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Surviving and thriving in a recession

By Holly Fujie
President, State Bar of California

Holly Fujie
Fujie

This month, thousands of new lawyers will be sworn into the California bar after receiving news of their successful completion of that arduous rite of passage, the California bar exam. In these difficult economic times, however, the jobs of even the most brilliant, most well-credentialed new lawyers are not guaranteed, so I am devoting my column to providing some hints on how to survive and even thrive in bad times like these. I believe that these tips will be useful not only to those who just passed the exam, but to all lawyers in the beginning stages of their careers, and that following these rules will not only help you to avoid layoffs now, but will make you a more productive and valuable lawyer even when times get better.

If you’re lucky enough to have a job

WORK HARD Very simple. For all of the talk about alternative compensation methods, the billable hour still dominates the legal profession. Unless you walked in the door with a huge client in tow, your value to the firm is almost entirely dependent upon the number of collectible billable hours you generate. So accept all assignments offered if you possibly can and volunteer for work if you have extra time. Partners always appreciate an associate’s willingness to take on assignments, and a willing associate will always keep his or her job longer than one who is always “too busy” to take on a new case.

Pursue every opportunity to do new tasks that will add to your development as a lawyer, whether it is taking a deposition, second-chairing a trial or handling a real estate deal. And note the reference to “collectible” hours. Doing bad work or overworking a file so that your hours get written off is of no benefit to the firm and will undoubtedly produce a negative response. Generating large, unjustified write-offs will make you the first on the list when layoffs are considered. So bill your time judiciously.

DO IMPECCABLE WORK Another no-brainer, but surprisingly disregarded in practice. Make sure that everything you turn in is as perfect as humanly possible, and is on time. Even if a partner asks you for “a draft,” what he or she really means is “I know that you are just an associate, so you may not be able to produce what I consider to be a final document, but I want you to give me as perfect a document as you can.” That means not only correcting all typos and grammatical errors, carefully researching the cases and Shepardizing, but also crafting as careful, well-constructed and cogent an argument as you can.

Read it through in hard copy before you give it to the partner, and ask yourself, “If I were reading this for the first time, would I understand it and be convinced?” Ask for feedback and take it to heart. Nothing annoys a partner more than fixing something in a document and finding the same mistake somewhere else in the next draft. And be timely — don’t assume that the partners will be OK with your turning in a project on Tuesday when they asked for it on Monday. If you are running late, tell the partner as soon as you get behind, and get it in — and get it in perfect — as soon as possible.

Keep in mind that the partner probably has a timeline for completion of the project, taking into account his or her own schedule and any necessary client review. If you make that partner work late on a brief because you didn’t get it in on time, that fact will be long remembered. If you exceed expectations in the quality and timeliness of your work, your firm will not want to lose you, even when times are tough.

TAKE OWNERSHIP OF YOUR WORK Never look on an assignment on its own, but as a part of the entire case or matter and the overall representation of the client. If asked to help with a project, ask to be given as much responsibility as you can take on and follow through. Let it be known that you care about ensuring the best outcome for the case or matter and about the welfare of the firm and of the client. Learn as much as you can about the area of law involved in the case and the industry in which the client operates. Make this expertise a selling point at review time to prove that you are a valuable, hopefully irreplaceable part of the firm.

BE PART OF THE SOLUTION When there is a strategic issue that you want to discuss with the partner or the client (i.e., should we file a summary judgment motion?), don’t just raise the issue on its own and expect him or her to figure it out. Go with the arguments pro and con and a reasoned and well-supported recommendation as to what action you think should be taken. Think strategically and be prepared to defend your recommendation.

DRESS PROFESSIONALLY OK, so this may just be a pet peeve, but with extremely rare exceptions, no one ever looked askance at someone dressed in a neat suit at the office or in court. On the other hand, I have heard many partners and judges avidly discussing some of the more outlandish outfits that attorneys have worn before them. A young mentee of mine told me she had been advised to wear “something sexy” to an interview and asked if this would be a good idea. I told her that for a position as a lawyer, conservative attire was more appropriate. Needless to say, flipflops are never a good idea in the office.

For those still looking for jobs

Do everything you can to show potential employers that you will do all of the above for them. Learn everything you can about the firm or office and its clients and work before you contact them. Show that you want to become the best lawyer you can be, and that you want to help the firm succeed by working hard, doing great work and eventually bringing in business. While you are looking (and throughout your career), volunteer for pro bono work. Not only can great, hardworking volunteer lawyers come to the attention of those hiring for paying work, but you will be doing good and learning valuable skills. To find opportunities for pro bono work, go to CaliforniaProBono.org, a Web site developed by The Public Interest Clearinghouse and ProBono.Net, in collaboration with pro bono providers throughout California.

Thinking of hanging out your shingle

Keep in mind that this means that you must learn the skills to operate a small business at the same time that you are learning the practice of law. Do yourself a favor — join the State Bar’s Solo and Small Firm Section and get and use the State Bar’s new book, “The California Guide to Opening and Managing a Law Office,” a joint production of the Solo and Small Firm Section, the Law Practice Management and Technology Section, California Young Lawyers and State Bar staff. These sections’ fine members and resources, together with these valuable materials, will help you to start and develop a law practice of which you can be proud.

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