What You Didn’t Learn in Law School: Top Tips for New Lawyers

  • May 15, 2014
  • Ann Macaulay

After years of schooling, you’re suddenly thrown into the real world of practising law. Law schools teach students how to think like lawyers and expose them to various areas of substantive law, but they can’t teach everything about putting the law into practice. You have all kinds of theoretical knowledge about law, but what do you really know about applying it?

Learning about the law is “very academic and esoteric,” says Ritu Banerjee, senior policy advisor with the Department of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness in Ottawa. “You learn about all these wonderful reasons for cases but in the real world that’s not really how things operate. You have to be much more practical and commonsensical about the situations you encounter.”

1. How to Get Started

Many new lawyers have the resources of a large firm behind them, but hanging up your own shingle is something else entirely. In making the decision to set up a solo practice a few years ago, Bayo Odutola of Odutola Law Chambers in Ottawa started out by asking a lot of questions: What was his goal? Which markets should he go after? Why would someone hire him over another lawyer?

He realized he had to surround himself with experts. “Get yourself an accountant, a bookkeeper, a marketing person.” You need to think about insurance, support staff, equipment—there are a myriad of things you might not have thought about.

“You’re starting your own business just like the guy in a corner store,” says Odutola. “Yes it’s a profession, but it’s first and foremost a business because without it the profession doesn’t exist. One of the common rules is ‘cash flow is king.’ If your outlays are more than your inlays, you’re screwed.”

2. How to Hone Your Communication Skills

“In our business, words are everything,” says Vancouver sole practitioner Ming Song. Communicating with people is one of a lawyer’s most important skills and while lawyers are typically good at language, they may not always be able to get their point across to clients, support staff, judges and other lawyers. Communicate your instructions to staff clearly. As Song points out, “everything can have two meanings. Even though you have an understanding of what you want, your secretary can think of something completely different.” Of course that also goes for clients and other lawyers.

Although lawyers are often portrayed in the media as cutthroat competitors, in the real world that’s not usually the best way to interact with the people you deal with in your law practice. Law is a relationship-based business and it’s important to remember that clients deal with you as a person first and as a lawyer second. “Clients won’t remember the legal arguments you put forth, they’ll remember the results you got and how you treated them,” says Odutola.

You don’t take clients with you. They come with you. “You’re the honey, they’re the bees,” Odutola adds. “They come because they like you and they trust you. Law school tells you if you have great arguments you’re going to be a great lawyer. Wrong. If you have great people skills you’ll have more clients. Just being yourself will get you far.”

When a client asks a question, don’t feel you have to provide an off-the-cuff opinion. You simply can’t know the answer to every question, and not having an answer won’t make you look stupid. Explain that you need more facts, you need to think about it or you need to do some research. “Take the time to get it right,” says Marc McAree, an environmental law specialist at Willms & Shier LLP in Toronto. “That will save you and maybe the client grief.”

Be up front with your clients from the beginning. Let them know how you bill and what your hourly rate is. “You want them to understand that if it’s going to be a lengthy litigation or a lengthy file that it will cost an amount of money and you want them to be prepared for that,” says James Mahon, an associate at Marshall & Company in Yellowknife.

Often clients believe that they were in the right to begin with and perhaps you didn’t really do that much to help them once their case is won. Deal with that by keeping your clients informed each step of the way. Call them or send updates on a regular basis and make sure they’re aware of everything you’re doing on their behalf. Detail your billings. Have a short ‘re:’ line as to what phone calls were about. “When you’re unsuccessful in criminal matters, it’s doubly important that you keep them informed when things haven’t gone their way,” says Mahon.

3. How To Market Your Practice

To determine the best way to market yourself and your practice, your first step is to focus on the type of law you intend to practise. Think strategically and have a plan. Since you have a limited number of marketing hours available during the week, be focused and make the most of the time you have.

McAree’s advice is to work hard and meet a lot of people within the industry you want. Go to bar association and law society functions and talk to other lawyers about the kind of work you do, since other lawyers will refer work to you. “Eventually the work will come if you’re competent, confident and you’re doing good work.”

Become an expert in the area you want to focus on. “I write and my name is everywhere,” says Odutola. He also works as a law professor and does volunteer work. He advises young lawyers to read marketing books and talk to other lawyers. When he first started out, he called lawyers out of the blue to ask for their advice and one lawyer told him to make sure his phone number is portable. “Your number is your intellectual property—you can’t let it go.”

McAree gives speeches to his target audience. “It demonstrates competence and ability, and provides an opportunity for networking and follow-up.” At every speech, he provides his business card and his firm’s quarterly newsletter. He offers audience members a free subscription to the newsletter if they give him their business cards, and usually 30 to 40 per cent of the attendees leave their cards. “That helps me focus on those people who are really interested, then I do follow-up later.”

He also has lunches with prospective clients within the industry to get to know people. “I suspend my self-interest. I don’t ask people directly about work when I first meet them. I ask them about their kids and their dog.” He adds that good listening skills are extremely important. “In North American society we communicate by waiting to speak. We don’t necessarily wait to listen to what other people are actually saying, we’re thinking about what we want to say next.”

4. How to Apply the Law in a Practical Manner

Law school doesn’t “teach you how to bill or how to schmooze clients,” says Banerjee. To be a successful lawyer, either on your own or trying to make partner in a larger firm, you’ve got to get clients. “Part of the deal is performing well, and the other part is you have to bill.” The concept of billable hours is foreign to most new lawyers, who quickly learn that you can’t bill for every hour spent working.

It’s one thing to have all the time in the world to do research for a school paper, but in a firm research has to be done much faster. “You don’t have a lot of time to second-guess yourself and follow tangents,” says Davis. “Do as much as you can in the time you have and just get it out there.”

Find out what resources are available to you. A senior lawyer is not necessarily going to have the time to tell you how to do something—it’s up to you to figure it out. Search out written resources, practice guides, CLEs, other junior lawyers and administrative assistants.

McAree was thrown into the deep end when he articled at a litigation firm when he was told to prepare a motion record, then argue the motion. “The concept of a motion I had theoretically some knowledge of, but the how to do it was very foreign.” He ended up as an observer in motions court to get “some clue” about what to do. He also spent time with a court process server to understand how materials get filed.

To help round out his legal education, McAree would sit in his firm’s lawyers’ lounge every morning for 15 or 20 minutes to hear the senior lawyers talk and to learn from them. “I was very concerned about making mistakes. I tried to overcome those concerns by researching and reading and talking to people who had more experience.”

In a nutshell, how do you learn the ins and outs of practicing law? Read books, do research, watch other people, listen and keep asking questions.

5. How to Be an Effective Advocate

It’s ironic, but many lawyers are not good public speakers. “I challenge anyone to go to a courtroom or sit in on a legal proceeding and not fall asleep,” says Banerjee. If you’re planning on being a litigator, take a course in public speaking or join an organization such as Toastmasters International www.toastmasters.org.

There are advocacy courses in law school, “but they really don’t prepare you for the kind of advocacy you need for a courtroom,” adds Banerjee. It’s difficult to present facts in a courtroom or try to get facts from a witness, examine and cross-examine witnesses. You’ve got just one chance to examine your own witnesses and not ask them any leading questions and do it in such a way that you actually get the information you want and not have any surprises. Learn to read people and to be able to extract information from them.

Before you actually have to go to court to represent a client, go to court and observe. “Take an hour, leave the office and go see what chambers is like,” says Song. Figure out how the system works.” Watch other people do it, watch experts do it. Tag along with more experienced counsel and see how they handle clients, what their judgment is of a situation. And do it yourself. A lot.

6. How to Mange Your Files

Learning to juggle concurrent files can be tricky. You’ll usually have different deadlines on overlapping files. How do you balance the couple of dozen files you may have on the go at the same time? Experienced lawyers say calendaring systems and support staff are key to being organized. If you don’t have time management skills, read books on how to delegate and how to get and stay better organized.

“It’s still a challenge to make sure that I’m not leaving clients out to dry for four weeks when I’m dealing with another client,” says Katherine Bilson at Robertson Stromberg Pedersen LLP in Saskatoon. “Each client thinks that he or she is my only priority. I have to make sure all of my clients feel that they’re getting enough attention from me at any given time and that they don’t have to wait too long for something to be done.”

Bilson advises that you prioritize your files at the beginning of each week. “If you’re heading to chambers or court for a specific file, that’s your priority.” If you’re spending the week in the office, go over each file to determine what needs your attention.

Manage your clients’ expectations about when things can be delivered and be realistic about what you need to do. Don’t raise their expectations. If you tell someone you’ll do something this week and you can’t get it done until next week, you’re in big trouble. Be realistic about your own work plan and your own scheduling, including work, personal and family life.

Document everything. “If you have a conversation with a client, write it down in your notes right away, says Davis. “Stick it in a file, keep all your material together. Take notes while they’re fresh in your mind, even if you speak to them briefly.”

7. How to Network and Find Mentors

Become involved with your local bar association and law society or organizations that pertain to the type of law you want to practise. Talk to law school friends and friends of friends. Go to meetings, participate in CLEs, join CBA sections, write papers, do charity work and simply meet new people.

When it comes to finding mentors, seek out people you trust and feel you have a connection with. Cold call people and tell them how much you admire what they do. Odutola’s several mentors comprise an informal board of advisors who give him advice on practical business, ethical issues and marketing. As he says, “It’s unfair to rely on just one person—you’re putting too much hope on one person to save you.”

Odutola’s advice for finding mentors is simple: “Find people you like. Ask yourself who do you really admire and who do you want to work with, then pick up the phone and call.” They may not have the time of day for you, but if so ask them to recommend someone else. “Never take no for an answer. Invariably someone knows someone who’ll say ‘I’d love to help you out.’”

8. How to Write

“Writing is a core part of the job of a lawyer,” says Bilson. From day one, you’ll be writing down lots of information, from briefs to memos to letters. “If you put some effort into your written communications then you’re going to be a better advocate in the long run.”

Learn to write so that clients will understand you clearly. Know your audience and explain complex concepts in a simple manner to clients. Whether it’s e-mails or pleadings, you have to write differently depending on your audience.

Since writing is research-based, your computer is your best friend. “The number of times I’ve used Google to do legal research is unbelievable,” says Davis.

9. How to Get the Work You Want

First, you have to figure out what kind of work you want to do. “Easy recipe, extremely difficult to implement,” says McAree.

Try different things and get exposed to different areas of the law. At some point you’ll notice which files you’re putting to the side of your desk and which ones you’re spending more time on. Make it a niche you can build for yourself. “What the firm wants to see ultimately is that we’re doing something that nobody else is doing,” says Bilson. “It’s a benefit to the firm, which makes you more attractive for them to keep around.”

Once you’ve decided what to practise, let people know, says Paul Godin, an associate at Stitt Feld Handy Houston in Toronto. “If you don’t tell people what you want, how can they get it to you?” That doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll always get the work you want, but at least they know if it comes up that’s something they might want to send your way.

Research the marketplace to find out how you can improve your chances of getting the work you want by working with those who do that kind of work. Eventually the work will come if you’re competent, confident and you’re doing good work.

“If you do work that you’re genuinely interested in doing, you will do a better job and you will ultimately be a better lawyer,” says Bilson. “If you can find that specific kind of law that you’re passionate about, and that you have a genuine interest in, that makes it easier for you to build your practice. It also makes it easier for you to become an expert in that field and will make the practice of law a more enjoyable endeavour.”

It can be hard to determine what practice area you want to be in when you come out of law school. “Business law class is very different from securities practice. It’s not the same thing at all,” says Davis. “You may have liked business but you won’t necessarily like securities work, so you have to work in as many departments as you can initially to figure out what you like. Then you make a decision as soon as you can about where you want to be.” Take work from as many people as you can. Get involved and go to functions. If you’re interested in health law and there’s a health law conference, go to the conference.

10. How to Deal with Support Staff

Several lawyers say they’ve seen young associates and students treat support staff with disrespect. “When we did our bar exams, they would constantly remind us to be very courteous to the staff at the courts, at the registrar’s office. You see a lot of the articling students or young lawyers—it’s unfortunate, but they’re rude to their support staff or the people at the court,” says Banerjee.

“If I’m not good to them and not respectful of them, then my job becomes harder to do, and the quality of work that I’m sending out goes down,” says Bilson. “The staff are as much a part of the team as the lawyers are.”

“Your staff are probably the most important people because without them you don’t function,” says Odutola. “Of course clients are really important, but if you have a client and you can’t service them because you don’t have the right infrastructure, then you lose the client.”

Ann Macaulay is a Toronto-based writer.