Seven Things They Didn’t Teach You In Law School

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A few years ago, I had a Stetson intern work with me. I was very lucky to have her hard work, her dedication, her professionalism, and just her overall good attitude. As she graduated, I realized in our conversations that law school may not fully prepare law students for the real practice of law. Law schools do a great job teaching students how to research, how to prepare arguments, and how to present themselves professionally. There is, however, a missing link regarding real-world practice. I gave my intern a copy of Karen Thalacker’s The New Laywer’s Handbook – 101 Things They Don’t Teach You In Law School. I peeked through the book before gifting it and I wanted to share seven of the tips that I thought were extremely important.

 #1 – Have a Sincere Appreciation for Court Personnel. There are lawyers out there who believe the world revolves around them and that they know everything. There are lawyers who believe that nonlawyers should cater to them and help them, regardless of the lawyer’s demeanor or attitude toward these nonlawyers. But beware – many nonlawyers (especially those in the courthouse) know more about the workings of court practice and procedure. “Be friendly. Be nice. Do your best to remember the names of the people you meet…Do not be rude to the clerk. Do not be rude to the court attendant. Do not be rude to the janitor. Their job is just as important and just as stressful as yours.”

#2 – Find a Nice Judge you can talk to. As a young lawyer, judges can seem intimidating. I remember how nervous I was the first time I went to argue a motion before a judge. We view judges as the ultimate decision makers.  They have no-nonsense policies in effect in their courtroom.  But we seem to forget that judges were once lawyers, too. They were also young lawyers – just as nervous about going in front of judges as we are today. “Judges love to talk about their experiences and their former practice and also to hear about yours. They have families, children, interests, and hobbies.” Judges are open to conversations and willing to share their stories and their opinions. If you practice before a judge, once a matter is resolved – consider asking the judge for feedback on how you did. Be prepared for an honest answer: taking the critique and learning from the judge will make you a better attorney.

#3 – Learn how to get your client to tell you the truth. Many of us have heard the joke: “How do you know your client is lying? His/her mouth is moving.” It is one of the most difficult skills in the practice of actually getting the truth from your client when you need it. As lawyers, we do not just want the client’s truth – we want the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Most of our clients are not lawyers and they will not know what information is important and what is not. “Don’t just ask them about the facts of the case. Make sure you find out where they grew up, what their level of education is, how many kids they have. The more you let them talk and are interested in what they are saying, the more they will talk to you.” Make a point to encourage your clients to “tell me the truth and we will deal with it together.”

#4 – Not every attorney is for every client. With the pressure of running our own law firms or being an associate with a billable hour requirement, we sometimes feel the need to take every client that walks in the door. We must learn to resist that temptation because sometimes we just do not make that important connection with our client or vice versa. We also need to learn that that is okay. “The decision about who your clients are is a two-way street…they get to decide if they want to hire me and I get to decide if I want to take the case.” If you learned anything from your law school training, you should have learned to trust your gut. You must also be sincere and honest with your client as to whether you will take their case or not. Learn from the experience so you can be better prepared for the next client consultation.

#5 – Know how to operate office machines. I truly believe that the most complicated machine in a law firm is the postage meter. Even though we have higher education and fancy degrees, it is important to know how to work the copier, the fax machine, and the printer. If you know how to use a Bates stamp, that is also a plus. There are many situations in which you need to know how to use the machines without anyone’s help. “Maybe you are in the office at night preparing for a trial or hearing which is starting promptly at 9:00am. What if you need twenty copies (collated and stapled) and the copier jams? What if your computer crashes? What if the ink in the fax needs to be changed?” It is important to your firm that you are asset and a team player – not just in the practice of law, but all around. While it is nice to have an assistant to help you with these items, if she’s on vacation, you need to be resourceful enough to handle the office machines.

#6 – What to do when opposing counsel is a jerk. As a member of voluntary bar associations (clubs for lawyers), I network with really good people. The members volunteer in our community and we have leadership positions in these organizations. We do not encounter difficult people all that often. But it does happen. “These practitioners seem to revel in making your life miserable. They will send you disparaging letters. They will say bad things about you in front of their client. They will raise their voice and act as if you purchased your law license from the back of the National Enquirer.” As new practitioners, attorneys must learn to be professional, regardless of how others may behave. If your client is with you, they will see how you react. It is your duty and obligation to protect your client and preserve your professionalism by not stooping to opposing counsel’s level. Be the bigger (and better) lawyer.

#7 – Do not tolerate bad behavior. I have a neighbor who refuses to clean up after his dog.  I have a client who insists on using an email address I cannot even repeat. Everyone has a different level of tolerance when it comes to profanity, insensitive jokes, or just bad behavior. We sometimes forget that as lawyers, people in our firm, our clients and colleagues look up to us. I also believe that an attitude is contagious. “Never forget that you are a leader and that people will model their behavior after yours. If you expect the highest level of behavior from yourself and from the people around you, you just might get it.”

We don’t expect graduates to be perfect when they step into a law firm. It is also unfair of us as practitioners to expect graduates to perform at a standard which we do not hold ourselves to. Although Ms. Thalacker’s practice tips focus on new lawyers, the practice tips are a refreshing reminder to all of us that we need to hold ourselves to a higher standard.

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