I have seen many changes in the law and in the practice of law. Advances in telecommunications and technology truly allow a lawyer, as the old saying goes, to be a lawyer 24 hours a day. Rather than working in the office “nights and weekends,” technology allows lawyers to work just as efficiently from home or other locations. Frankly, adjusting to some of these changes can be difficult for someone who began practicing law when copies of documents were made by typing on onion skin, “fax” was something Joe Friday wanted to hear, and “text” was the contents of a book, but adjust we must, or we will be left behind.
With that preamble, I offer my “View from an Old Guy” on the practice of law, past, present, and future.
A – Always avoid “always” and never say “never.” In other words, do not create expectations for your client as to what might happen.
B – Bar activities. Get involved! Bar activities provide a wonderful opportunity to meet other lawyers in a nonadversarial setting to get to know them as people, not opponents.
C – Communication. Return clients’ phone calls and emails. Send them copies of their documents. Be available. Nothing will cause you more problems with your clients than failing to communicate and keep them apprised of their case or other legal matter.
D – Don’t try to be someone you are not. In other words, be yourself! This is especially true in trying cases to a jury. If you are usually calm and reserved, don’t try for theatrics. If you are usually animated and vocal, use it to your advantage. If you try to be someone you are not, the jury will sense it and question your sincerity.
An unorganized lawyer is an unsuccessful lawyer … and probably one who makes regular calls to the malpractice carrier.
E – Elicit other opinions. You never know when a colleague has dealt with a similar issue.
F – Fee agreement. With limited exceptions, a written fee agreement is required. A fee agreement also will protect you from a client’s memory loss down the road.
G – Get to court on time. Enough said.
H – Honesty. Strive to be honest and fair in your dealings with the court, counsel, and your clients. This is critical because it goes to your …
I – Integrity. A lawyer’s reputation takes years to build, but can be destroyed in a moment.
J – Juggling. The key to juggling a lot of balls in the air is knowing which balls are rubber and which ones are glass. In other words, make sure you have your priorities straight.
K – Kindness counts. In most cases, treating others with kindness and respect will be returned to you. There are always exceptions, but for the most part people appreciate being treated well.
L – Leave your ego at the door. Your case has nothing to do with you; it’s about your client.
M – Marketing. The old days when you could pick up new cases by hanging out in the courthouse coffee shop are rapidly disappearing. Although many clients still come from referrals, the source of those referrals is changing from individuals to websites like LinkedIn. Lawyers today must have a marketing presence online through a firm website, marketing sites, and social media.
N – Networking. Yes, it can be tedious to attend meet-and-greet meetings after a long day at work, but it is essential to building your practice. See Marketing.
com dmguerin grgblaw D. Michael Guerin, Marquette 1974, is a partner in Gimbel Reilly Guerin & Brown LLP, Milwaukee, and a former State Bar president (2005-06). Mike credits his partners and staff for their contributions to this compilation of lessons learned.
O – Organization. If it’s not your strong suit, hire someone for whom it is and have him or her keep you organized. An unorganized lawyer is an unsuccessful lawyer … and probably one who makes regular calls to the malpractice carrier.
P – Pro bono work. My personal opinion is that all lawyers must provide pro bono services regularly, and by that I do not mean that your client failed to pay your bill. Trust me, you will feel better about yourself knowing you gave your time and talent to help someone who truly needed your assistance.
Q – Quit while you’re ahead. Remember that oft-repeated adage about not asking a question when you don’t know the answer. It’s repeated because it’s true.
R – Record keeping. Maintaining accounting records, client files, and so on is essential to creating a successful practice. I know this because I have people who do it for me, and without them I would be lost.
S – Say what you mean and mean what you say. Your word is your bond.
T – Technology. Don’t be afraid of it. Learn to use it. Take a class if you must. Or, again, make sure you are surrounded by people who know and understand how to use it.
U – Use your staff. Depending on the case, they may know your client or the facts better than you do. Treat your staff with respect and they will respect you and want to help you. This same rule applies to court staff.
V – Verify facts before you send a letter or make a phone call. Don’t assume you received an accurate portrayal from your client.
W – Work. When you think you are working hard, recall that there are thousands of truly hard-working individuals who do not have the advantages that we as lawyers enjoy. Keep them in mind and your “job” will become a lot more meaningful and easier.
X – “X” State Bar presidents are nice people and have more fun. Unfortunately, they cannot spell very well. Speaking of spelling, you really do need to proof your letters, pleadings, and briefs. “Spellcheck” is no substitute for a good proofreader.
Y – YOLO. Unless you know something I don’t know, you will only live one life. Take vacations, attend your children’s activities, become involved in your community.
Z – Zealously represent your client. Don’t be afraid of an ornery judge or a Rambo litigator on the other side. Remember, it’s not about you, it’s about your client.
One final observation. Principles of law will continue to be tweaked, modified, or outright erased and the tools of the profession will continue to evolve and challenge those of us who learned the old way.
What will never change, however, are our duties as lawyers to comply with the Supreme Court Rules, to zealously represent our clients’ interests, to serve our communities, and to seek justice.