Starting a new job can be daunting if you’re unprepared. Having spent the last few years in law school and finally landing your dream job, the last thing you want to do is make your employer second-guess their decision to hire you. While it’s expected that new lawyers will not yet be experts in their craft, there are things you should consider as you begin your career, and in some cases, even while still in school.
“I thought I realized [this] but didn’t really see the significance of (and all my friends are in the same situation): All of those loans you take out will stay with you! I think that influences career decisions more than a lot of other things for younger lawyers. [Also], I wish I had done a Superior Court clerkship in law school – I did one after I graduated and I think it was even more useful for me than practicing for years. Even if you don’t do [one], you can still get experience by visiting the court that you want to practice in and seeing how it runs, familiarizing yourself with the rules and the local lawyers there.”
– Amanda Uphaus, Snohomish County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney. University of Washington School of Law, 2010.
“Law students have to be better on the business side. For example, accounting, project management skills, the really basic stuff… And what I’d call “basic business competency”; understanding different industries, business models, understanding how companies get financed or whatever aspect you’re working in.”
– Joel Espelien, former Corporate Attorney at Cooley and General Counsel at several tech companies. Duke University School of Law, 1996.
“What would the BEST waiter you’ve ever had do? Because we’re in the service industry, too, and you’re making a lot more than any waiter you’ve ever had. It’s all about customer service [as a lawyer]. 2: It’s not a straight line. Don’t expect what you start your career doing will be what you finish your career doing, or end up being what you do for the entire length of your career. 3: Identify something that you can be the absolute top of your class at.”
– Chuck Morton, Jr., Partner at Venable LLP and Adjunct Professor at Johns Hopkins University. University of Maryland School of Law, 1990.
“I wish I had more of a social work education coming out [of law school]. That’s obviously very specific to public defense, where you’re dealing with people who are in crisis a lot or who have acute mental health issues and symptoms. Second, manage your time in a way that gets everything done that you need, while also taking care of yourself. The last thing is knowing when the job isn’t the right fit and being okay with stepping away from it.”
– Molly Campera, King County Public Defender. Northeastern University School of Law, 2015.
“The hardest lesson for me was that I do have the knowledge, knowing that I was prepared and have the ability to learn my field. You don’t have to go into every client meeting or interaction already having all the answers. You can still gain the knowledge in time. You just have to be confident.”
– Anna Othman, Snohomish County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney. Seattle University School of Law, 2011.
“Business was a black box when I first entered the workforce, but my legal education and experience in the trenches helped me to realize that it isn’t just in the back country where you should ‘figure it out and get it done’. There is a tremendous amount of inefficiency and inertia in business and the law, not because things aren’t done in the best way, but because they are done as they have always been done. Disrupting and innovating those patterns, in a constructive way, is the single most important lesson that I’ve learned.”
– Nat Burgess, Founder & Managing Partner of TechStrat; former Analyst at Morgan Stanley. UCLA School of Law, 1996.
Chuck brings up several good points in his answer, and all three are applicable to every new lawyer. As a lawyer, you are a servant of the people and a servant to your clients. Your job is to go above and beyond their needs – “that’s what we need to deliver to our clients if we’re going to expect them to pay our ridiculous rates,” he says. Like Chuck, many of the lawyers we spoke to mentioned that a lawyer’s career path is not linear and you have to be willing to walk away when a job isn’t right for you, but his final note is something law students should start considering before getting out into the field: become an expert in something. The example he gave is this: a new lawyer is unlikely to establish themselves as an expert on the 1940’s Security Act, but what about cryptocurrency? “The use of technology in a transactional process and all of the complexity that that involves? Boy, at 25 years old you may have a leg up on me here at 53,” Chuck says. Find an area where you can excel and distinguish yourself from the herd. The mentors available to McGeorge students – through faculty, staff, and the Alumni Advisor Network – will help you refine your legal skills and prepare you to face today’s legal issues.
Many new lawyers will likely experience the feelings Anna had during her first few years post-graduation, too. While you may not have the experience and knowledge of veteran lawyers in your office, you are certainly more knowledgeable in law than your clients. There’s a reason why you’re behind the desk and others are coming to you for help. Be confident in yourself, trust your instincts, and know that all lawyers were once in your position; it’s just a matter of acknowledging areas needing improvement and working to do so.
Finally, to touch on Amanda’s first point, law students should be mindful of the loans associated with their education. Unless you’re fortunate enough to have no remaining balance from undergrad, you’ll likely be looking at a steep repayment plan that covers nearly a decade of university loans. To ensure that you don’t struggle financially (or accept a sub-optimal job offer out of necessity), try to be mindful of your everyday expenses while in school and still in the deferment period of your loans. This will make life as a new lawyer far less stressful. If you have questions or concerns about your loans and repaying them, stop by the Financial Aid Office or contact your lender to discuss your particular situation.
Full interview transcripts of the above excerpts can be found here.