Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: Practical advice for new lawyers

Q: I have gotten lots of advice about getting off to a good start at a firm. Do you have any advice on things I should not do?

A: Yes. I will start with a list of top-ten goofs to avoid from Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks and expound from there.

Here is the list:

  1. Blowing a deadline or forgetting a task
  2. Citing an overruled case or statute in a legal document
  3. Coming up with the wrong answer to a legal question that has a fairly definite answer
  4. Not finding the answer to a legal question that has a fairly definite answer
  5. Revealing confidential information
  6. Contradicting another lawyer in front of a client
  7. Failing to track all of your time
  8. Trying to cover up a mistake
  9. Failing to proofread documents
  10. Flipping attitude to other lawyers or staff

Of course, just as there are many ways to succeed as a lawyer, there are many ways to fail. But focusing on a few key concepts will help you steer clear of most major messes. Two of the most important are: working to exercise good judgment and paying attention to detail.

Exercising judgment involves understanding and considering the impacts of your actions – in advance. Although some say judgment can’t be taught, people can almost always spot bad judgment in others. The discovery is usually accompanied by the refrain: “Can you believe that?” or “What were they thinking?”

Understanding the likely consequences of your actions and taking time to consider those consequences is critical. And that practice must become second nature. If you don’t know what might occur, you need to get more information. If you anticipate negative impacts, you need to assess another approach.

Stopping to think before you speak or act can prevent awkward situations – and worse.

A partner recently recounted that a brand new associate bragged at a welcome reception that the associate did not plan to work hard until January, “because that is when the hours start to count.”

The new associate made the remark in front of a group of other associates – and the partner. The quip may have been a joke fueled by spirituous beverages. The partner was not amused.

“We are running a business,” the partner later vented. That partner is not likely to clamor to mentor the associate.

The lesson: As a lawyer, never leap before looking.

Considering consequences can prevent many of the major goofs in my “top ten” list. Paying attention to detail can prevent many others.

Attention to detail is particularly critical early on. Lawyers will decide whether you are careful – or not – and tell others.

Double-check your work fastidiously. Be especially careful about facts and figures when it will be obvious whether you are right or wrong.

Your work can be virtually perfect. But if you spell the partner’s name incorrectly, that is what the partner will remember. Clients and partners do not think that misspelling their name is a small mistake.

And even small mistakes erode trust. Small mistakes make assigning lawyers fear that bigger mistakes lurk in the shadows. And if senior lawyers don’t trust your work, they are unlikely to give you more work.  

Review your documents, and then have someone who is meticulous review them again.

Efficiency is important, but never cut corners. You will get little grace for sloppy mistakes.

Good luck!

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 (West 2010). 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. Some of the questions in this column come from those presentations. Readers may submit questions here or follow him on Twitter @Babysharklaw. He is not related to the 22nd and 24th President of the United States.

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