I recently spoke to the first year students at Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School as part of the school’s Professionalism Series. Part of that presentation included my Ten Tips for Young Lawyers on Developing Professionalism in Their Practices.
1. Get over it. You will be entering a profession that is filled with conflict and emotion and stress. It is inevitable that someone will say something to you or engage in an activity that you find quite offensive. Ignore it and don’t lose sight of your goal of effective representation of your client. Responding in kind only results in collateral damage to the clients and the court system and it’s not going to help your satisfaction level.
2. Use humor liberally. You will quickly discover that an awful lot of funny things happen in the practice of law. When people are under stress they don’t just make hurtful comments, they also say very funny things. Enjoy the moment.
I was recently discussing with a Superior Court judge how I found so much humor while trying cases, and he told me about a capital murder trial he had presided over recently where something happened that had the jury, the victim’s family and the defendant all laughing in the courtroom. It was not because the lawyers and the parties did not take the situation seriously. It is a wonderful coping mechanism that we have when faced with the stress of law practice. Enjoy those moments. It will give you great material when sharing “war stories” with your colleagues and will help you get through some difficult times.
3. Always presume negligence instead of malice when faced with unprofessional conduct by another attorney. In this day of instant communication and lawyers having to carry a large caseload, it is inevitable that mistakes will be made. Before you fly off the handle and retaliate, take the time to see if the remark or conduct was a mistake by the other lawyer. If it happens time and time again, that may be a sign that you are dealing with an unprofessional opponent. However, the odds are the opponent had a bad day and made a mistake. Be graceful. The time will come when you may need understanding as well.
4. Strive for excellence. Most of the successful lawyers I know are also great examples of professionalism. However, you cannot be a great example of professionalism and not be a skillful lawyer. You owe it to yourself, you owe it to your client, and you owe it to the court to constantly hone your skills, whether it is in drafting documents, presenting a motion to a judge or trying cases before a jury.
5. Learn to work efficiently. I’m certainly not suggesting that you should not take time off and enjoy things in life other than the practice of law. However, the practice of law is hard work. Learn how to organize your practice. Learn to be a better manager of your practice so that you can work hard while you’re at work, but relax when you’re not at work.
6. Be active in a bar association. Since early in my career I have enjoyed being with other lawyers and judges. I find they are a very effective therapy group and a great source of wisdom that constantly improves my practice skills. Most times I leave a bar meeting inspired and with renewed pride in my profession. Associating with well-respected colleagues will do that. Don’t wait until you have passed the bar and are practicing law. Start now. Become a law student member in the American Bar Association and get involved with the State Bar of Georgia or the Bar of whatever state you plan to practice in as a student. It will start you out on the right path toward a professional career.
7. Compliment your opponent and judges. Lawyers love judges who, at the end of a trial or a motion, and in the presence of clients, compliment the attorneys on the job they have done in presenting their case. Judges want to be appreciated and respected by lawyers that appear in front of them. Judges work hard, are usually underpaid and receive little feedback. Take the time to thank a judge for their skill service—especially at a time when you have not just received a favorable ruling. Similarly, always let your opponent know how much you appreciate the opponent’s skill and courtesy, even if it is hard to see.
8. Don’t use email or the telephone when you are upset with another lawyer. I am a regular user of email and could not function without it. However, old-fashioned letters do have an important role in a professional practice. They tend to take longer to prepare and may sit around a few hours before they are mailed. If you are really angry about something another lawyer has said or done to you, instead of firing off an email, take the time to prepare a letter and let it sit on your desk a day or two before you mail it. I’ve had some of those letters prepared, but very few of them mailed, at least not without significant changes.
9. Be confident in your ability, your research and your argument when representing a client in court. You may be inexperienced, but you don’t have to act that way. I recently served on a jury in a criminal case where the defense lawyer was trying his first trial in Superior Court. He made some mistakes, but he acted like a professional. He did not stumble around when introducing documents. He did not mumble when asking the witness questions or addressing the court, and he argued with passion and clarity. I believe that a lot of unprofessional conduct can be attributed to an insecure lawyer. If you are confident in what you are doing, there will be less temptation to be unprofessional in your words and actions.
10. Take the time to listen and observe. Listen carefully to what the judge and your opposing lawyer are saying. Misunderstanding a communication can cause some unprofessional reactions. Study carefully the language that an opposing attorney uses in drafting a document so that you do not misread that lawyer’s intentions. Observe how well respected attorneys and judges act and speak. Ask them questions and seek their advice. We have a great tradition in the legal profession of sharing forms, ideas, best practices and, yes, even war stories. There’s an awful lot to be learned from your colleagues.