12 Things I Wish I Learned in Law School
Being a lawyer is inherently stressful, and the first few years of practicing law are arguably the most anxiety-inducing periods of your life (aside from 1L finals and the bar exam). As you enter the real world, you’ll learn very quickly that law school did not teach you how to actually practice law.
But rest easy! Practicing law doesn’t have to be as terrifying as it seems. Below are some practical tips gathered from seasoned attorneys across the country from their years of experience (tips that they wished they’d learned in law school).
When you graduate from law school, you have no idea how to work a case. The first year of legal practice is full of self-doubt and uncertainty, but fear not! Here are some tips to help get you through your formative legal years.
- Learn how to work a case from start to finish. From drafting a petition, to filing it, getting it served, actually trying the case, and closing out the file, you need to know how to work an entire file without any help or support. This usually means sitting with a senior paralegal and observing, asking as many questions as possible.
- Your client’s problems are not your problems. It is easy to become emotionally invested in a case, especially in your first year of practice. To preserve your sanity, you need to divorce yourself from the emotions of the case. Just because your client is going through a tough time does not mean you need to, as well.
- Confirm everything with everyone via email. Did a partner give you a deadline for a project? Confirm it via email. Did opposing counsel confer with you over the phone about a discovery deadline? Confirm it via email. Email is your best friend, and will save you from many future headaches when people try to dispute events.
A pain point for many attorneys, client relationships are both the lifeblood of the practice but also a source of constant anxiety. The ability to manage these relationships is crucial for your practice and your sanity. Here is some advice on how to maintain these relationships.
- Don’t ever assume that your client is an angel. Clients come to you because they have a problem, which means they want you on their side when they tell you their story. Be skeptical about everything, including your client’s story.
- Clients will lie, even if they don’t mean to. Even the most trustworthy and responsible members of the community will become embarrassed when recounting things for their attorney. This means they might embellish the truth or omit certain relevant details in their talks with you. Have patience and ask many questions.
- Never be the third attorney on a case unless one of the prior attorneys is dead or incapacitated. Be wary of potential clients who have been through multiple attorneys, especially if the attorneys are ones whom you respect. These clients are rarely worth the hassle.
Billing and Time Entry
Ah yes, the banes of legal existence—time entry and billing. This is how you get paid. Want to become the favorite attorney in your office? Enter your time daily, stay up to date with your billing, and follow these tips:
- Become comfortable talking about money. It’s inherently awkward to finish a phone call with a client by saying they owe money. But it’s money that they are obligated to pay and you do not work for free.
- Properly capture your time. Do not wait until the end of the day, week, or month to input your hours. You will forget a large chunk of time. Instead, keep a spreadsheet open all day and track it as you go.
- Follow up on unpaid invoices. You should know, at any given time, if any of your clients owe you money. If they have not paid their invoice, you should personally be following up with each non-paying client.
A cornerstone of the profession, ethics and professionalism are oft-touted but can also be hard to navigate. Here are some tips that will hopefully help you avoid possible grievances and future ethical issues.
- Never speak in absolutes. Many times, clients want you to make snap judgments. But in many cases, you will not have all of the information. Your answer to a lot of questions will always be “it depends.”
- Always Google your potential client, the opposing party, and your opposing counsel for every single case. Sometimes, you find gems like discovering your opposing counsel’s bar license has been suspended and they should not be practicing. Do your research.
- Does a document bear your signature? Then you need to be the one reviewing it. Some attorneys grow complacent and allow their paralegal or associate to sign their name on pleadings and motions. Do NOT do this. Your bar card is on the line. You should be reviewing every single word in that document.
Pressure and drama go hand-in-hand with the practice of law, especially for your first few years. However, by utilizing some of the tips outlined above, you can hopefully alleviate stress and become a better attorney in the process. Just remember—every attorney goes through this period in their legal practice. Have grace with yourself, and remember that you are not alone.
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