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Letter to A New Lawyer

What advice do I have for a new lawyer?  That's the money question from my friend and colleague, Susan Cartier Liebel who's preparing this week's Blawg Review #142 on that very topic. 

To start, I asked myself what kind of advice I would have found useful two decades ago when I was a new lawyer.   Unfortunately, back then, I disregarded the little advice that I did receive, because I thought I knew better.  For example, one older and somewhat doddering professor at my law school regularly told students that if we wanted a job at a particular firm, we ought do what he did "back in the day" (which for him was the 1930s) - put on a nice suit, march up to the firm's office with resume in hand, ask to see the managing partner and introduce ourselves.  My buddies and I had a laugh over our professor's well intended words of wisdom, mercilessly mocking him as completely out of touch.  But would it have hurt us to try what he suggested?  None of us ever did.  And now...all these years later, I now see the nuggets of value buried in my professor's seemingly outdated advice: the importance of putting yourself out there, taking initiative and most of all, making a personal connection.  So my first piece of advice to new lawyers is that you should keep an open mind.  Most advice is well intentioned.  It may not be right for you, but don't reject it out of hand. 

Other advice, I've addressed in past posts at MyShingle.  It includes:

  1. Remember that sometimes the smallest things we do have the greatest impact;

  2. Sometimes you may have to do something desperate to succeed;

  3. While keeping in mind that law and running a law firm is a business, don't lose sight of the higher purpose we can serve as lawyers and;

  4. Like Randy Pausch of the Last Lecture , embrace karma !

Two final pieces of advice.  First, don't waste effort seeking certainty or waiting for "the right time" - whether it's the right time to change a job, start a law firm or get married or start a family.  Not only does surety always elude you, but in focusing on it with spotlight intensity, you miss the best part of the journey:  living the questions, as Rainer Marie Rilke writes in his Letters to A Young Poet (this is my very favorite passage):

You are so young, so much before all beginning, and I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now...because you would not be able to live them.  And the point is, to live everything.  Live the questions now.  Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

Second, always remember that you are a part of a profession that pays homage to  precedent.  That doesn't mean we're bound by old ways, but rather, that we have the ability to create new approaches with lasting effects.  New ways of doing business, of achieving justice, or serving clients.   As a lawyer, you have an opportunity to leave your own personal mark on the law that will remain long after you're gone.  Don't waste it. 

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on January 12, 2008 at 08:02 AM in MyShingle Solo | Permalink


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I'm on the other side of 50. It hasn't quite been six years since I passed the bar. I have student loan debt the size of a small house. After two failed marriages, I finally found a partner, a friend, and the other half of myself. And he died last summer.

But one of the things that keeps me going is this: I’ve learned to think in terms of myself as something separate and apart from what I do. Instead of, “I am a lawyer,” I’ve learned to say, “I practice law.” I don’t see what I do as an entitlement, or a right (albeit one I’ve earned) but as a privilege to serve others and to be able to learn new things every day. That perspective is the core of my work. I got a note from a client recently who called me the help I was able to give him the "bright light" in the past year of his life. That "opinion" will never be published in a court reporter. It will never get me a place among the 50 (or 100, or 200) best lawyers in my geographic area, but it means more to me than any of that.

I am inordinately grateful to everyone, especially those who taught and mentored me before I showed any outward signs of success, for the privilege I have now, to serve in the practice of law.

Posted by: Dawn Bowie | Jan 13, 2008 6:31:43 PM

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