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Bench & Bar of Minnesota is the official publication of the Minnesota State Bar Association.

Common sense, the Golden Rule, and new attorneys

Being new at anything—let alone something as demanding as being an attorney—can be disconcerting. Though the long years of law school and running the gauntlet of bar prep undoubtedly help to mold individuals from student to professional, there are some lessons that can only be learned outside the classroom, and some of them are so basic they’re easy to overlook. Whether you’re establishing a solo practice, signing on as corporate counsel to a Fortune 500 company, or joining the ranks of an established law firm, a few common sense rules will serve you in your career for years to come.  

First, be nice to the staff! This is a particularly important lesson for new attorneys who are joining well-established law firms and corporate organizations. More times than not, those office assistants, paralegals, and secretaries have been doing their jobs, or working in that office, for a long time. If you employ the golden rule and treat others as you wish to be treated, these individuals can become a valuable resource in the workplace and a saving grace in critical moments. Treat them rudely or disrespectfully, though, and they may not be quite so quick to lend a hand when you could really use it. This tip also applies to opposing counsel in the courtroom. Your career does not start and end with one case and, particularly in smaller communities, it is likely that you will face off against many of the same adversaries time and again. Don’t earn a reputation for being rude. 

You must also learn to recognize when you can find the answer to a question, and, as importantly, when you can’t. Often, new attorneys hesitate to ask a question or seek help for fear of looking incompetent or unknowledgeable. Refusing to ask for help will cause you to waste valuable time going down rabbit holes. Conversely, though, a partner at your law firm will likely not be pleased if you come to them with a question that could have been answered easily with some due diligence. When you have reached a point where you simply don’t know what to do or where to look, then recognize that it is time to seek reinforcements. When you approach your boss or the partner you’re working with, be sure to tell them everywhere you’ve already looked in an attempt to solve this problem yourself. This will demonstrate that you didn’t just run for help, but instead possess the motivation to try to answer the question before coming to them. If you find yourself confused from the get-go on a particular task, it would behoove you to seek additional guidance from the assigning party before getting started. 

Finally, keep in mind that you must always work to understand how your clients’ objectives fit within the larger picture of their lives or businesses. At the beginning, many young attorneys focus solely on winning the legal argument without fully understanding or appreciating a client’s objectives, or the impact that a judgment either way may have on the client. Having an honest conversation with a client prior to any court proceeding can help to set expectations, defuse high emotions, and aid the client in developing realistic expectations about the outcome of the case. Remember, a majority of clients only hire an attorney because they are going through a very hard time in their lives. By being frank with them from the outset, you can help to curb expectations and, potentially, disappointment down the road. On the other hand, you’ll have even more reason to celebrate a client’s victory should the case go your way. 

The job of lawyer is unique. Few professions require individuals to delve so deeply into the personal lives of others, to so critically analyze the placement of a comma, or to review hundreds of thousands of pages to find the one anomaly. It truly is not a job for the faint of heart, but neither can we afford to lose our hearts in the process. By treating others as we wish to be treated, recognizing when it’s time to seek help, and reminding ourselves that someone else’s expectations are more important than our own, we can establish ourselves as the kind of attorney that others want to work with and to work for, regardless of our hourly rates or practice areas.

ERIKA M. GNAZZO currently serves as pro bono legal counsel for the United States Air Force Judge Advocate General’s Corps in Tokyo, Japan. She has a variety of experience, ranging from commercial litigation to criminal defense.

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