New lawyers are now starting life having been sworn in to jurisdictions across the land. If these new lawyers had it like I did, they went to the swearing-in ceremony, had a nice lunch with family, and returned to their full-time occupations of being a gainfully unemployed Xbox-video-game-playing lawyer.
You’d be amazed how many jobs you can apply for between lives on Modern Warfare.
But after a while, work was found and I traded in my couch lifestyle for a desk. Two days after I started, I was sent into the courtroom for the first time. And panicked. No one told me what to do (how on earth do I fill out a court order?) or what to do if the judge is in a foul mood (don’t make eye contact and blame the other lawyer). Finding my way initially was like a blind drunk stumbling around praying that I didn’t break anything that was really expensive. Then I finally grew comfortable to my surroundings (except in the courthouses way the hell away from Chicago) and my anxiety subsided. The simple facts of litigation dawned on me, and I’d like to think that my clients have benefitted from this. I just wish it didn’t take so long to learn the lessons.
So here, as I start my fifth year as a licensed liar, are the things I wish I had been told when I started.
1. Mistakes happen . . . and so do Motions to Reconsider
When I started working I lived in perpetual fear that I was going to make some innocuous mistake that was going to lead to the mother of all malpractice claims. There are only two mistakes that I worry about making: (1) blowing the statute of limitations or (2) blowing the set period of time to respond to requests to admit. From my perspective, these are the only two things that are not remedied by a motion to reconsider. This motion is the ultimate undo function and, in reality, the ultimate safety net. You can f*** up royally and yet still cause no harm to the client. Knowing this would have saved a lot of sleepless nights in my first months of practice.
2. Make sure you are named on the firm’s malpractice insurance policy. (See generally, Trust but Verify)
Mark this one up to my naïveté. I thought from the moment I got hired I had been added to the policy. Turns outs, not so much. I found this out when I had to register with the state bar for the first time after being employed. It is not comforting when you know you’ve made a massive mistake and the best defense you can come up with when arguing with yourself in the shower is how you are an agent of your partners. And they should be liable for your screwup. I might have had a bottle of champagne when I was finally named on the policy. I’ve not had to make a claim yet. But thank God I’ve got the option if necessary.
3. Don’t listen to the client’s legal strategy.
Whether clients are on a billable hour scheme or on a contingency fee arrangement, by and large they think they can call the shots. Letting clients think this is a fine way to operate your practice. But letting them do this is a recipe for disaster. It took me only a couple of months on the job to realize that clients can be the devil. The way I started handling clients was like being married and always saying “yes, dear,” which caused untold levels of stress.
Client: And I want you to punish the plaintiff until she runs screaming from the courthouse.
Me: Yes, dear.
Client: One more thing, I also want a cookie.
Me: Yes, dear.
Client: And I don’t want to pay anymore legal fees.
The modus operandi I now use can best be described as the Chris Rock method: you listen to the client vent on the phone and say nothing. Except you have to toss in the occasional “I told ya that bitch crazy” just to make it seem like you care what the person is saying. The only downfall to this method is that, if you aren’t careful, said client will then start asking you questions about something you just “agreed to”—and your ruse will be up.
4. One final thing…
In the words of my first managing partner, “don’t f**k up”
Originally posted November 2011.