Judith Potter's 11 Tips

For new lawyers

Judith Potter's 11 Tips

Eugene, from the Supreme Advocacy LLP, asked Judith after a law-related meeting if she’d write 10 things she’s learned, in her almost 2 1/2 decades, that young lawyers can learn from and thereby benefit from the experience and expertise of a senior member of the Bar (hey, I realize she’ll be emailing me in a minute or two to tell me off about “senior” – she’s “not senior, simply mature,” I can hear her tell me).

Judith took this seriously – consulted with colleagues – which is why she added an 11th tip in her latest draft.

“Some of these tips are from my own experience, others come from colleagues. All are helpful especially to those new lawyers starting off in their own practices or in small firms,” said Judith.

1. Get your accounts out promptly

This is so important. You need funds to run your practice and when you do not bill you do not get paid.

2. Be upfront with clients about money

That includes how, when and what is billed. Clients respect you more when you are clear from the outset as to what you charge and what is expected of them i.e. retainers, replenishing retainers, disbursements, etc. Don’t rely on your assistant (if you have one) to deal with these issues; find the courage to do it yourself – makes for a more trusting lawyer/client relationship.

3. Be respectful

Remember, lawyering is a service business. Your job is to give advice based on your client’s instructions. That means your clients need to know and understand the information on which to base their instructions. Give it to them. Answer their questions. That is part of the job. Keep in mind that the public likes to hate lawyers in general, but they want to like and have confidence in their own lawyer… and that leads to word of mouth referrals.

4. Network. Get involved.

Join legal organizations and other groups of interest. These are not only sources of business referrals but are also excellent sources of expertise and advice.

5. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice, from colleagues, co-workers and especially, from senior lawyers

As a new lawyer you will be as current as anyone regarding substantive law. What others can provide
is invaluable advice regarding strategy, process and experience be it the vagaries of your local court office or where to find the best resources for any given file. Being able to brainstorm through an issue with a senior member of the Bar can save you time, money and stress. Believe me, they are approachable. Who isn’t flattered to be asked for advice?

6. Make detailed notes, especially about advice you have given to a client

Sometimes a follow-up letter/email confirming the contents of your discussion and action plan agreed upon is helpful. If clients are stressed they don’t always take in what you are explaining while meeting with them.

7. Manage client expectations

It is important to return telephone calls and emails promptly but that doesn’t mean you have to respond to their evening and weekend communications unless they are urgent. You can usually tell from the “re” line whether it is something you need to read and perhaps respond to right away, especially in a high stress situation.

8. Do not allow your work to consume you

Put parameters in place. We are all busy but working into the wee hours should occur only when absolutely necessary and should be infrequent. Balancing your physical and emotional needs along with your responsibilities is a learning process but is essential to staying healthy.

9. “Litigation if necessary but not necessarily litigation.”

Don’t feel that you have to be an attack dog to be respected by your clients or other counsel. Try to resolve the issues before running off to court. Remember that settlement means you have to give something to get something. You want to do the best for your clients but sometimes what is best for their satisfaction and peace of mind is resolution and being able to get on with their lives.

10. Consider reading “The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Law” by Mark Herrmann

Recommended by a colleague and especially helpful for new lawyers starting out in big firms. Herrmann’s advice can be summed up as follows: “the single most important rule for a new lawyer… the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Think about everything you do from the other person’s perspective. Be reliable, thorough and trustworthy.”

11. I am adding an 11th tip which came from a colleague

It doesn’t apply to all new lawyers, but for those to whom it does I felt it was worth including, because it is so true and so important to hear when starting out. Don’t wait until you have established your practice before deciding to start a family if that is what you want to do. By the time you are at that stage you may no longer have the option. In other words, as I always told my young colleagues, there is no good time so just get started. You will find a way to manage having a family and a career if that is what you choose to do. As the saying goes “where there’s a will there’s a way.”

I am sure that every lawyer out there would have their own important tip to add to this list. They are simply intended as helpful suggestions. The most important thing to remember is to have faith in yourself. You graduated from law school, passed the Bar exams and, in doing so, proved that you have the right stuff. Know that. Believe that. Keep putting one foot in front of the other and before you know it you will look back and marvel at how far you have come. Enjoy the journey.