Let’s be honest. The practice of law is a business that is constrained by the inability of lawyers to build a business. The practice of law has changed dramatically in the 20 years since I started my career. It’s gotten much harder.
The practice of law is hard because it’s about people, and people are hard. But they are also what make the practice great.
During my career in law school and beyond, I’ve worked in-house for a large insurance company, clerked for a federal judge, managed a domestic violence courtroom as a prosecutor, worked my way up to partner in the commercial litigation group of an Am Law 200 law firm, and started my own firm. I have a practice and a life that I love in a place that I love.
So, to all of you lawyers, regardless of age, I share with you my best pieces of advice for lawyering, building your reputation, and generally surviving. These are the things I wish I knew when I started practicing.
1. You Control Your Destiny
No one else. If you are waiting for your firm’s marketing department, practice group leader, or anyone else to help you build a reputation or hoping that it will just “come,” you are wrong. You have to get out there and get your name out. The name of the game is SEO and whether people equate you with the type of work you want to do. It takes years, and you need to start today. Ask yourself what is it that you want. It sounds trite, but ask yourself where you want to be in five years and what you want that to look like.
com ktwigger esiattorneys Kelly Twigger, Marquette 1997, is the principal of EIS Attorneys LLC, an e-discovery and information law firm in Boulder, Colo. She was named a 2014 State Bar of Wisconsin Legal Innovator for her development of eDiscovery Assistant – an online e-discovery playbook for lawyers and legal professionals. This article is adapted with permission from a two-part series in Above the Law.com.
How do you do that? Write an article, speak on a topic, start a blog – choose whatever fits the way the people you want to reach like to take in content. Content marketing is king, and you are its scribe. Every publication wants good quality articles and tons of folks want guest bloggers. Here’s the catch – you have to ask.
If you are in your first year of practice or the head of your practice group, you learned something in the last day, week, month, or year that people need to know about. And if you didn’t, go out and learn something, and then tell people about it. Go to the CLEs and learn tips – talk at your firm’s litigation lunch. Get known in your firm and outside. Both are important. Don’t assume that what you know is basic and won’t help others.
When you get that opportunity, have a mechanism for getting it out to your clients or your relationships. Don’t assume that everyone will see it. You need to make sure they see it if you want them to. Ask for article reprints, post a link on your blog, whatever method works best. Do it thoughtfully. It’s a balance of being out there and having people know what you do.
2. Make a Plan
When I was a new litigator, I was told over and over for the first six years of my practice to “be a generalist” in litigation, that specializing was too limiting. Around year five, after blindly following that philosophy, I realized that the litigation world was becoming much more specialized, and I sought out the types of cases I wanted. I worked on complex engineering design litigation (which I still love), and dived head first into e-discovery and built our firm’s practice there before taking off to start my own firm and focus my practice in e-discovery.
3. Evaluate Every Opportunity
Notice I didn’t say “seize.” That’s because lawyering sucks up all your time, and you need to make strategic decisions. Does the opportunity advance your goals? You’ll have different goals for different things you do – it could be being the expert, building relationships, getting your name out, doing a favor for a friend, planning an event. Know the goal and evaluate whether it’s a good use of your time. Think about how much time it will take to prepare for it to do a fantastic job. Early in your career, I recommend you take as many opportunities as you can get. Public speaking is crucial.
4. Allow for Plan Changes
Robert Burns wrote, “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” Don’t worry about change, embrace it. It really is true that when a door closes, a window opens. You have to see the window and be willing to climb through it.
5. Do a Fantastic Job
Not a good job, a fantastic job. Be the smartest person in the room. Solve problems. Have practical solutions. Think about what the client needs and do it before they ask. Instead of focusing just on the litigation or the deal, focus on what the client wants out of it. Be a partner to the client, and help them. Don’t just churn out hours. They will remember you.
6. Communicate With the Client
If you’re allowed to, that is. I’m still amazed at how few young lawyers are actually allowed to talk to clients. I had the opposite experience in my litigation career – I was probably talking to clients before I had any idea what to say – but I learned from it. When you are calling the client, have a plan for the conversation. Think of every call as another building block to your relationship. Don’t be afraid to say you are sorry, or to tell them something is taking longer than planned.
Be in regular contact. Even if just to say you wanted to touch base. Send holiday cards, and be thoughtful about gifts if you send them. If someone has kids, send something either just for the client or that they can share with their family. Learn whether the client has a gift policy. If you don’t know, ask. Tell the client you wanted to send a gift to say thank-you for the work this year, and you wanted to be aware of any policy the company has regarding gifts. Donating to a charity in a client’s name is nice, too.
7. Build Relationships
This is a biggie, and it’s woven through the advice above. Go to the judges’ night and meet the judges. They are just people, and they are happy to meet you. Be prepared with a question you want to ask. Be interested. Then follow up afterward and tell her or him that you enjoyed meeting them. Be memorable. Eventually, their kids will play on your kid’s soccer team, and you want to be friendly.
Go to bar events for young lawyers, old lawyers, in-between lawyers. Be involved in the practice groups. Start your own group of working moms or working dads or lawyers with cats. But build relationships. Start now. If you haven’t nurtured your relationships, get back to it. Say hi, ask to have coffee or a drink or lunch. Talk about what’s going on in their life, not just about work. Find something else to discuss – you’ll build a stronger relationship.
In five or ten years, the colleagues you went to law school and college with and worked with will be in-house counsel and judges and just plain cool people that you’ll want to know.
8. Be Nice to Everyone and Don’t Lie
Those speak for themselves. You’ll be sorry you refused that extension when you need one yourself. Or that you were a jerk and now the lawyer you were a jerk to is working with someone else at your firm and holding it against them.
9. Tell People What You Do
This goes hand in hand with building relationships. For a long time, I downplayed what kind of work I did, or simply didn’t mention it, and that was a mistake. Do not assume that everyone you meet knows what you do or who you want to do work with. You have to tell them. Just let them know what you do in case anything comes up that you can help with. It’s not hard, and it doesn’t have to be complicated. I tell people I love helping my clients make the most out of the opportunities of electronic information and manage the associated risks. Because I do.
10. Remember, It’s Not Your Money
I was lucky to have several mentors at my first firm, and one in particular who had the best nuggets of wisdom. I took cases very personally and felt responsible when things didn’t go well for a client, whether it was a decision from the court, a deposition, or a negotiation. So one day he saw me stressed about a case, and he walked into my office and sat down and said, “Kelly, you need to remember one thing. It’s not your money.” And what he meant was that the client’s problem was not my own. It was my job to stay objective about the issues, about what was at stake, and to advise the client, but not to take it on as my own. There’s a difference between caring deeply about helping your client, and taking it on as if you caused the dispute that gave rise to the litigation. See the line and stay on the side of providing your best advice. Sometimes matters can get very personal, and you have to separate that.
Thinking is what you get paid to do, and you should do it instead of always running around doing. How much better and more productive would your day be if you stopped to first think about what you need to do before you started doing it? Strategy first.
12. Avoid the Word “Like”
One day the gold nugget guy said out of the blue, “I don’t understand why so many young people use the word ‘like’ all the time. It doesn’t mean anything, and it makes them look naïve and uncertain.” He was right, and from that day on, every time I hear anyone or myself say the word “like” as an extra word, I catch it and correct it. Even with my kids. It’s a practice that needs to stop. Hear yourself saying it, and start remembering not to. You don’t need it, and it isn’t good English. That simple correction will change how people view you.
13. Embrace the Power of Being Able to Help Others
As a lawyer, you have a special gift. You know and understand the power of the law, how to negotiate, and a million other little things that nonlawyers do not and will never understand. You have the ability to help them. Even helping someone find the right lawyer to help them is an enormous help. If you’ve never looked for a lawyer, you have no appreciation for how truly difficult it is to find someone you can trust and who really knows what they’re doing. Helping a person who can’t speak English know what to say to the electric company to turn off the meter in their name from their old house? Priceless. For you, five minutes of your time. You can change lives through your knowledge of the law. Try to keep perspective as you go through your crazy days.
The practice of law is about people and relationships – keep that in mind and let it guide your decision making. If you are in New York or Chicago and you think you’ll never run into that lawyer again, you’re wrong. People talk, social media spreads, and people remember bad behavior. You have what it takes to build a positive career helping others (and making some money along the way).