Friday, October 28, 2011

Tips on how to be Dispensable

I should apologize to you all for my delinquency in writing posts.  Too much work, blah, blah, blah.  So here is a classic from about two years ago, first published on December 1, 2009.  I tried to think of some ways to improve on it, but I haven't thought of anything useful to add.  

December 1, 1988. Twenty-one years ago today I started practicing law. Along with I think 6 or so other newly-minted associates, I showed up at the law firm that had promised me a job some 10 months earlier, and started life as a licensed lawyer. Reflecting on this little milestone in my professional life, it seems appropriate today to share some tips that might not be obvious to young people just entering the world of private practice. Loads of young lawyers learned that they passed the Bar exam last week, and are now entering the legal workforce as full-fledged lawyers.

I'll share some advice based on things I've learned from my own painful missteps, as well as those of others I've watched over the past two decades. I am pretty sure I was the world's dumbest new lawyer, or at least the most naïve. True, I've watched a few compatriots make even dumber, or at least far less politic, moves, but overall, I do think I was on the short list of those least likely to succeed back in 1988. So here's my advice on how to be dispensable:

1. Leave the Hard Work for the Partner. In retrospect, this was one of my early, best lessons. Shortly after I'd started work, the partner who hired me asked me to write an application for tax exemption for a client. I dutifully filled in all the facts and then handed it to him with the legal analysis section blank. I actually said, out loud: "I left this part for you to do since you obviously know the law far better than I do." His bewildered stare said everything, and bless his soul he didn't utter a word (nor did he fire me, but some partners would have written me off then and there). I constantly see other young lawyers make the same mistake as I did, though most don't actually articulate it quite so clearly. Yes, the partner or assigning attorney actually wants you to do the hard work. The legal analysis. The creative problem solving. The drudge work of making sense of the facts, the documents, the witnesses, the inconsistencies, the missing information. Otherwise, you're just a research clerk. Useful, perhaps, but not a lawyer.

2. Preserve your Work/Life Balance at All Costs. No matter what the rest of the team members are doing on your case or the long hours the rest of the lawyers in the office are putting in, your quality of life is more important. If you really believe that, you should start looking for another job. Yes, it is true that life balance is important. But if you find yourself in a job environment where the partners are in the office for 12 hour days, along with the senior associates and the rest of the professional staff, and you find yourself arriving at 9 and leaving at 5, you'll soon be on the short list of folks who aren't mission critical. Unless you have an approved part-time work schedule in a truly enlightened firm, you aren't likely to be viewed as a committed team member. The good news is, there are places where everyone works 9 to 5, and that may be where you belong. It's not a judgment of your value as a human being or the quality of your work as a lawyer, it's just reality in most law firms. If you aren't willing or able to work at the same pace as the rest of the team, it won't last.

3. Leave Ethics to Others. Many young lawyers seem to forget most everything they learned preparing for the professional responsibility portion of their Bar by the time the ink on the exam has dried. A quick route to personal disaster, or at least to an embarrassing client situation, follows the path of least resistance: leave client conflicts and professional ethics concerns to the partners on the case. When new parties come into a case, when new transactions start, when previously allied business clients become antagonistic, when a mistake made on a case might be considered malpractice: a useful lawyer of any vintage deals with the conflicts question personally. It's not just the partners' responsibility.

4. Unless you have Actual Client Contact, You Don't Need to Worry About the Client. Sure, sometimes the assignment really is a cut-and-dried research project where facts about the client, the transaction or lawsuit, the property at issue, aren't really germane to what you need to do. But you'll be unlikely to really add value if you don't take some time to understand the big picture. And here's another secret for you: your client base includes the assigning partner or more senior attorney. Yes, believe it or not, your success depends on your ability to be assigned to cases by the attorneys in your firm. Treat every one of them as if they were your client. The work habits you show to the assigning attorneys demonstrate how you will treat paying clients.

5. Treat Deadlines as Suggestions. We all know that partners set deadlines just to create a sense of urgency. Filing due dates can usually be extended, or somehow someone will get a continuance. It's not all that important. Any young lawyer who has such thoughts cross her mind will soon find herself on that short list for pink slips. Even if the due date you've been given clearly doesn't relate to any particular deadline, the useful lawyer treats it as set in stone, and makes sure the work is done a day ahead of time, just in case the kids are sick and she has to stay home, there is a mass transit strike, a hundred year flood, a blizzard, and a hurricane on the due date. As my son told me he learned years ago at music camp: To be early is to be on time, to be on time is to be late, and to be late is unacceptable. The assigning attorney may have his own reasons for setting what seems to be an arbitrary deadline. Ignore it at your peril.

I could go on with a few other tips I have on my outline for this post, but I think it's a little more useful to leave the newly licensed barristers with a sense of anxiety because they haven't been given the rest of the secrets. So here's one final tidbit I'll share today: If you don't know the answer, or understand the problem, go try to figure it out yourself. If you do, you'll actually be a practicing lawyer, not just a research assistant.

As the world's dumbest associate to actually succeed in private practice, I can honestly tell you it is possible to learn to be useful. And now you know some of the secrets. Best of luck to you.

Cynthia

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