross-examine a witness or to pick a jury as a young lawyer because those are the hardest, most important and most intimidating aspects of trial work.
He was right. You only get better by doing, so seek out opportunities to hone your skills early and often.
Know that you will make mistakes
Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone. New lawyers, old lawyers, senior partners, junior lawyers; all lawyers (and judges) make mistakes.
If you don’t, you probably aren’t seeking out enough opportunities or stretching yourself to your potential.
Like in all aspects of life, it’s how you respond to mistakes that matter. Correct them and confess error. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Make time to develop your own relationships and referral networks
Law is a profession, and a noble one, but it’s also a business. Know your current value and your potential value.
Your current value may be keeping your head down, working as many hours as possible and doing stellar legal work for senior lawyers to whom you report. You have to do that. But don’t lose sight of the fact that you won’t develop clients sitting at your desk.
You will need to make relationships of your own and develop your own referral sources. Having your own clients makes you more valuable to your current firm and gives you leverage to make a career change if that’s what’s best. So however daunting your workload seems, make time for lunches and other outings with people who will increase your future value.
Find a mentor and a sponsor
One problem with being a new lawyer is that you don’t know what you don’t know. Questions arise with each new matter or situation.
You’ll need someone with experience to provide knowledge and insight on things like how to develop business, how to manage time, whether to grant extensions, how to handle an uncomfortable work environment, whether your current firm or job offers the best chance for growth, how to advance in your firm and the million other questions you don’t yet know to ask.
Find a senior lawyer you respect, trust or naturally gravitate toward, whether inside or outside your office. If you need help finding a mentor, the Jacksonville Bar Association can provide one.
In addition to finding a mentor, find a sponsor – someone who advocates for you and helps you advance your career, who recommends you for assignments, who gets you involved in client development activities and who puts you up for well-deserved recognition.
Your reputation matters
Remember, it’s a long career and your reputation is everything. Do good work. Be honest. Be respectful. Be professional.
That doesn’t mean paying lip service to professionalism, and it doesn’t just mean not sending nasty emails to opposing counsel. It also means when a lawyer asks for an extension, the answer is usually yes. When someone has a personal situation (without explaining more) and needs accommodation, offer it.
What goes around comes around and if you are a gracious adversary, you will likely be shown grace when you inevitably need it. Remember, you never know what’s going on in someone else’s life. The day you choose to address late discovery responses could be someone else’s worst day. Choose kindness and respect.
Make time for life
Run. Go out with friends. Read. Go to football games.
Whatever you do for sanity and enjoyment, keep doing it. You will need it now more than ever. You will be a happier person, will enjoy your job more and will be more likely to stay in this profession longer if you feel fulfilled.
Katie Dearing is President of the JBA Board and judge-elect for the 4th Judicial Circuit.