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You passed the bar exam . . . now what?

EDITOR'S NOTE: This law practice column was provided by the California Young Lawyers Association (CYLA).

Margaret P. Stevens

By Margaret P. Stevens

Building a solid reputation as a great lawyer will not only build equity in yourself but also garner support from those around you. This article provides tips for professional development and steps that you can take now in developing your good name and reputation with your firm and the legal community at large.

Handle deadlines appropriately

The first step is to meet them. Providing timely work to your supervisors is essential to building their confidence in your abilities. Turn in the work when you promise it. If no deadline is given, ask your supervising attorney for a target date.

Court deadlines are especially critical, since you will want to leave additional time for the client to review and for your secretary to finalize the pleadings. Never, ever, ever miss a court deadline for filing — failure to meet a deadline can irreparably prejudice your client and subject you and your client to monetary sanctions. Use several types of calendars for two to three weeks' advance reminders of deadlines, including an electronic or desk calendar, your secretary's calendar and the firm's master calendar. This avoids last minute preparation of briefs, mistakes and frazzled nerves.

The second step is resolving conflicting deadlines. As a new attorney, you may face supervisors requesting various projects be completed at the same time. In order to avoid over-committing yourself or jeopardizing the project, try the following: (1) note internal project deadlines on your own calendar to avoid conflicts; and failing resolution, (2) as soon as possible, notify the supervisors of your current workload and your concern in completing all your assigned tasks to their and the client's satisfaction. Notifying your supervisors well in advance takes you out of the equation, permits the supervisors to set priorities in workload, while keeping the second supervisor from thinking you arbitrarily declined work.

Consider responding to another supervisor, for example, "Supervisor B asked me to draft a summary judgment brief and turn it in that day. I would be glad to work on your project, but could you talk to Supervisor B and let me know which of your projects should get the priority for completion that day?" Appropriate handling of deadlines will establish your reputation as a dependable attorney.

Develop a working relationship with your staff

The worst thing about being a new attorney is "you don't know what you don't know." A solid working relationship with your staff can make this unknown quantity much easier to absorb. A poor relationship can make your job much more difficult than it has to be. Start building healthy working relationships now with whomever you rely upon. Have weekly meetings on Fridays with your secretary/assistant to discuss upcoming project deadlines and what type of assistance may be required.

When I first started in private practice, I made a point to take my assistant to lunch once each month. We would discuss how things were going, what I could do to make her work more efficiently, and what she could do to help me work more efficiently. Encourage communication about projects and deadlines. If you treat your assistant like part of a team, your assistant will tend to act like part of a team.

Understand that while you are just starting out as an attorney, your assistant may have much more experience with court procedures than you. In fact, your assistant's experience should be an asset to you, not a source of rivalry or worse yet, resentment. Humble yourself enough to ask for help from a legal secretary or paralegal. Most times, they will gladly sit down to talk with you, if you treat them with the respect that they deserve. Often, it is the new attorneys who ask for assistance that receive the benefit of others' experience.

Take time to acknowledge your support staff, not just your secretary/assistant. When a fax is delivered to your desk, a simple "thank you" goes a long way. You will be surprised how much faster faxes are delivered to you than to your solitary neighbors.

Understand the scope of your assignments

Part two of "you don't know what you don't know" is how long an assignment may take. Before you start a project, ask your supervisor how much time to invest in the whole project, or in the various aspects, if applicable. Also ask if the supervisor has a particular format to follow or a previous document that can be used as a guideline. Just because you are new to the profession does not mean that you must reinvent the wheel — unless the assignment actually requires researching a novel area of law with creative application of existing legal theories.

If you reach the end of your estimated time but have not finished the assignment, give your supervisor a specific update on what you have accomplished and what aspects are incomplete. A concrete status report helps you and your supervisor determine how to proceed with the project. Sometimes a status report may trigger the need to contact the client in the middle of a project rather than at the end. You must be conscious of the fact that there is always a cost-benefit determination for all legal work which is in the client's control, not yours. In taking this perspective, you may discover a more effective way to approach the client's ultimate goals.

Get acquainted with the community

Get connected with your legal community now. Most local bar associations offer a one-year free membership to new admittees. Along with this membership, you automatically become a member of the new and young attorney section. In fact, if you received a copy of this California Bar Journal, you are already a member of the California Young Lawyers Association. Visit the State Bar Web site and join one of our committees today.

Another benefit of joining a bar association is access to other attorneys in your practice area. As a new member, consider contacting the chair of the local bar association section/practice area or your State Bar Board of Governors representative. Introduce yourself and suggest coffee or lunch. You will probably find that attorneys who are involved in their profession will take the time to answer questions and may end up being a valuable resource to you. Depending on your location, other sources of networking include the minority and specialty bar associations and State Bar sections — many accessible on the State Bar Web site.

If you are in private practice, know that attorneys can and do refer potential clients to each other. If you do not yet have a job, understand that having a network of attorney acquaintances can assist you in your job search. Not all of your contacts will pan out, but those that do will probably last much of your career.

Consider networking within your community not only to meet your professional goals but to meet your personal goals as well. Focus on community groups in which you have a genuine interest. I have heard new attorneys bemoan the fact that in an attempt to look good to the firm, they signed up for a particular community organization. These new attorneys had no prior connection to, or current interest in, volunteering with the organization. It became another chore for these folks who already had limited free time. You should get involved in the community because that involvement can be personally fulfilling. Ask your employer for suggestions, if you wish, but make sure that you are getting involved with an organization that truly has your interest and enthusiastic support.

To learn more about how you can get involved with CYLA, visit its Web site at

Margaret P. Stevens is a litigation associate at Liner Yankelevitz Sunshine & Regenstreif LLP, a member of the CYLA board, and president of the Los Angeles County Bar Association Barristers — New & Young Attorneys of LA.

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