Saturday, March 22, 2008

What Being a Lawyer Has Taught Me

The following are a few things I have learned during my short career as a civil defense attorney. As with most of my thoughts, they are in no particular order.

If you want to know a lawyer’s true character, see how he treats his secretary when he thinks no one else is looking. Better yet, how he treats the runner.

Professionalism is treating the cleaning staff that comes after hours the same way you treat the judge during motion calender.

You don’t need a pen and pad to write. Take advantage of the quiet times - the first few minutes after you wake up, when you’re in the shower, when you’re driving to work - to think through that memo or brief you’re stuck on or that legal argument that doesn’t quite work.

I would rather driver 3 ½ hours than go through airport security to catch a 45 minute flight.

I do my best writing while I’m driving.

Don’t let your standard of living increase every time your salary does. There’s nothing wrong with driving a car with over 100,000 miles or living in a working class neighborhood. Frugality gives you options in life.

But don’t be frugal when it comes to your shoes. You have to wear them 10 to 14 hours a day. How do you say good looking and comfortable? Two words - deer skin.

Learning from your mistakes is experience. Learning from others’ mistakes is wisdom.

Mentors are great. You get to learn from their mistakes.

Cross examination isn’t just for depositions or trial. You can learn a lot about what’s going on in your kids’ lives if you keep asking them questions.

I assume I don’t have much time on this earth. I live life like I won’t see my 40th birthday. I’m 36. It’s amazing the perspective you get when you think you have four years to live.

When you get to the hotel room, run the hot water and let the steam fill the bathroom. Hang the suits and shirts from your garment bag nearby. You’ll be surprised how many of the wrinkles will vanish.

The key to the practice of law is preparation. I would rather go up against an experienced lawyer who is lazy than an inexperienced one who works his butt off.

Never let another’s behavior dictate yours. No matter how obnoxious or insulting that other lawyer is, don’t respond in kind.

Take a long term view of things. It helps keep everything in perspective.

Always keep the client informed. Make sure the client knows what is happening in his case, what the problems are and what you are doing to address them. Listen to the client and seek his input when formulating a case strategy. Clients hate surprises. One surprise too many, and that client will look elsewhere for legal advice.

A client you speak with, write to and e-mail frequently is often very forgiving of the mistakes you make.

Your kids are always watching you. Live accordingly.

Work as if you’re kids are watching you.

Return messages promptly. In this age of Blackberries, Trios and other technology, the 24-hour-rule is an anachronism. Try 4 hours.

The attorney who was disbarred for misappropriating client funds started years ago by fudging on the little things. Don’t start down that path.

Learn how to use the postage machine. It’s only a matter of time until you’ll have to mail a letter after hours. While you’re at it, learn how to make two-sided copies, how to scan documents and how to send an overnight package.

Show me a lawyer who works hard and I will show you a lawyer, who sooner or later, is going to make it.

The Bible is right. You reap what you sow.

Instead of reading your kids bedtime stories, make them up yourself. Make your kids the protagonists. Have them fight ogres, slay dragons and seek buried treasure. They’ll ask for more and you’ll develop your story telling skills for trial.

Most emergencies are self-made.

Before sending anything out, proofread it at least twice. Three times is preferable.

And proofread outloud.

When you first get a file, call opposing counsel and introduce yourself. It’s harder for an attorney to be unprofessional if he’s had a pleasant conversation with opposing counsel.

Get to know opposing counsel. It’s harder to fight over trivial things if you’re asking opposing counsel about his daughter’s recital and he’s asking you about your son’s soccer game.

When the other side starts objecting during a deposition, you’ve tripped over something. When he starts making speaking objections, you’ve hit pay dirt. Keep digging.

Instant oatmeal is great. Pour a pack into a styrofoam cup, fill with hot water, and voila, breakfast at the office.

If you’re going to have breakfast at the office, make it a point to have breakfast with your kids on the weekend.

The first thing you do -- read the jury instructions. They will be your road map for the entire case. They tell you what the parties have to prove, what the defenses are and whether you stand a chance of winning or not.

If you want your clients to be happy, act like the waiter at your favorite restaurant. At my favorite restaurant, the waiter sits us at "our" table, makes sure we have plenty of bread, brings out the kids’ meals first and keeps our soda glasses filled. He knows our needs, meets them and does it all with a smile. Provide that quality of service to your clients and they’ll keeping coming back.

Funny thing. The food at that restaurant is good, but not great. We come back for the service.

You can’t win without a theme. Start developing the theme of your case early. Every interrogatory you propound, every motion you file and every deposition you take should be done to advance that theme. If you wait until two weeks before trial to develop your theme, it’s too late.

However, don’t be married to a theme. As your case develops, your theme must develop. During the course of litigation, you may pick up and drop a half a dozen themes on the way to finding one that is worth holding onto.

Have a theme for your life. What are you trying to accomplish? When it’s all said and done, and your career is over, what do you hope to have done with your life? Don’t settle for figuring out what your cases are really about. Figure out what you are really about.

Writing is all about nouns and verbs. Adverbs, adjectives and prepositions are overrated.

Actually, writing is all about verbs.

Extra words are the enemy. Eradicate them.

We all have short attention spans. When you write a motion, memo or letter, make your point up front, hit the highlights and stop writing.

Argue your motion out loud before a hearing. It’s one thing to see your arguments written down on paper. It’s quite another to listen to how they sound.

Put yourself in the shoes of the judge and opposing counsel. Anticipate the other side’s arguments and the judge’s likely questions. Thinking this way avoids surprises at hearings.

Get involved. Being a good lawyer entails so much more than working on your cases. If you want to grow and develop, join a voluntary bar association or two and volunteer your time. The relationships you will develop in these organizations will be priceless.

Make a list of your strengths and weaknesses as a lawyer. Pick one of your weaknesses and work on it this year. If you write poorly, read some books on writing, maybe take a class. If you are a poor public speaker, consider joining Toastmasters. Tackle the weaknesses, one at a time.

Also make a list of your goals for the next year. So many of us have a strategy when it comes to our cases, but many of us do not have one when it comes to our lives.

Know your opposing counsel. Look at his website, his jury verdicts and published opinions. Ask around about the type of lawyer he is.

Know your judge. Read the appellate opinions that have upheld his rulings and those that have overturned them. Know what his judicial philosophy is and most importantly, what his pet peeves are.

Prepare every case as if it’s going to trial, not as if it’s going to settle, even though most do.

Always keep a clean desk. You look like you are in control when you do, even if secretly, you are not.

Write your own obituary. Write out how you want others to remember you. Now spend a lifetime trying to live up to that description.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Excellent advice Frank!