Practicing law is a big leap from the halls of law school. In law school, you focus on learning the law of the black letter and don’t frequently venture into the practical side of the law. Internships and externships help bridge that gap, but they don’t offer quite the same experience as the actual practice of law. When I started writing this column, I reached out to friends in my law class to pull together some of the common things we wish we had known when we started practicing. After collecting suggestions, I decided to include the three most common and strongly held opinions. I hope the items below can be helpful to other new lawyers just starting out in practice.
1. Workplace culture is very important to consider
One of, if not the most important thing to consider for any lawyer – especially new lawyers – is the working culture of any office or firm you join. A toxic work culture can make any position in a company a living nightmare, whether or not you work in the legal field of your dreams. Not all firms are suitable for every new lawyer. Ask questions regarding work-life balance and other important workplace culture issues during interviews. If you don’t get answers to these questions, or if you get answers you don’t like, this job may not be for you. When reviewing positions, don’t overlook workplace culture in favor of compensation and area of expertise. If you hate going to work every morning, you will burn out and underperform both for the business and, more importantly, for your customers. More importantly, if you hate your job, you won’t be happy, and this dissatisfaction can hurt you and those around you in your personal life.
2. Sometimes your customers may not be telling you the whole truth and nothing but the truth
One of the hardest things to learn, especially for new lawyers just getting started in client management, is that clients won’t always tell you the whole truth. Sometimes they may even lie to you outright. Although as lawyers we have an obligation to believe our clients to some extent, it is also important to recognize when a client is stretching the truth or lying to you to gain advantage or avoid a bad outcome in the business you are dealing with. If you think a client can do either, don’t confront them about it, at least not right away. You should first speak to a partner or general counsel about your concerns and seek advice on how to move forward. The answer may be that you need to talk to the customer about the problem. But you must ensure that any “confrontation” is sanctioned by a managing lawyer. When this happens, be prepared for the customer to get angry. I myself was yelled at by a client on the phone for over an hour after telling a client that I could no longer help him after he failed to provide me with the information he swore have and that he had ever-changing explanations of why they couldn’t provide him. These conversations can be very difficult, but be prepared to handle them because at some point they will happen.
3. Know the trial rules and your local rules
For my final tip, I strongly recommend that you learn and understand the application of Indiana’s trial rules and the local rules of any counties in which you are likely to practice. You should not expect to know and remember every local rule for every county in Indiana. , but you should at least know the rules of the county where your office is located, as well as the counties where you or your business works the most. This might seem like an obvious trick, considering how we spend so much time in law school learning the federal rules of civil procedure. However, applying Indiana’s trial rules is likely to be more common during your practice and doesn’t seem to be taught the way it should be. More than that, each county will have its own local rules which may have slight or significant variations that you should be aware of. For example, Lake County has a local rule for marriage dissolution cases that requires parties to provide each other with financial information after the dissolution is filed. Most, if not all, other counties do not have this requirement. If you did not know and fail to disclose, you could expose yourself to the wrath of the judge. Knowing your Indiana trial rules and local rules can save you a lot of unnecessary trouble.
Hopefully the tips above will be helpful to new lawyers just getting started in the practice. Practicing law is both exhilarating and terrifying. There is no perfect guide on how to do the job. The best we can do is collect tips and tricks along the way. Never be afraid to ask your colleagues and partners for advice and tips. Most are more than happy to pass on the knowledge and wisdom they have acquired during their practices. Stay hungry to learn, and one day you’ll be the one providing the tips and tricks.•
Harrison Metz is a partner at Sanders Pianowski LLP in Elkhart. The opinions expressed are those of the author.