“If I could talk to a class of law students, this is what I would say that would help them once they enter the ‘real world’ of working in a law firm.”

Everyone seems to be picking on the way law schools prepare their graduates for the work force… but, what exactly would you do to help prepare graduates for the “real world?”

This week we have a variety of legal perspectives coming in from the solo/small firm, client services, business development, information technology, Internet marketing, library, and human resource angles. The common threads seem to say that there are opportunities available to new lawyers, if you just take the time to think, ask, act and build upon those opportunities.

Thanks to all our contributors this week. As with every Elephant Post, we will list next week’s question at the bottom, and hope that you’ll take advantage of this opportunity to contribute.

Solo / Small Firm Perspective

You’ll Have Enough Debt From Law School, Don’t Add To It!

If you are setting up a new private law practice, just remember that every dollar you do not spend is a dollar you do not have to earn and, in a very real sense, every dollar of overhead ultimately comes out of the take home pay of the lawyer (or partners). So be very thrifty in setting up your new law office. Go to some auctions or other sales and look at good quality used furniture, for example.

Client Services Perspective

Solve A Real Person’s Problem
Ayelette Robinson

Take a clinic – When you start to practice, what will set you apart from everyone around you is your ability to provide exemplary client service. Taking a clinic will show you what it feels like to see your client’s face as they express that they need your help, and to want to be the person who can help them. Especially for those who go to big law firms, you may not meet a client for months or even years, and doing work because your boss says so is a completely different feeling from doing work because you know that you have the knowledge and ability to solve a real person’s problem. The latter is what triggers you to provide highly personalized, detail-oriented client service that sets you apart from the pack, both at a big firm where you’re being compared against other associates, and as a solo or small firm practitioner where you expect to get clients by word-of-mouth.

Business Development Perspective

How You Develop Relationships Will Determine How Well You Do as a Lawyer
Toby Brown

Dear Law Student,

The next time you are sitting in class, I suggest you take a minute and look around you. Although your success in law school will come from the attention you have been giving to the professor, your success in building a law practice or career will come from paying attention to those in the seats around you.

In other words, your professor will not be sending you any work once you become a lawyer.

Those in the seats around you will be the in-house lawyers of the future who decide who gets their work. They will be the law firm partners who help you land a job as a general counsel. They will be the government attorneys who decide on project assignments.

In short, it will be your network of contacts that will be the deciding factor in how successful you are as a lawyer. Going forward good technical skills as a lawyer will not be enough. Your ability to develop and foster strong relationships will be THE determining factor in how well you do in your legal career.

Those relationships start now.

My advice: In addition to doing well on your exams, spend time getting to know your colleagues. You will be rewarded with lasting friendships and valuable professional relationships.

Now you can turn back and pay attention to the lecture.

The Human Resources Perspective

If You Want To Know How You’re Doing… Then Just Ask!
Greg Lambert
[note: this is a combination of a couple of HR perspectives who wish to remain anonymous]

You have decided to make the legal profession, your profession. For those of you that have worked hard, studied hard, and, quite frankly, are lucky enough to land a job right out of law school, let me be the first to congratulate you, and give you some things to think about as you go forward.

Statistics show that 80% of you will leave your first law firm before your fifth year with the firm. I’ve found that there is a consistent theme that resonates in the exit interviews of most of these departing associates. Most believe that they were not being mentored sufficiently by the partners they worked with. At this point in the exit interview, the associate would lean in, lower their voice and tell me stories of how these partners never pulled them aside and said “hey, you’re doing a great job” or “you really need to work on ‘X’ skill because this is important in this area of the law.” Then they would lean back in their chairs, raise their voices back to a conversational level and explain how this lack of communication was one of the contributing factors in why they were leaving the firm.

When I ask if they have ever sat down with any of the partners they worked with, they would stare back at me for a few seconds, and then start rambling on about how it wasn’t their responsibility to ask the partner how they were doing… it was the partner’s responsibility. I would simply smile at the associate, but in the back of my mind I’m thinking how frustrated the associate has become and how simple it would have been for them to just go ask the partner for some feedback. I guess at some point it becomes easier to leave than it does to ask.

My advice to law students is to not become these associates. Yes, in a perfect world, the partners would sit you down and explain to you what you are doing well, what you need help with, and what areas you simply fail to comprehend. But this isn’t a perfect world, and partners tend to focus on their work more than they do managing associates. Sorry… that’s the truth and what you will most likely encounter when you start working.

Fortunately, these same partners will usually take time to answer your questions, if you only take the initiative to ask them. It may not be a formal sit down process, or a bullet-point presentation that lays out exactly what your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats are in your work performance. In fact, it will probably be a few comments (maybe over lunch or late-office dinner), that points out a few things you need to work on, and a few things that you’ve done well. Take those comments, work on them, and from time to time, follow up with that partner to see if you’re improving in those areas.

If feedback is important to you, then occasionally ask the partner how he or she thinks you are doing and what you could do better. It takes at least two people to have a conversation. As you move into your career as a lawyer, remember that you have just as much power to start that conversation as the partner you’re working with does. Take advantage of that power.

Information Technology Perspective

Embrace law firm culture, it will be noticed
Scott Preston

Partners notice technologically proficient associates, especially associates who work within the provided framework of a firm. Moving from a law school to a law firm is a big change and one such change is the way you use technology. Adapting to the culture of a firm includes using technology in a way that makes it easier to find and share information.

Find the time. Take advantage of training to understand how the firm’s technology works and how you will benefit from using it correctly. Using Microsoft Word on your personal computer in college does not prepare you to work in Word within a law firm. Most law firms use document templates and macro packages to help create consistent looking documents.

Find the gold. Understanding how to find and leverage the institutional knowledge of a law firm is very important. You must know how to produce quality work product quickly.

Find the players. Law firms have many great resources available to attorneys.

Professional Development: If you have a Professional Development department, take advantage of it. Professional Development will help you understand how to stay on the Partner track.
Library Services: Librarians are very resourceful and well-versed in research. Spend time with them in order to find their strengths, their data sources and which online services are available to you.
Knowledge Management: Knowledge Managers will help you find the golden nuggets of information that are stored within a law firm and they are also helpful in streamlining workflow.
Human Resources: Something new to law students transitioning to a law firm is having a secretary. Interacting with your secretary can be challenging and most young associates probably have little experience in this area. Talk with your HR resource about interacting with secretaries.
Information Technology: Get to know your local IT resources, they will be happy to help you. Share your previous experience with IT, this will help them better understand how to bring you up to speed with the firm’s systems.

The best opportunity you have to learn this information is when you first join the firm. Take advantage of this time and become an important part of the legal team.

Internet Marketing Perspective

You’re Already Marketing Yourself – So Think Before You Update Your Status!
Lisa Salazar

Would you rather live in infamy or fame?

I thought so.

So next time you or your friends are thinking about posting up those super-fun photos of you in your cute little Halloween outfit and bobbing for apples, think twice.

Those Facebook photos can live for a very long time.

And start your LinkedIn profile now. You are already writing articles, are members of professional organizations and alums.

Just think of it as the adult version of Facebook.

Library Perspective

Did you know…
Mark Gediman

Did you know…

Lexis and Westlaw aren’t free for law firms?

The only enticement you get to use either service in a law firm is a free meal?

Firms frown upon charging these expensive services to nonbillable or administrative numbers?

To get an offer, you need to use these services as efficiently (read inexpensively) as possible?

The first words out of my mouth during orientation is the annual amount the firm spends on online research services.  Now that I have their attention, I then explain the pitfalls of inefficient research.  Now that I have them sweating, I proceed to show them how to efficiently use the services and to offset the firm’s costs at the time.  By the time I’m done, most summer associates don’t want to even log on to the service.

Are  my methods draconian?  I don’t think so.  if I save one summer associate from charging $2300 to a client, I’ve accomplished three things: 1) Prevented the firm from losing said client, 2) prevented the partner from having an aneurysm and 3) helped that summer associate earn an offer.

Now, you might say “But Mark, isn’t it counter-productive to purchase services you don’t want people to use?”  It would be if i let it end there.  I follow up this spiel with a series of lunch presentations on researching specialized topics using these services efficiently as well as one-on-one coaching from the Library staff.  We offer assistance to composing the search before they log in and work with our vendor representatives on an ongoing efficient research program throughout the summer.

Now, to close:

– Lexis & Westlaw are not free
– Being an efficient researcher is the key to a successful law firm summer
– The Librarian is a summer associate’s best friend

And most importantly, TaNSTAFL – There is no such thing as a free lunch (or dinner or baseball game or Broadway show or…)

Next Week’s Elephant Post Question:

How do you build upon the strengths of the administrative people within your law firm – from the mail room to the C-level?

We thought of this question after we read a Hildebrandt Baker Robbins blog post called “One Word For Talent.”  In that post, Mark Sirkin brings up the fact that firms tend to divide the firm into “lawyers” and “non-lawyers,” with the focus primarily on the lawyers when it comes to managing talent. We thought we’d expand the idea and give you a chance to talk about opportunities that firms have regarding those “non-lawyers” (some of whom are actually lawyers, just not practicing).

If you have some ideas or suggestions and want to contribute to next week’s Elephant Post, then send me an e-mail to discuss.

  • Greg,

    One quick thought. While I agree that associates should not be afraid to ask how they are doing, I suspect that many partners won't really be prepared to give them adequate feedback because they were never trained to give it and (obviously) aren't in the habit of doing so. This is a problem on both sides, and saying to associates "in a perfect world it would be great, but this won't happen so deal with it" doesn't really get to the root of the problem. I suspect that it will only take a couple of times for those 5th years to ask and either get turned away or receive little in the way of practical feedback before they give up. And while it is good advice to ask, it won't make it better.

  • Jason,

    I think most firms have a formal process that they give annually. The thing that apparently was driving associates crazy was that this seemed it wasn't until they got in the room with the partner going over the evaluations that they learned of deficiencies in their performance. So, they were apparently getting frustrated about this, but it didn't seem to motivate them into soliciting feedback until they sat down in that same room the next year.
    From the HR perspective of the people I talked with, it seemed to be this cycle of "I want feedback, but I don't want to ask for feedback" that was the problem they're seeing from outgoing associates.
    Perhaps a real HR person could answer this better than I just did?? (hint, hint)

  • Wendy Lyon

    I second Scott's remarks about embracing law firm culture, but would focus and expand on just one point; "Take advantage of training…" Change is constant, and therefore so is the need to learn. Learning new skills and gaining new knowledge (both inside and outside the profession) make one more flexible and adaptable. New / improved legal or research skills help an attorney advance in his or her chosen career. Pursuing new interests outside of one's career (assuming it's not something you would be embarrassed to see in the paper) expands your network of potential clients, and improves your quality of life.

  • If you spending a fair amount of time in court try to have an office close to the courthouse and you will save money on transportation as well as having access to free services such as research sites and witness preparation rooms.

  • Wendy, thank you for expanding on my point. I agree with you, learning should be an ongoing process not a point-in-time event. Just as attorneys are expected to stay current on legal topics, they should make an effort to stay current on technology. Interesting how consumer technology is driving corporate technology as corporate adoption of technology lags behind. I believe this is a function of our rush to get more done. Sort of like driving a car, if you are going to be late for work, every little thing about traffic annoys you. If you are taking a leisurely drive on the weekend, traffic doesn’t bother you (as much).