Advice for New Lawyers: How to Survive and Thrive

Written by Willie Peacock13 minutes well spent
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advice for new lawyers

This year, in addition to dealing with a lack of jobs during a global recession and six-figure debt, law graduates also have to deal with the stress of staying safe during a pandemic. This includes stressing about staying healthy during exams—whether they’re in-person or virtual. 

My first advice for new lawyers is to have faith that it will get better. Once you get past the obstacles you face now, you can build the career of your dreams. Although it won’t be easy and it may not resemble the career you pictured during your 1L year, you will get there.

How? Well, after pivoting many times in my career and after graduating in a similarly challenging environment, I’ve got a few ideas.

Be willing to pivot in your legal career when needed 

My next piece of advice for new lawyers is to be willing to pivot when necessary. What do I mean by pivot? It is a term startups use when they completely change business strategies or even products. They realize, at some point, that the sunken cost isn’t worth staying the course. As a result, they reinvent themselves on the fly to survive. 

You may start your legal career as a prosecutor, then decide that you really enjoy child support enforcement cases and pivot to family law. Or you may start as a litigator and realize that you really prefer dealmaking and would rather get involved with transactional work. Or maybe, you will create the next great legal startup.

Be ready to move fast in your legal career

My advice for new lawyers is to start somewhere. Find a job. Try it out for a while. Don’t be afraid to cut and run if you realize that the job is making you miserable or if you find something you love more. Even in a good economy, your career as a new lawyer likely would not have been exactly what you pictured as a law student. In a bad economy, you have to move faster and pivot harder, but you will still find a way forward.

Learn the VUCA Prime framework

VUCA Prime

VUCA is an acronym for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity. The definition of VUCA first came from the US military to describe the nature of the world and the challenges it faced after the end of the cold war. Today, it is often used in business and investment contexts to describe complex organizations, problems, or the overall state of the world. 

VUCA Prime, on the other hand, stands for Vision, Understanding, Clarity, and Agility. It is a model to help individuals and organizations succeed in a VUCA world. 

By understanding the concept of VUCA Prime, you can reframe the volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity of a VUCA environment and provide a clear path forward to success. For a new law graduate, the VUCA Prime framework can help you find your footing in an uncertain environment, make difficult decisions, and thrive.

Redefine what success means to you

As a law undergraduate, I was seduced by the idea of six-figure salaries. I thought that finally having money, after growing up with none, would make me happy.

It took me more than a few years after law school to get to that financial mark. But did more money equal more happiness? Not really. My greatest professional joys are in building things and reinventing systems—I would rather build a system that can help a thousand people than spend years on a single person’s litigation case. Outside of work, my life is way more about my family than it is about finances.

Does having money help? Of course. But if you do not land your dream salary now, don’t look at that as a failure. You will get there and learn that there are other more important metrics to measure happiness and success.

Determine what you value in an employer

two people shaking hands

This might be the most underrated point on this list. While there are many great employers in the legal industry, you will find that some don’t value employees’ mental health, treat employees poorly, and have severely unrealistic expectations.

Here is the truth: Know your worth, prioritize your mental health, and learn how to recognize a toxic environment. I’m not saying to quit the moment the job gets a little bit tough. But don’t stick around a toxic employment situation just because you feel guilty that they gave you a job. 

Consider all your career options as a new law graduate

Like I said earlier, the days of spending your entire career at one or two law firms are gone for most people. Today’s young lawyers and workers switch between firms and jobs far more often than prior generations.

And if you really want to make money and don’t like working for others? My advice for new lawyers, in this case, is to start a new law practice. Not the entrepreneurial type? Maybe you just want to lawyer. Consider joining a larger law firm where there is plenty of support staff to handle all of the time-consuming billing and admin tasks. You can also get a job as an in-house counsel. This way, you can focus on the legal needs of one corporate master.

Interested in learning about what else you can do with a law degree? Read about how to find an alternative legal career.

Consider starting a virtual law firm

Lawyer conducting legal research on a laptop

If you are starting a new law firm, strongly consider starting a virtual law firm. A major benefit of a virtual law firm is cutting your overhead costs on a new law firm. As the 2020 Legal Trends Report states, “the technology adoption that we’ve seen during this [pandemic] has laid the foundation for a new legal-service model that will be better suited to the needs of clients.” In other words, all the recent technology adoption is here to stay. 

The last six months have been a whirlwind, with the entire world instantly pivoting to virtually delivering everything. While courts have been forced to adopt all of this technology overnight, there are constant glitches, headaches, and questions. There is not enough support in solving those issues, creating lots of stress when you have a case deadline, and no documentation on how to submit an emergency filing. But this great technological push of the last six months has advanced us years on the path towards running the law firm of the future. 

A virtual law firm benefits your clients 

Here’s a personal anecdote behind why my advice for new lawyers is to consider starting a virtual law firm: Remember when I said I had reinvented my career through so many pivots over the years? Well, a few years ago, I met a girl and moved from the West Coast to the east. With her medical residency guaranteed to cause at least one or two more moves in the future, I took my practice online.

Even two years ago, this was not easy. Clients did not understand the concept of Zoom and many would ask if I was running a scam. Now, I work from home. I handle clients in seven states, mostly back in California, from my home base in New York City. If we have to move to another state at some point, I can still help those same clients in their respective states.

Use cloud-based legal technology tools

You may already use a cloud-based file storage system like Microsoft’s OneDrive or Google Drive. If you are starting a law practice now, do not start with a batch of Word templates saved on your hard drive. Do not start tracking time on an Excel spreadsheet or a yellow pad.

Instead, my advice for new lawyers is to invest in the cloud from the start. Cloud-based legal tech tools like Clio Manage, can handle all of your billing, document storage, and client communication on pretty much any device from any location. While you are there, check out the document automation features that allow you to toss out the binders and thumb drives full of old templates.

Understand what it means to be truly client-centered

coaching photo

Today’s consumer lives online, and ingests reviews and spits them out the moment their case is done. Each consumer’s experience is amplified through marketing and word-of-mouth at a level never seen before.

So what does being client-centered mean? It does not mean that the client is always right. Rather, it means that the client’s experience is paramount. This includes communicating clearly and openly, providing convenience, delivering services virtually, and billing electronically. Fascinatingly, even as recently as last year, consumer surveys such as the 2019 Legal Trends Report showed that clients preferred phone calls and in-person meetings to text messages and electronic communication. Today, that paradigm has shifted significantly. The 2020 Legal Trends Report found that 69% of consumers prefer to share documents electronically, 56% of consumers prefer videoconferencing over a phone call, and 65% prefer to pay through electronic payments.

Pick up some business development skills

Nobody is as popular as the guy who brings in the business. This is a lesson that I hold dear to my heart, after working in a law firm as both an associate attorney and as the marketing director. 

The same thing goes for when you run your own firm. You cannot just say that you are a lawyer and leave the marketing and business development to others. Clients won’t just spontaneously call you for help. You have to be where they are. Depending on your practice area, that might mean building a presence on social media, or virtually networking with startup geeks at a local small business conference.

Take care of your mental and physical health

image of a head with a brain highlighted

This piece of advice for new lawyers isn’t talked about enough. It is easy to ignore your current physical and mental health needs. If you are doing a great job at work, they will expect more moving forward. If you are available 24/7 and never take time for yourself, when you finally do take a couple of days off, they will think you have become disenchanted or disengaged with your job.

It is hard for us lawyers to talk about lawyer wellness and mental health. But if you ignore things like downtime, hobbies, or even just sleep, you will burn out. You’ll become more impatient with difficult coworkers, you will start making more mistakes on cases, and eventually something will break. 

Do not wait to take care of yourself. Get enough sleep. Take some time off on the weekends. Find things you love to do outside of work. It is totally okay to use your vacation time. And it is okay to tell your loved ones that you are struggling and need a couple of days to just catch your breath.

This is also a good opportunity to reiterate the point above about toxic workplaces. If you are working for someone who is making your life a living hell, it probably will not get better. Don’t waste years of your life in a toxic work environment where stress eats away at your health until you break. All you will be left with is regret and a couple lines on your resume.

It isn’t always about the money

This one is hard to write with a straight face because I grew up broke. Like, really broke. Single-mom-with-five-kids broke. Worked-at-McDonald’s-in-high-school-and-peddled-popcorn-and-pizza-throughout-college broke. Taught-the-LSAT-and-supervised-the-dorms-during-law-school broke.

But once you get to the point where you are making enough money to pay the bills without worrying, happiness is not found in getting a bigger paycheck. Instead, you will start looking for jobs, cases, or projects that are more fulfilling or exciting.

If you are looking at this at the beginning of a career, my advice for new lawyers is to design your career to get to the endpoint where you are surrounded with those exciting projects. Avoid picking a practice area or career path that you think will lead to the most money. Obviously, you have to balance a fun career with earning a living. But the key is to find a middle ground.

Seek out a mentor

It is so incredibly difficult to find a true mentor. I have actually taken new jobs just because of the promise of more and better mentorship, only to find that they did not have time to spare to show me the ropes. Good mentors are good teachers—something not all lawyers are good at.

But, if you find one that is willing to help, seize the opportunity. Learning from a lawyer with decades of experience will mean you get much greater results for your clients. You will also cut your stress level and imposter syndrome feelings in half. At least.

How do you find a mentor as a lawyer? It seems to happen by chance for most people I know. Most formal mentorship programs match you with someone who wants to feel like they’re giving back, but they may not be the best teacher. Some people I know met mentors through bar associations and developed a rapport that led to an ongoing friendship and mentorship. I met one by picking up a case that the lawyer-mentor had worked on a decade earlier.

Never stop learning

classic best books for lawyers

Don’t be the lawyer tracking time on paper and requiring clients to spend an hour in traffic just to wait in your waiting room before meeting you. If you do these, you will lose out to law firms that invest in virtual meeting technology and cloud-based practice tools.

The same goes for CLEs and substantive legal education. There is nothing quite as fun as reminding your opposing counsel that the rule they cited changed five years ago. As a result, their client is going to lose tens of thousands of dollars.

Law is a profession that requires you to constantly learn. If you are not studying your profession constantly, you will be left behind. If you run your own small firm, the technology to power your business processes is changing by the week. The pandemic has accelerated that change to the point where firms of even six months ago could seem ancient by the end of next year.

In addition to investing time in your clients, business development, self-care, and family, you need to carve out time to continue to learn both substantive law and law practice management technology.

You’re in the most exciting time in history

It is easy to get down on yourself and your situation with all that is going on. You do not have it easy. You are graduating into an economy that seems like it is on the precipice of imploding. With so much uncertainty, you’re probably at a stress level of 10.0.

But you are also on the precipice of an industry that is reinventing itself. Courts that have taken decades to build out rudimentary e-filing have overnight added virtual hearings and trials. Lawyers that did not know what an e-signature was are being replaced by a generation that probably can’t remember the last time they wrote a paper check.

It may not be okay today. It may not be okay in three or four months. But your career is going to last decades. You will pivot and twist and turn and adapt and learn. Here’s my last piece of advice for new lawyers: Know that you will not just be okay—you will thrive because you have what it takes to help reinvent this industry.

Categorized in: Business

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