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MS. J.D. INTERVIEWS GROVER CLEVELAND AUTHOR OF SWIMMING LESSONS FOR BABY SHARKS

Grover E. Cleveland is a Seattle lawyer, speaker and author of Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: The Essential Guide to Thriving as a New Lawyer (which is now in its second edition). He is a former partner at Foster Pepper PLLC, one of the Northwest’s larger firms. His clients included the Seattle Seahawks and other entities owned by Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen. Grover is a frequent presenter on new lawyer career success at law schools and firms nationwide. Grover is an avid Ms. J.D. supporter, and he offers readers the opportunity to submit questions on his Ms. J.D. Blog here or follow him on Twitter @Babysharklaw. He is not related to the 22nd and 24th President of the United States. I was afforded the opportunity to interview him, and give the first book review of the brand new second edition of  Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: The Essential Guide to Thriving as a New Lawyer. Check it out:   

So I just passed the July 2016 Bar Exam, and like many other brand new lawyers I’m quickly finding out that I still have a lot to learn about career advancement. Career anxiety has caused me to frantically knock on every mentor’s door, and quietly hoard “how to [insert business skill, or ‘real lawyer’ reference] books.” Then I remembered having the pleasure of meeting Grover Cleveland at the 2015 Annual Ms. J.D. Conference, “Stronger Together” in San Francisco, CA. Grover is a steadfast Ms. J.D. supporter and was featured in Ms. J.D.’s “The Incredible Men (TIM) Initiative in 2014. I’m honored to be able to do a book review of the extremely helpful Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: The Essential Guide to Thriving as a New Lawyer (Swimming Lessons).

       Since the cliché about pictures has more than proven to be true over the years, take a look at this:

The picture is of my sticky notes with the comments, questions, and reminders that I wanted to remember and elaborate on in my interview with Grover. Keep in mind that this book is less than 200 pages and is in medium sized font. I have to say that the fact that I had so many take away points from such a short read is a testament to its usability. There’s even a “Quick Tips for Success” appendix for those who don’t have much time to read. Because this is a “lessons” book, I figured the best format would be to give you some of the most useful points.

  1. 1. Common Sense Reminders: as new lawyers, most of us are nervous about EVERYTHING, from simple interactions to actual on the record appearances – we are walking basket-cases. Swimming Lessons provides great reminders about those common sense things that nervousness tends to make one forget. Some examples of common sense reminders were: say thank you, have a clear understanding of deadlines and other assignment questions, and if you get drunk at the holiday party, that’s what people will remember the next day in the office.
  2. Navigating “the lines”: I’m always curious about what “the lines” are. That is, how many questions are “too many questions,” or what is “too assertive,” or “too much information,” “too friendly” – you get the gist. This book provides a good frame of reference for what could be considered “too much” or “too little” in your everyday actions as a lawyer and a professional. While most of these things will be determined by the firm atmosphere and on a case-by-case basis, Swimming Lessons does provide helpful bright-line rules.
  3. Finding Out What You Don’t Know: Or at least what you’re not thinking about. There are a lot of things about law practice that you won’t know or understand until you begin to practice. Reading Swimming Lessons was like getting to look at the answers before taking the test. I found out about things that I wouldn’t have even thought to ask, but will most certainly come up at some point in any lawyer’s career. For example, strategizing how much non-billable work you take from senior lawyers, and using the non-billable work you do to your advantage and many other law practice caveats.

I think this book has an immense amount of sound advice. I found it very hard, to sum up what was most useful into three general points. There is a lot to be learned from this read. More than once I thought about my friends who are now new lawyers at both large and small firms, and how often the points provided in this book have come up in our work discussions. My only criticism—if it can even be considered a criticism—is that this book is a perfect fit for a law firm lawyer. Even though a lot of the advice given can be applied to new lawyers in other legal and quasi-legal career paths, I still found myself wondering whether some of the suggestions could apply outside of private practice. If you’re a new lawyer at a firm, Swimming Lessons is a “read or perish” book; if you’re a new lawyer in a different setting, it is a “read it because it’ll save you lots of heartache” book.

Now for a Confession: I do not work in a law firm, but I still read this book with an anxiety that would make more seasoned lawyers laugh, because I instantly knew that I would make some of the mistakes that Grover mentioned at some point in my career, possibly more than once. Investing in your career is important, so if you’re like me, and you are hoarding “how to” books, then get this one!

For a more career tips from Grover, and more info about Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: The Essential Guide to Thriving as a New Lawyer, check out the interview below:

1.     Would you say that a fair number of the new lawyer gaffes that you warn against are inevitable? If so, which ones are most common?

Grover Cleveland: They are not inevitable, but they can be common – and painful – which is why I wrote the book. Missing deadlines, for example, happens – even though everyone knows that deadlines are important. People take on too much work – or don’t understand how long a project will take. There is a gap between understanding and doing. Even though people know they need to meet their deadlines, time management can be a challenge.

Another common issue is that new lawyers may not understand assignments and produce something that’s different than the assigning lawyer expected. This often relates to not asking enough questions – or the right questions.

2.     We [the legal community] often talk about how practical legal skills are important and should be implemented in the law school curriculum, but what about professionalism? You discuss how professionalism is a skill that should be developed, but what does that development look like?

Grover Cleveland: Law schools are doing a lot more to teach practical and professionalism skills than they did even five years ago. Schools have taken different approaches – and there is a debate about what skills are appropriate for law school, and what training should happen after law school. Some schools have instituted practical skills classes, and others offer programs primarily through the career services offices. But new grads also must do some of the work themselves. I recently partnered with Above the Law and Ms. J.D. on a new lawyer survey, and 72% percent of the respondents said that law school did not prepare them for practice.

3.     Chapter one talks about the importance of passing the bar the first time –particularly in the law firm summer associate pool. Can you speak to any potential disadvantages outside of the firm atmosphere? (I’ve heard some non-legal employers won’t hire you if you didn’t pass the first time).

Grover Cleveland: If you don’t pass, it can be a stigma –sometimes unfairly so. I know people who are very smart who failed the bar the first time but passed it the second time. But failing can plant seeds of doubt for any prospective employer.

  • Follow-up: Is it the legal community that’s presenting this stigma, or is it the job?

Grover Cleveland: Ironically, people in the legal community may be more sympathetic than non-legal employers. Having gone through the bar may cause people to have more empathy. So non-legal employers may have more concerns than are warranted – particularly since bar passage isn’t required for the job

4.     You said on page five that, “…everyone at a law firm must justify their existence every single day.” Have you found that Millennial attorneys adjust to this differently than other generations?

Grover Cleveland: Generalizations can be dangerous, but the current generation at least has a reputation of wanting more explanation of the reasons for rules and norms than previous generations did. But most people who go to law firms ultimately understand that they must pull their weight – which means doing work that clients are willing to pay for.

There is no such thing as free money, so as salaries go up, associates have to generate more revenue. That’s one of the ongoing pressures.

5.     When discussing communication –more specifically the appropriate means of communicating, you said that some e-mails need to be answered via “face-mail, ” i.e., face-to-face. What kinds of e-mails would benefit from face-mail?

Grover Cleveland: Try to get assignments in person and deliver bad news in person. An example would be, “I may not be able to meet this deadline.” A face-to-face conversation gives you more information about how the other person’s reaction, and it shows that you are taking the issue seriously. But you don’t want to stay silent if you can’t get a face-to-face meeting.

  • Sub-question: you also said no emojis, which makes sense, but how do you feel about “Haha” or “LOL” in e-mails?

Grover Cleveland: For professional e-mails, I am not a fan. With every kind of communication, I recommend that you consider the impact on the other person. Who are you e-mailing, and what is your goal in wanting to include “LOL,” or “haha”? Get in the habit of using your filter. At first, it’s safest to err on the side of formality. If you are giving legal advice, LOL and the like probably undermine your credibility.

6.     During the sections in the book where you discussed turning down something (whether it was work or a suggestion) from a senior attorney, I got the sense that one should “tread carefully.” Is turning down work or other requests seen a slight to the giving attorney?

Grover Cleveland: It can be. It’s like if you can’t get a doctor’s appointment, you think, “Should I keep using that doctor.”? If you’re trying to build a relationship with someone who needs help, you strengthen the relationship by helping. The opposite is also true because someone has to do the work.  But you shouldn’t take on work if it is going to cause you to screw up other work.

7.     Not being a social butterfly at the office is great advice, but do you have an opinion on how men and women should build working friendships/relationships? (The context of this question stems from the idea that both parties sometimes feel awkward, and avoid work trips together or outings that run late to avoid the appearance of impropriety).

Grover Cleveland: I would not advise anyone to avoid taking on an assignment because of the other lawyer’s gender. Working late can also be part of the program. But in all office situations, everyone needs to make sure they have their filters on and that they maintain a professional demeanor. The focus should stay on the work. Firm social functions and alcohol can make things more complex. There’s an example in the book about declining a ride from a colleague after an office party if the ride could generate gossip: Just say, “the Uber is on the way.”

8.     You talked about setting boundaries, particularly with canceling vacations and when you respond to e-mails that arrive at odd hours. What would you say is the most common mistake that new attorneys make when trying to achieve work-life balance and establish boundaries?

Grover Cleveland: Failing to consider the impact on colleagues can be an issue. For example, a person who announces that they are taking a vacation at the end of the year – when everyone else in the department is working feverishly. Surprises are also a problem. If you need time off – for whatever reason – try to let people know your plans well in advance. And work with supervising lawyers on a plan to make sure nothing falls through the cracks in your absence.

9.     In Swimming Lessons you mentioned strategic networking, and aligning networking with career goals. You give really good examples of strategic networking when you have a plan, but what does it look like when you don’t?

Grover Cleveland: It’s all about making choices about how you’re going to spend your time. To a great extent, strategic networking is about prioritizing. Maybe at first strategic networking is deciding how much time you will spend networking. Consider what is the easiest thing you can do, what’s the most enjoyable, and what’s going to provide you with the most career benefit? For many new lawyers, that may mean building relationships within the office.

10.       In the chapter “Swimming Away,” I like how you addressed its awkward placement in a book about career advancement, and I honestly felt a little odd reading it as well. I had an “oh my goodness, this could actually happen” feeling. What made this topic so important that you added in this book?

Grover Cleveland: Many people end up in the situation of leaving a job – either willingly or not. And there is not much information about how to manage the situation. You are not very likely to get information on how to leave a job from your law school career services office – or your employer. But it’s an area that is fraught with peril – like a divorce. Bungled departures can affect people’s future careers. I have seen it happen, so I wanted to provide some guidance.

11.       The law firm model is changing. For example, we see people leaving firms, rather than staying and making partner. Larger firms aren’t doing as well as before, and some have merged or closed. How much of your advice will remain relevant as the demand and production of legal services change?

Grover Cleveland: I hope most of it, and that’s one reason I updated the book – to make sure it stayed relevant. Technology has changed dramatically – and will continue to change. But since most of my book is about building relationships, gaining credibility, and building trust – as long as humans are giving legal advice, then Swimming Lessons will be relevant.

 

Special Thanks to Grover Cleveland for agreeing to interview with Ms. J.D!

This post has been brought to you by the Ms. JD Journalists. If you have suggestions for any topics that you think should be covered on Ms. JD, feel free to email your suggestions to contentdirector@ms-jd.org, and the Ms. JD Journalists will get right on it.

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