Important Aspects of Running a Legal Practice
Legal education doesn't end upon graduation from Law school. In fact, it's just the beginning. Law School worked well throughout most of the 20th Century because there was an unwritten rule between law schools and law firms. Law schools would teach people to think like lawyers and the basic tenants of our legal system. Law firms would finish that education by training law school graduates on how to be actual lawyers. The whole process from non-lawyer to useful lawyer takes at least six years (three years of law school and three to four years of meaningful practice experience).
But when law firms stopped providing meaningful practice experience, the education cycle for lawyers broke down. Just a mere two decades ago, it was common for new lawyers to stay with their first firm for at least five years. And that firm would have a vested interest in training young lawyers to be better lawyers. The billing rates of young lawyers allowed them to work on client matters without worrying about complaints on unnecessary fees.
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Then came the dot-com boom and bust. The boom gave us hugely inflated starting associate salaries and the bust gave us clients who couldn't (and wouldnt) foot the bill. Add the economic meltdown of 2008, and the problem becomes more profound.
Today, law school enrollment is down, legal hiring is down, while the cost of legal education is skyrocketing. And that legal education (costing some $40,000 or more per year now) won't prepare you to be a useful lawyer. Its only one-half of the educational puzzle. The other halfpractical experienceis becoming harder and harder to find. But practical experience is a key ingredient to being a competent lawyer.
So why not have a class on preparing for legal practice? Something taught at law school that would prepare students for at least some aspects of practicing law. If I we're to teach such a class, these are the top 6 topics I would cover:
1. How to Act .
Be professional. This isn't cage fighting or mixed martial arts, this is a profession, so act professional. And be civil. You can fight just a hard, and actually harder, by being civil than you can by being rude and abusive. Especially in Court, where most judges will not tolerate rude and abusive behavior. But if you are civil and highly persuasive, you will go far for your clients.
2. How to Write .
Write well. Do not (do not) try to write like a lawyer. Or worse yet, try to write like you know what you're talking about. You don't yet and it does no one any good to fake it. Better to take your time to write as well as you can. Simply say what you mean. I am not an expert on legal writing, but experts abound and can be useful in exploring good, solid legal writing. For instance, see legal writing wizard,Brian Garner.
The other trick to writing that I suggest is reading well-written news articles, such as CNN.com. If you read through just ten articles on CNN.com at least 9 of them are well written. And they accomplish something that few legal writers can accomplishtell you what the article is about in the first paragraph. That is crucial for good legal writing. You are not writing a novel to be enjoyed over a weekend of leisurely reading. You are writing a brief that no judge wants to read. If you don't say what you want in the first paragraph, then don't bother saying anything at all. It won't be read unless it is easily accessible.
And never forget that good writing takes time and many (many, many) drafts. Good writers don't file the first thing that comes off their printer. You must take the time, and make the effort, to write well. It is painful to go through multiple drafts of a pleading, but it is worth the effort in the end. Theres always room for improvement when it comes to legal writing. Any shortcuts spell disaster for an otherwise well-written brief.
3. Seeking a Mentor .
You can't become a great lawyer on your own. You must have a mentor. But the days of locating a single mentor to guide you through the first three years of practice are gone. Few people have this luxury. The good news is, you don't need a single mentor. You can find mentors in many people who can teach you many different things. In fact, diversity is good when learning. It allows you to see different ways of accomplishing the same goal. Eventually, you can adopt your own way from many different approaches.
And not every mentor even knows they are mentoring. For example, you can find out when a great lawyer is conducting trial and simply go watch him or her in action. Observing great lawyers doing great things is tremendously instructive, and so rarely used by young lawyers. Every courtroom should be packed with young lawyers anytime a seasoned veteran is conducting trial. Of course, that never happens. And yes I know all the excuses (Im too busy, I don't know when a good lawyer is in trial, I don't have time), but the ability to learn by observation should never be underestimated. Whatever you are doing that you think is more important than observing a great lawyer in action, it's not. Go observeoften.
4. Dealing with the Court .
Patience, as they say, is a virtue. With all the recent budget cuts, dealing with the Court system is more trying than ever before. Court personnel are overworked and simple filings can be difficult to complete. But court personnel are people too, so treat them like peoplenot servants. A little kindness goes a long way when dealing with the Court.
5. Dealing with Clients .
Variety is the spice of life. Clients come in all kinds, shapes, and sizes. Knowing the different personality types never hurts (see the Meyers-briggs personality types). Thinkers vs. feelers, intuitive vs. sensing, introvert vs. extrovert, and judging vs. perceiving. You don't have to be a therapist, but you should know that different personality types deal with situations in different ways. Generally, the way a person gives out information is how they like to receive information. In other words, you can't treat everyone the same way. You have to customize your approach based on the type of person you're serving.
For example, if a client is on the quiet side and talks slow and analytical with great detail, then it works best to talk to them in a similar manner. But if someone talks loud and fast, then you need to speak up and talk faster.
6. Court Appearances.
Two rules you must live by (1) answer the judges question directly, and (2) say as little as possible. Like writing, the judge has no desire to hear you speak. The judge has a job to do, and you have a job to do. Put some thought and time into your preparation before going to court. Ask yourself why am I here? What do you want to accomplish and how can you present your side with the fewest words possible. Theres nothing more frustrating that watching a lawyer who won't just answer the judge's question, or doesn't have any clue on how they would like their case to proceed.
For example, if you are appearing at a case management conference, do you want more time for discovery? What discovery do you have to do, what have you already done? Do you want a trial date? When would you like that, do you have any motions to file before trial (such as a motion for summary judgment), better build in the time for that. These are not hard questions, yet so few attorneys think about them before going to court.
The same applies to motion practice. If you did a good job writing your legal argument, then it's time to just give the highlightsif you are asked to do that. If not, then let the judge talk, answer her questions, and say no more. Bloviating endlessly about the brilliance of your position, or worse whining about what the other side has done outside the issue currently before the court, is annoying and unpersuasive. Get to the point, answer the judges questions directly, and then shut up and sit down.
I could talk about other areas of legal practice, but these are the biggies. There's a lot to learn, but it's not impossible if you dedicate yourself to your craft. Dont ever be satisfied with adequate when you have the opportunity and the ability to be great.
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Posted in Law Post Date 02/01/2019