Speaker's Corner: What traits separate the best young lawyers from the herd?

Experienced lawyers have told me repeatedly that law schools miss two very important subjects: marketing yourself and how to get off to a good start in the first year of law firm employment.

Law firms are very concerned with integrating newly minted lawyers into the organization. But do those new lawyers know what they need to do to succeed in the organization? In most cases, the answer is no.

I asked 11 senior lawyers to tell me what they’re looking for in order to feel comfortable enough to involve new lawyers in their best files. In other words, what traits separate the best junior practitioners from the herd?

•    Park your ego at the door. Don’t go crazy trying to be a winner or a hero or show your genius. David Levy, a partner at Howie Sacks & Henry LLP, suggests young lawyers “get to be known for completing your work on time, with a little more than is asked for, every time.”

•    Get into a practice area you’re passionate about. It’s so much easier to be enthusiastic when you’re not swimming uphill. “Enthusiasm in a young lawyer is contagious and will be noted by others and rewarded with the best files,” says Harvey Haber, a senior partner at Goldman Sloan Nash & Haber LLP.

•    Learn how to talk to clients in meetings and social situations. Marshall Green, a founding partner at Graham Partners LLP in Barrie, Ont., admires young lawyers who can “bring the knowledge and keenness they have at the office to the client arena.”

Have a look at this wonderful book, The Knack of Selling Yourself, by James T. Mangan. Originally published in 1938, it’s still relevant today.    

•    Learn how to connect by phone. Bill McCullough, a partner at McCarthy Tétrault LLP, sees an opportunity for young lawyers to use the appropriate technology for different situations.

“It’s fine to focus on e-mail and [instant messaging] with your own cohort, but clients and partners from other generations may want to establish a more personal relationship, which needs the phone.”

(I suppose if I had written this article 20 years ago, the lesson would have been about learning how to connect with a handwritten note.)

•    Know what your boss knows and why. “When I was young, I read my mentor’s files like a book and tried to get into his head,” says Michael Henry, a founding partner at Howie Sacks & Henry. “When I knew why he did what he did, I was way ahead of the game.”

•    Find your target market. “Identify the lawyers in your practice group that you need to become your clients and then rise to the occasion when you have a chance to do work for any one of them,” says Georges Dubé, a partner at Fasken Martineau
DuMoulin LLP.

Rising to the occasion requires making the sacrifice to do your very best at this particular time. It’s also about seeing a situation as a unique opportunity and figuring out how to go the extra mile.

•    Learn what you’re talking about. According to Renée Vinett, a partner at Howie Sacks & Henry, “Associates need to spend less time talking to impress and more time listening to learn.”

She also believes learning the law is the easy part and notes it’s “developing advocacy skills that takes time and experience.

The greatest teachers are those who have gone before you. Don’t discount the value of senior counsel’s expertise. Observe them in action and listen carefully. They will teach you the art of lawyering.”

•    Choose an area of the law and write articles about it. Doing so builds your public profile. At the same time, it “gives you a great reason to collaborate with a senior lawyer in a way that will show you in the best light,” says Shari Elliott, a partner at Graham Partners.

•    Get it done on time and without drama. “Don’t make work for me,” says John Willms, senior partner at Willms & Shier Environmental Lawyers LLP. By that, he means, “Don’t be a lawyer that needs lots of oversight to get delegated work done correctly and on time.”

It’s OK to ask questions as a way to stay in touch on the file; but it’s not OK to rely on partners to give you answers you can find on your own elsewhere.

You also shouldn’t rely on partners to edit your first draft. Bring them your version of a finished product. As you learn more by researching information elsewhere, the experience will serve you well.

•    As much as is reasonably possible, say yes to work assignments and ask for a briefing. Be willing to fit any new assignment into your work plan and save lots of time by asking at the outset for a briefing about the file and the tasks you are to do.

This will help you as you avoid unrelated tangents. Marc McAree, a partner at Willms & Shier, suggests young lawyers remember “that when partners pile on the work, it’s because they’ve got their own pile to get done, and getting it all done to meet the clients’ timing is the business we’re in - the client service business.”

•    See things in shades of grey. Adam Wagman, managing partner at Howie Sacks & Henry, wants associates to tell him how he might be able to win his case, not why he’s going to lose.

“It’s the search for novel solutions to difficult problems with imagination and creativity that moves the law ahead.” In fact, I suppose that prevailing in a case that didn’t look too winnable is the greatest pleasure of law.

Jerome Shore is the managing partner of the Coaching Clinic. You can reach him at 416-787-5555 or [email protected].

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