"If I only knew then what I know now," is a common refrain by senior associates and junior partners alike. When attorneys start out, we do not have the experience nor have we developed the instinct to know what the potential land mines are, much less to know how to avoid them. I certainly did not. Because of my naivete and inexperience, I ignored doing some things that today are second nature. For attorneys starting out, try to avoid the following:
Not speaking with the client. Nothing upsets a client more than being ignored. He wants to know what is going on with his case and wants a role in the big decisions, and sometimes the small ones. If you want to upset a client, don’t call, write or e-mail. Just let him get bills month after month without knowing what you’re doing or what you’re charging him for. To develop good client relations, seek your client’s input before making any big decisions, sometimes even before making small ones. Find out what documents the client wants to receive during the course of litigation, how often he wants to hear from you, what he wants to be bothered with and what he would be happy with you simply handling on your own. Once you know what he wants, give it to him. He’ll appreciate you for it.
Not speaking with the partner before speaking with the client. Before you speak with the client though, especially about such things as case strategy, such as deciding which experts to hire, what depositions to take or what the law says about his case, speak with the partner on the file first. You want to be on the same page with the partner on the file, make sure you both see the case the same way and have the same game plan in mind. Nothing undermines a client’s confidence to hear two different, and possibly contradictory game plans from the same firm. And the partner, who likely has worked with the client longer and who likely has handled similar cases, probably already has a case strategy in mind or has strong opinions about just about anything you plan on speaking with the client about. Go to the partner first, discuss with her her views, and then speak with the client after everyone has decided on a plan and how to execute it.
Not getting client approval. Before spending the client’s money, get the client’s approval. Need an expert? Get the client’s approval? Want to depose a witness? Get the client’s approval? Want to videotape that deposition? Get the client’s approval. A client should never be surprised by your bill.
Sugar coating. Clients like good news. The thing with good news is that it is often in scarce supply in litigation. Do not tell clients things are going well when they are not. Do not tell them they have a strong case when they don’t. And when evaluating a case, when asked what the case is worth, give them an honest evaluation. If you’re going to err, err on the pessimistic, not optimistic side. When putting a dollar value on a case, do the research. See what juries have awarded in similar cases. If the client complains, says you’re overblowing it’s exposure, you have the verdicts to support your view. It’s always better to be in the position where you settled the case for less than what you thought it was worth than paying more than what you valued it at.
Shoot from the hip. When the client calls for advice or with a question, it is tempting to tell him whatever comes to mind. Don’t do it. Stop, take a breath, and let him know that you will look into or research the issue he raised and that you’ll get back to him as soon as possible. Then talk to the partner on the file, get his thoughts, hit the library, look at the file, be prepared for other questions that may be asked related to that topic area, and then, and only then, call the client back and have an intelligent discussion about whatever he asked about.
Not thinking things through the end of trial. It’s tempting to look at a research assignment, a deposition or a hearing as simply that, and not look beyond it as to how it affects the entire case. Get in the habit of seeing the big picture in your cases, analyze where the cases are going and how to get there. Once you develop that view, then everything you do in your cases will be more meaningful and should contribute to achieving that larger goal.
Turning in drafts. It’s tempting to turn in rough drafts to other attorneys in the office. They’re not the client and because they’re more experienced, they can put the finishing touches on your memo, letter or motion. The problem with that is that the lawyers in your office start seeing your work product as substandard. No matter what a lawyer says, no matter how quickly he wants something and no matter how often he says that a draft, no matter how rough, is fine, don’t give him anything but your best work. Treat the lawyers in your office like your client. Don’t give anything you wouldn’t give the client, which means it has to be perfect. I always review my drafts three times. It seems a bit time consuming, but it always guarantees a strong, clear and concise work product.
Sacrificing quality for quantity. As defense attorneys, we are under constant pressure to bill to meet our annual billable hourly requirements. In addition to billing so many hours each year, we know that some of those hours will get cut because clients will not pay for what they perceive as too much time spent researching, drafting or revising. Now the problem is clients want perfect work product but often don’t want to pay for the time it takes to make it perfect. That often translates into associates who produce great work having some of their time written off, which translates into longer hours to make those billable hour requirements. It is tempting to cut some corners so as to produce the same product in less time and reduce the risk of having your time cut. The problem with that, is that you can’t cut corners and expect the quality to remain at the same level. And at the end of the day, you want to base your reputation on the quality of your work, not on the fact that you meet, or even exceed your hours but that your work product is average.
Shying away from the hard assignments. It is tempting to avoid the tough assignments. They are tough for a reason. They take long, there are not always clear answers and things can go wrong, sometimes very wrong. But if you want to succeed, you need to tackle the tough challenges. Because they’re tough, it’s more likely you want be as successful at handling them as you would your run of the mill cases. But if you want to grow as a lawyer and earn your stripes, you need to handle them.
Avoiding social engagements. With all the hours to bill, who has time to attend bar meetings, get involved in local organizations or attend cocktail parties with judges? You do if you want to start developing the relationships that will be off in the long term. It’s easy to get caught up in billing the hours and forget about everything else. However, it is the everything else that will pave the way for developing clients and becoming partner.
Ignoring mistakes. If a mistake happens, it’s human nature to ignore it, to hope it goes away. The problem is that if you ignore it, there’s a good chance it will become bigger and that wart you ignored today may become tomorrow’s tumor. When you made a mistake, acknowledge it, talk to the partner about it and figure out how best to handle it. Problems have a way of growing when they are not dealt with.
Not appreciating that you are providing a service. Many young lawyers think of themselves as simply lawyers. Lawyers of all ages often forget that we are providing a service, just as a doctor, or a sales representative of a waiter does. Think of the last time you were served in a restaurant. What made you like a waiter and made you want to give him a bigger tip? What about that other waiter that you didn’t like? As lawyers, we are not all that different. Think about what service you receive from various sectors and what you like about that service and what you dislike. You probably like prompt, friendly service. You need to keep in mind that you are providing a service and that you need to do everything you can to make the experience a pleasant one. Otherwise, just as you might decide not to return to a restaurant because you had a bad experience with a waiter, a client may decide not to return to your law firm because he had a bad experience with you.
Not getting involved. Another mistake young lawyers make is not getting involved - not getting involved in bar associations, not participating in presentations to trade groups or not writing articles. Again, the strain and demands of the billable hour makes such pursuits difficult. However, you have to find the time to pursue those interests. Those are the interests that will help you develop the relationships that you need to prosper as a lawyer.