Gowned and ready to go: 10 tips for new lawyers and starting a law practice.
Becoming a lawyer is an intimidating thing. Massive amounts of responsibility are immediately delegated to you in an instant. People’s families, liberty, well being, financial security, and familial homes depend on your judgement and advice. Whether you like it or not: your opinion matters and people will rely on it for better and worse. For those unable to obtain or continue employment with a firm or senior counsel, that apprehension is agitated further by the myriad demands of private practice.
It was well over a decade when I felt that initial sense of enormous responsibility, and well over half of that since the needs of private practice came calling. Over that time, I was fortunate enough to have great mentors, colleagues, experiences, and cases to offer me some helpful insight into what it takes to survive in this gruelling profession.
Starting as a summer student for two criminal lawyers in Toronto, the practice of law has taken me on a journey I am very grateful for. After summering, I joined the largest and busiest criminal law firm in Canada. I remained there as an associate before becoming partner in under three years. After year four, like many lawyers, I knew that to truly obtain what I was after in law school, I would need to go out on my own. As the archaic saying goes, it was time to “hang a shingle”. In today’s world, that phrase would be better suited by “starting up a website” but anyway to phrase it – individuality comes knocking on the door of every lawyer and many answer.
Everyone has their time when they know it is right. For me it was in 2008 and Robichaud’s criminal law firm was started. I was no longer tethered to the security of paycheques and precedents. As an offshoot to the law firm, I also started King Law Chambers Inc. which was little more than a lease holding company that allowed 3 lawyers to affordably share space in a swank area of King West in Toronto.
Since then, both the firm and chambers have grown in pace and size. To date, our firm has conducted hundreds (if not thousands) of criminal files with great success. Better still, King Law Chambers has grown to the home of over two dozen amazingly talented lawyers. Although entirely independent from each other, these lawyers have used each others’ lessons and experience to incubate their goals and dreams into success that is truly remarkable in comparison to their peers.
I have learned many things while operating the chambers. I have seen many businesses succeed and, sadly, I have seen some fail. Above all, the chambers has taught me that success depends on other people. Yes, an individual is responsible for their success, but without other lawyers to contribute and assist each other along the way – that road to success is a much more onerous and uncertain destiny. I challenge you to find any successful lawyer who would say their success was a solo flight.
As such, let me try to relay some of the lessons those lawyers and experiences have taught me over the years.
1) Reputation is everything.
Since it is the most important element of a successful legal career, it has been said many times before: reputation is everything. A cliche yes, but one that you can never forget as a lawyer. This applies to this profession more than any other I can think of.
Why? Because as a lawyer, you are your brand.
Lawyers are rather unique that way in that our legal name is our product. It’s true that brand recognition and trust is important to any company; however with lawyers this takes on a special meaning.
Corporations can rebrand themselves with promises of new management, better quality, an “out with the old, in with the new” marketing campaign. Businesses can reincorporate, shift into subsidiaries, or dissolve altogether to move money into new ventures. There are countless examples where well known brands suffer from serious public relation problems or product failure who then rise from the ashes after a successful “rebranding”.
Yet lawyers are not companies; we cannot rebrand ourselves. We cannot reinvent. We cannot restructure ourselves. At best, we can seek redemption.
Who we are as lawyers remains with us for life. We cannot change names and take on new identities. We cannot make promises of new management or recall a faulty product. We are the product.
Reputation affects everything. Lawyers caught misleading the Court will never be trusted again. Lawyers in the news for acts unbecoming of a lawyer will forever be stigmatized as such. Lawyers who take the easy way out for their clients by easy deals or settlements will always be known by their respective perjorative labels.
Reputation applies to everything we do from marketing to litigation, correspondence to colleagues, and treatment of staff. Brilliant careers can come crashing down by a single blow to one’s reputation. Guard this with your life. In the end reputation is the only valuable asset you have.
2) Your law practice today germinates the garden of tomorrow.
If you want to grow tomatoes, don’t plant weeds.
When a lawyer starts their practice, there is rarely any serious thought put into what long-term effects your clients now will have upon the clients of your future.
Young lawyers are very eager to take on as many clients as possible to get the business up and running. It is tempting to accept everything no matter how little the retainer is, or how difficult the client may be. Challenging clients and burdensome cases are often taken on for the sake of experience with little regard on the impact it will have on the well being of your practice.
A lesson every lawyer will learn eventually is that it is ok refuse clients that are not desirable.
When you say yes to a client, you say yes to people just like him or her. You say yes to their friends and family. If you did it for little or no money while trying to appease and achieve all their unreasonable requests, then of course they will refer their friends and family. You will have an endless supply of people just like them who are looking for a lawyer just like you: overly accommodating, a hopeless optimist, and one that is free.
The sooner a lawyer says no to undesirable and unrealistic clients, the better your garden will grow. With a practice overstretched by tending to unreasonable or difficult clients, your better clients will be put on back burners and neglected. Your practice needs to be a healthy environment for your good seeds to grow by delivering them the nurturing they need. Its much harder to tend to a garden grown in a weed bed.
Know that 95% of your problems as a lawyer will be caused by 5% of your clients if you let it happen. If you free up that time, you can spend more time fostering the types of clients that you do want as part of your practice. Stop watering the weeds and tend to the tomatoes.
Your business infrastructure is the same way. If you develop poor business habits, they are the habits that will remain for your practice. Ensure that all the rules are followed from the beginning so that 3 years into your practice, you will have an efficient, compliant, and well run machine. Besides, the Law Society will practice audit you after your first year so you may as well be perfect before they tell you what you are doing wrong. Setting things up the right way from the outset takes only a small amount of additional effort but will save you a world of problems in the future.
3) Have goals.
In running the chambers, I meet with at least 25 lawyers a year who want to talk to me about going out on their own or general career advice. There is nothing I like more in my practice than mentoring young lawyers, or lawyers about to start their own business. I love the conversations we have and the ideas we share.
Yet, it’s astonishing to me how many lawyers I speak to are not sure of what area of law they want to practice in as they start down this path. It is more astonishing to me to see how few seem to think this matters. It matters. A lot.
If there is one common theme among the many lawyers I have seen become a success in their practice is goals. Nearly every one who has “made it” has a 1, 3, 5, and even 10 year goal of where they want their practice to be.
Whether you like it or not, you must decide what you are going to do and commit to it. Even if that is only for a short period of time (such as a one year goal), commitment is critical. Decisions have consequences but indecision more so. Even if you choose to change direction later on, it is much easier to switch lanes when driving confidently between the lines, than swerving among infinite choices.
A simple question to prove my point: would you hire a lawyer who isn’t 100% committed to their area of practice? Would you want heart surgery from a doctor who is thinking maybe family medicine is their thing? Would you trust a pilot who laments daily of being a surfer?
Dwelling on other possibilities and wallowing in uncertainty in your practice will forever hold you back and create more disappointment with what you are doing. Ironically, those that just commit to their careers in the now will likely find greater satisfaction and an ability to transition to something else should they chose.
4) Maintain and develop relationships.
One day you are standing waiting to graduate from law school and the next you are watching your colleagues appointed as judges, becoming Bay St. partners, and elected as members of Parliament.
Time moves very quickly in this business but relationships last forever.
Law school provides an unparalleled opportunity to develop relationships with soon to be very powerful and influential individuals that you would otherwise not socialize with. The best referrals one will obtain as a lawyer will often come from a friend you went to law school with. The more friends and connections you have through a diverse field of influential lawyers, the better chance of success your practice will have.
Take them to lunch, go to parties, golf, and have fun. Above all, do not let these relationships die off. It takes a while but once all these people (including you) become the rainmakers, you will all benefit immensely.
Beyond these law school relationships, look outward to other professional relationships. Social media is a quick and easy way to get engaged with professionals spread across practice areas. Don’t forgo opportunities to meet those outside of your area of law. Attend seminars that are not limited to your expertise to network with those looking to do the same thing. Just think, every lawyer you meet may be a very large retainer in the future. One good relationship with an influential lawyer could be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of your career.
5) Find a mentor.
No one can do this on their own. The practice of law is much more than reading books and knowing the correct answer in law.
It’s about experience, guidance, judgment, ethics, and a humble acceptance of these needs. During my practice, I was very fortunate to have the mentors I have had over the years. I owe the vast majority of my own successes to their past and present guidance.
Approach this need with gratitude and humility: even the most experienced of lawyers still call others for views on legal issues, guidance on ethical dilemmas, or tactical decision making.
The best part about mentorship in the law is this is that lawyers generally love to be asked for their opinion.
I have never met a lawyer, no matter how senior or famous they may be, who would refuse to provide an opinion on something you asked about (unless they are opposing counsel of course). Senior counsel welcome requests for assistance and are often confused why junior counsel are so reluctant to ask. You will be amazed how much insight can be gained from one quick conversation with an experienced mentor. You may even get a great file out of it. The first step is to ask.
6) Be proactive about your clients’ satisfaction.
The most common complaint of clients is not to do with the result obtained, it is about the failure to communicate with our clients. We often feel as counsel that if we provide a wonderful result, the client will understand our lack of patience or our weeks of being incommunicado.
Communication can solve all problems. Even if your client has a terrible case and is bound to lose, communication can preempt unreasonable expectations with reasonable ones. No matter what the result, if the client doesn’t understand what happened or why it is a good one, you will be seen as a failure in their eyes.
Results in litigation or settlement does not speak for itself. You must speak, communicate, ask your client what they want and their expectations. Ask your client for feedback during the course of a file. If you assume your client is happy because they are silent, you are likely sadly mistaken. Explain the process. Explain the result. Predict the outcomes conservatively and honestly and communicate that.
After the end of the file, continue to treat them the same you would of a new client. We spend a lot of time, money, and effort in seeking out new clients but do little afterwards to ensure they leave our office ready to refer other clients to us, or return as a customer.
Take a few more minutes in drafting a closing letter that is personal, spend a few minutes afterwards and debrief them. Explain to them why it was a good (or bad) result that they should be happy with (or seek to appeal). Simply question: do you think they will call you again? If not, you need to fix that.
7) Take the time to learn your area of law as soon as possible.
Although not a universal rule, we generally have a lot more free time when we start our practice then five years into it. As our careers and time goes on there are many demands that drain our ability to perfect our knowledge and skills as advocates.
Children, practice demands, business demands, illnesses, complicated trials, speaking at conferences, engaging in professional committees and organizations, and so on. It never gets easy and that is not a bad thing. The reason it does not get easier is because you are evolving as a lawyer and the cases we take on become more demanding, stressful, and complicated. As practice goes on, there is little time to go back and learn the law so you can spot the issues that will make you an exceptional lawyer later on.
Graduating law school does not teach you enough law for the the practice area you are in. For that matter, you may have not even studied these things. Take the time now, regardless of whether you feel you have time time or not, to learn the tools of your trade inside out. Being in the midst of a murder trial is not the time to ponder whether the rule in Hodge’s case applies in this instance.
There is never going to be a better time than now to learn everything you need to know. Advance yourself while you still can.
8) Buy nice suits.
A strange and outlier piece of advice: buy high quality professional clothing.
Of course, this may not apply to lawyers making salaries of gods and goddesses, but for the vast majority of us trying to make a living, looking the part does not matter as much to us after a few years. However, it matters. It matters to your clients immensely how their lawyer projects themselves in appearance.
Don’t think it is important? Don’t think that your client’s care? Take the time to read Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink– The Power of Thinking Without Thinking and you may change your mind.
As a sample:
“We live in a world that assumes that the quality of a decision is directly related to the time and effort that went into making it…We believe that we are always better off gathering as much information as possible an depending as much time as possible in deliberation. We really only trust conscious decision making. But there are moments, particularly in times of stress, when haste does not make waste, when our snap judgments and first impressions can offer a much better means of making sense of the world. The first task of Blink is to convince you of a simple fact: decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately.”
Like it or not, appearances matter. Lawyers are no exception to this rule and in my experience, this is very important to clients. You are an extension of them in the Courtroom. The way you act, carry yourself, dress, speak, and conduct yourself is how they want themselves to be seen as acting.
I will help: dishonesty and greed (which are often products of one another). There is more than enough honest money to be made in law without being greedy.
Being driven by money is not a terrible motivation by itself; however, never let that drive compromise ethics or honesty as a lawyer or you will wind up on the webpage above. As mentioned, reputation is everything. To add to that, you can make more than enough money as an honest lawyer. The return on dishonesty is always a losing bet.
10) You have to work really hard.
You didn’t get into or through law school because it was easy. Well guess what, things now get harder.
You have to work harder, spend more time, be more studious, more dedicated to excellence, and more ambitious if you want to be successful as a lawyer. Being hungover is not just a C+ and no OCI, it may mean someone loses custody of their child, or their very liberty. Deliberate or sloppy mistakes cannot be afforded as a lawyer, and to reach the standard requires an immense amount of work and discipline.
Further, success is relative. There are many driven lawyers out there and if you want to succeed (i.e., do “better” than most), you have to work harder than them. It’s as simple as that. Working hard doesn’t necessary mean spending all your time in the office. Perhaps success is being able to balance family and professional life, leisure and practice, or perhaps it is just having everything you dreamed of when younger. However you may choose to define success as a lawyer, it does not come without hard work.
I remember leaving a jail late at night on a Sunday evening and running into one of Canada’s most respected criminal defence lawyers. Picking up on my surprise in seeing him there alone late at night, he broke my surprised look by saying with a smile “Don’t worry, it never gets easy.”
“Hard work pays off” is cliche for a reason: it’s the truth. With hard work, focus on your practice, and setting clear goals – the benefits will pay off in the end.
Bonus tip: for lawyers starting a law practice.
If you are starting your own practice you have to embrace the idea that you are not just a lawyer, but a business person. If anything, more focus is required on the health of your business than the law itself. If you cannot afford to make your car payments, than it won’t matter how great of a lawyer you are.
Owning your own practice means you are now a seller of legal products: advice, opinions, and guidance. Everything you do has to be treated as possessing value. As well, everything you do to deliver that has a cost. Just like a restaurant cannot survive by giving away free lunches, you cannot afford to give away free advice or assistance. That said, pro bono work is important and required. However, you must ensure that the lines between pro bono and your every day practice are not blurred. Work of that nature needs to be clearly delineated as such so you are aware you are losing money and not just wasting a bit of time. As they saying goes, time is money and nothing could be more true of a lawyer whose only product is exactly that.