Starting a law career is pretty scary: You’re fresh out of law school, and supposed to be ready to take on the world. However, the overwhelming amount of information and possibilities in front of you make you wonder: What’s the next step? What are the best practices for young attorneys? Most importantly, is this truly your calling?
To help allay some of your doubts, we’ve asked several successful lawyers to share their stories with us and think about the advice they would have given their younger selves. Here’s what they had to say:
1. Start Networking Early On
This career is all about working with people, be they clients, business partners, or colleagues. Connecting with your fellow lawyers is something to start practicing early on, even when you’re just attending law school. Nearly all the lawyers we talked to emphasized the importance of networking:
In this interaction, new knowledge and experience are gained; they help and support each other, and this is really invaluable in career development.
Alright, but how do you start networking? Well, in law school, you start by making friends: Right now, you might be going out for beers, but you never know when you might need some legal advice from Jeff, who studied maritime law, or Susan, who specialized in copyright and IP protection, once you all grow up from drinking buddies to colleagues.
Next up, be on the lookout for any conferences and workshops in your area. These are gathering grounds of like-minded individuals and, more importantly, experts in their chosen field. Making just a few connections at those events can be an amazing gateway for further business endeavors. Most law schools organize their own events, so make sure to attend those, too. Joining an alumni directory, if possible, can net you even more opportunities to expand your contacts list.
As a young attorney, I now realize why practically every major bar association has a young lawyers division. Join one! We need the community that comes as a result of being “new.” You will find comfort in experiences shared by other attorneys who are just like you!
LinkedIn and LegalJobs should be your first stop on the online front. There are many great tutorials for filling out your profile, so it stands out in the best way, and you get discovered faster. Adding your fellow students as connections is a great start, as that will open the way to even more connections and, hopefully, an eventual internship or job.
2. Find a Mentor
Formal education is of the utmost importance for any law career. It is, as you already know, the only road to becoming a lawyer. What you do after that is entirely up to you, but having some guidance is always beneficial, and a good mentor can steer you towards strengthening your skills and finding the areas you excel at.
When I started my legal career, I wish I knew and fully appreciated the importance of having a seasoned mentor. Litigation is war, and the battlefield is strewn with landmines and pitfalls for young, inexperienced attorneys, even ones who graduated at the top of their class. A quality mentor can help you avoid costly mistakes that can torpedo even the best cases. A wise mentor can help you understand the difference between a legal dispute and an unwinnable political squabble.
You need to actively search for a mentor. Networking, either during internships or through online business platforms like LinkedIn, can lead you to people that might become your mentors. That being said, a mentorship is a social relationship like any other: Maintaining your contacts and showing that you’re trying to learn as much as possible will take you far.
3. Consider Opening Your Own Legal Firm
Most lawyers think joining a big-name law firm is the ideal career path. And for many of them, that’s exactly right: It’s an impressive accomplishment, a stable environment, and an excellent jumping-off point. Still, this is not for everyone. Making a name for yourself in a large firm can be really difficult, especially when surrounded by so many experienced lawyers and young recruits aiming for the same things you are. That’s why some lawyers open up their own firms instead.
Making that first big step - i.e., leaving the safety net of a legal firm and starting your own business - is beyond daunting. Mr. Tiller from the Bankruptcy Law center has captured why that is exactly:
While I don’t regret the journey that made me who I am today because, within those years, I have acquired a lot of experience and lessons, I would definitely love to tell my younger self to not be afraid to start my own firm as early as I could. Don’t dwell on what the naysayers have to say and just focus on my idea of a career centered around my passion for helping people.
The bottom line is, if building a successful law career was as straightforward as some people claim it to be, everyone would become a lawyer. Instead, there are many different paths that you can take, with very few certainties. Still, most of the time, it’s a risk worth taking.
4. Learn to Manage Your Time
There is an important caveat to starting your own practice: Lawyers who decide to go down this road tend to overwork themselves. While that might seem like the only option, or worse, a good idea, you’ll quickly burn out and lose the spark you had for this calling. Many successful lawyers told us how easy it is to slip up with your time management and put yourself in perpetual overdrive. This isn’t healthy and, as we’ve mentioned before, sometimes drives young lawyers away from this profession.
When you’re a young lawyer, it always seems as if you have unlimited energy to do everything. Sometimes, you might feel like no one could possibly do things better than you could. But, for an independent practice to survive and thrive, you must set up systems and processes that allow you to focus on things that need your utmost attention.
Mister Dominguez included another excellent piece of advice in his letter - hiring a paralegal. This is something of a must for law firm owners, as it lets them dedicate more time to clients and business partners, instead of trying to run a one-person show.
Even if you don’t own a law firm, accepting constant overtime as par for the course can quickly derail your life. You might be incredibly productive at first, but time will take its toll and, down the line, make your work sloppy and hasty, instead of staying methodical. Ty Gibson, from Gibson Hill PC, agrees with us:
Within law, beginners are encouraged to work as hard as they can, and there is this idea that the more hours you put into it, the better your chance of succeeding and ending up in a good firm. But this leads to a massive amount of burnout (and it wasn't just me, many fellow law colleagues experienced burnout too, it seems to be quite a widespread problem within the legal world).
5. Get in The Courtroom
Practicing law isn’t all about studying regulations and casefiles. Knowing your theory is, of course, necessary to navigate the legal world, but it isn’t everything. You need to go into the field, get familiar with court practices, and get comfortable with that environment. Only then will you have all the tools you need to become a good lawyer - it is called a “practice,” after all.
Even if a new attorney doesn't want to practice criminal law, I recommend that they go to court and ask to be appointed on cases. This will force you to become familiar with proceedings, listen and learn from other cases being heard, learn courtroom etiquette and how to interact with the Judge and their staff, and so much more.
While not all lawyers will practice in court, as Dr. Louis Patino said, becoming familiar with how the courts work and, thus, how your cases will be processed, is worthwhile experience. Of course, this becomes easier when you join a law firm, since you’ll be likely to be involved in court processing and other practices even if you’re not a criminal law practitioner. Just remember - a good lawyer should have broad horizons.
6. Keep up With Trends and Technology
Saying that the world is moving too fast sounds cheesy, but it’s still the truth. That means lawyers need to stay sharp and up to date with whatever’s changing in the world, too. Legislation comes and goes, and new technology requires laws to regulate it: Just a decade ago, music streaming wasn’t really a thing; when it became the primary listening avenue for many people, copyright lawyers had to study how the landscape of music rights changed. Zakiya Norton and Somita Basu of Norton Basu, LLP, offered fantastic advice regarding this matter:
Don’t ignore technology trends. Clients will move faster than the legal field, so understand what makes their life easier and adapt quickly. This will truly elevate you above your competitors.
Subscribing to magazines, following relevant websites with news about your area of expertise, and connecting with experts on social media are all great tactics to stay in the loop. Even learning how to Google effectively can improve your understanding of a complicated matter a client might present you with. Learning never stops for a lawyer - the knowledge just isn’t entirely in the books anymore.
7. Finally, Don’t Panic
Don’t think too hard about where you’re going to end up professionally, as it won’t even be close to where you wanted to be when you started your legal career. But that’s okay, because some things are more important than fame and fortune, and on your journey, you’ll rediscover and embrace your passion for what you do. Most of all, I’d tell the younger me to just be himself because that’s the only way that he’ll ever get to the place where I am now, and it’s the only way that he’ll be happy in both his personal and professional life.
Humans overthink everything. Every decision can be unnerving for us, be it mundane, like what to have for lunch, or something life-changing concerning our career, marriage, or living situation. The pressure we put on ourselves about making perfect choices is often unjustified and senseless, preventing us from taking any of the necessary risks discussed earlier in this article.
Yes, you may make some mistakes when you’re just starting up. In fact, you’re pretty likely to make plenty of them - but so has everyone else in the business. Making a less than perfect choice is normal - and expected! - for a rookie in any line of work. If you learn from your mistakes instead of letting them get to you and hinder your progress, you’ll become a better person and, ultimately, a great lawyer.