Denver Bar Association
July 2006
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What They Didn’t Teach You in Law School: Ten things all new attorneys should know

by Stacy Chesney

We’ve all heard the clichés about law school not preparing you for the "real world" of law practice. But why is that? What does it mean? What can you do about it?

At a recent Coffee Talk program, presented by the Denver Bar Association Young Lawyers Division, "veteran" attorneys Kerri Atencio, of Holland and Hart, and Julie Haines, with Kennedy Childs & Fogg, spoke candidly with young lawyers struggling with these questions.

"You can’t possibly learn how to be a lawyer in just three years of school," said Atencio.

Haines added, "You come out of law school knowing how to think like a lawyer, research like a lawyer and write like a lawyer; but not prepared to take a case from start to finish."

Here are some practical tips they offered:

1. Take what you’ve learned in law school, but realize you always will continue to learn. "It takes five to seven years to really get in the swing of things," said Haines, who has been practicing since 2000, "I constantly remind my boss that it’s called the ‘practice of law’ for a reason — I’m still learning."

2. Seek someone to be a mentor. Atencio and Haines suggested finding someone you respect to go to with questions. Ask yourself: Is this person ethical? Does he/she practice how you want to practice? How does he/she treat co-workers, staff and judges? "The really great lawyers won’t be put off by your questions," said Haines. Your mentor doesn’t necessarily have to be someone from your firm. Getting involved in additional activities, like pro bono work or a DBA/CBA Committee or Section, are great ways to connect with lawyers who can help you along the way. Atencio emphasized, "Pay attention to the feedback you’re getting."

3. Preserve your reputation. Colorado is a relatively small-knit community. How you conduct yourself will become known rather quickly. Guard your style and ethics.

4. Find your fit. Easier said than done, but you can find a firm whose billable hour requirements and flexibility fit with your lifestyle. "Find a firm that will embrace your uniqueness," said Haines. Is it important for you to balance family, friends and extracurricular activities? Once you have a job, branch out and build your network. You’ll eventually find the position that really works for you.

5. Be true to yourself. There’s not one mold for a perfect attorney. Let’s face it — not every attorney or firm is perfect. Different firms have different priorities. Some require many billable hours; some have pro bono requirements; some encourage a "work hard, play hard" philosophy. "The best advice I ever received was from my dad: ‘Remember, your dignity is always worth more than a paycheck,’" said Haines. Decide what you need to do and trust your instincts.

6. Treat your staff well. "Good paralegals and secretaries are the keys to your success," said Atencio. You have much to learn from your support staff; — they’ve most likely had much more experience than you when you are starting out. Treat them as part of your team and use them as resources. Remember to always maintain a professional relationship — don’t talk office politics or share your personal life. Keep that out of the office.

7. Understand your clients’ expectations. "Know your clients by heart," says Atencio. Find out what they expect right away, and do everything you can for them that is in line with their expectations. If you do this and they still aren’t satisfied, don’t take it personally.

8. Accept that you don’t know it all. "One of my favorite things to say is, ‘That’s a great question — let me look into it and get back to you,’" said Haines. It is OK to listen and get back to your client with the requested information. "You’ll never know as much as you think you ought to know," said Atencio, "but that’s part of learning. Nobody knows as much as you think they do." Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

9. Admit your mistakes. "I’ve found that there are very few mistakes that cannot be fixed," said Atencio. If you make a mistake, immediately let your supervisor know — don’t let pride or arrogance get in the way. It is often more difficult to correct a minor problem later in the game. "I’ve had to admit my mistakes before. I hate the feeling of that moment, but I’ve learned it’s what I have to do," said Haines. Make sure your paralegals and secretaries do the same.

10. Don’t make your bad day somebody else’s. Law is a fast-paced, stressful line of work. The public often takes the action of one lawyer to represent the entire profession. Giving lawyers a positive image starts on the individual level. If you’re frazzled and tense, do what you need to do to avoid taking it out on someone else. Take deep breaths, go for a walk, listen to some music. Always keep in mind that you represent the profession.


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