Law school is a strange creature. You spend three long years sacrificing your sleep, your credit rating, your relationships, and your sanity. In return, you get the opportunity to take the bar exam and start a career where you get to challenge yourself every day, help countless people, and maybe even make a little money along the way. As you’ve (hopefully) learned, law school is all about filling your brain with points of law and forcing you to think your way around the gray areas. For all the substantive information you pick up during your time as a law student, however, there are some important things that get left along the wayside. As a recently licensed lawyer in North Carolina, I appreciate the opportunity to fill you in on a few things I didn’t learn until I made it out into the “real world.”
Number One: Pound the Pavement
Once you pass the bar, you’re probably going to be competing with several thousand of your peers for a job. This can be difficult because as lawyers, we use our brains to make a living. As a jobseeker, you’re going to have to use your feet.
I remember being at my graduation ceremony and thinking, “Hey, I’m in good shape. My class rank is solid, I’m well rounded, and I know a ton of lawyers in the area. I’ll have an offer by this time next week.” Long story short, it was nearly a year before I got my first offer.
I say this not to frighten or discourage you, but to illustrate the harsh reality of today’s legal job market. There are a lot of young lawyers competing for a limited number of jobs, and unless you’re at the very top of your class, there probably won’t be big firms knocking down your door with six-digit offers. You’re selling yourself as an associate, and today’s legal field is very much a buyer’s market. In order to get a good job in the legal field, you need to treat your job search as its own full-time job. This means putting in “face time” by walking into firms with copies of your résumé, networking at bar association events, and making sure that your face and name are familiar to as many potential employers as possible. Don’t be content to drag your nets on job search websites; get out there and put the work in.
As a corollary, make the decision that you’re not above certain jobs or certain fields. If taking a paralegal job is how you get your foot in the door, then swallow your pride, be grateful for the opportunity, and work your tail off to get as much experience as you can. Remember that graduating law school is only the beginning of your legal education.
Number Two: Set Yourself Apart
Number Two is a valuable extension to Number One. Whether you’re looking for a job, trying to get your own firm off the ground, or looking to establish yourself in a firm, you need to maximize your value as a lawyer by setting yourself apart. The most effective way to do this is to absolutely outwork everyone around you. This is what Ken Hammer, my old Copyrights professor, would call an “Irrefutable Truth.”
The secret to getting and keeping a job is to make yourself indispensable. You can’t rely on your intelligence or charisma to do this, because there’s always going to be someone who’s smarter and more charismatic than you are; and sometimes, those folks are going to be willing to work for less money. The only thing that you can directly control is how hard – and how efficiently – you are working. By being the hardest worker around, you can guarantee that there will always be a place for you in the legal industry. If the rigors of law school haven’t pounded this principle into your brain yet, then commit to learning it now, and make it a part of your self-identity.
Number Three: Build Your Client Base
Law school is great for maximizing your legal knowledge, but it largely overlooks a lot of very useful lessons regarding the business of practicing law. No matter what type of law you practice, the money isn’t going to come unless you’re bringing in clients. To this end, you need to have a plan in place for getting (and keeping) clients. While this is certainly going to require a lot of hours, and probably a significant degree of expense, working smart is just as important as working hard when it comes to building your client base.
The first question you’re probably going to ask is, how do I know who to reach out to? While the answer largely depends on what kind of law you’re practicing, there are some useful, universal factors. One really good way to pick up clients is through referrals from other lawyers. Talk to lawyers that you already know, and make the decision to network objectively. Not only will this improve your visibility in the legal community and help you develop relationships with established lawyers, it will also mean that you will come to mind more prominently when a peer needs to farm out a case. Get in touch with the Lawyer Referral Service to get more consults. Also make sure to implement services like ClientBatch, which are affirmatively designed to put attorneys in touch with as many clients as possible. Don’t hesitate to use every resource available to you.
Go ahead and come to grips with the fact that if you’re reaching out to clients, you’re going to have to spend some money. You’re not going to bring in clients if they don’t know who you are; period. Commit to experimenting with different materials and methods. I’ve had clients respond to all kinds of stimuli that I would never have thought of; one came in because he got my mailer first, another because she liked the color of the folder, and recently I even had a young lady call the office for a consult because she liked the way my signature looked. Find out what works best and be consistent with it.
Number Four: The “Poker Effect”
I want to qualify this next point by saying right off the bat that having to schedule a lot of consults is one of the best problems you can have as an attorney; especially an attorney who is just starting out. You get to meet all kinds of interesting people, help them in ways you can’t even imagine, and improve yourself as a professional along the way. You might even see some decent cases come in the door! With that being said, however, there is a science to accepting good cases, bringing in good clients, and conveying realistic expectations to individuals who may be prone to the unrealistic.
When I was in law school, nobody ever told me how much the practice of law involves sales. Abraham Lincoln said that a lawyer’s time is his stock and trade, and that’s precisely what you’re selling when you meet with a client. You have to be able to convince a person with a lot of options that your time and advice is valuable, and that you can help that client in a way that no other lawyer can. On the flip side of this, you have to be able to identify potential issues involving personality and learn how to navigate those issues as they arise.
Since I started practicing, I’ve had to learn how to sit in a consult and read a potential client’s inflections and body language to try and predict what type of client relationship I would be entering into. I like to call this the “Poker Effect.” One of the biggest problems that I’ve had is with a client who comes in with a case that might be worth $60,000, thinking that their case is worth $3 million. It is crucially important – and spectacularly difficult – to convey optimism and simultaneously communicate the reality of your client’s case. This goes doubly true when you consider that there might be two dozen other lawyers telling the client that their case actually is worth $3 million. While it’s difficult to make sure that both parties enter into the attorney-client relationship with a dash of realism, I can tell you that it’s a whole lot more difficult to play a diplomatic chess match with impatient clients and inflated expectations.
Number Five: Competence Breeds Confidence
One of the biggest mistakes you can make is thinking that passing the bar marks the end of your career as a student. On the contrary, you should be devoting significant study time in your chosen field; this time spent studying is critical to your effectiveness as an attorney, and it will yield incredible benefits as you establish yourself in the practice of law.
Earl Nightingale said that one hour of study per day will make you an expert in your chosen field in three years. In five years, you will be a national authority, and in seven years, you will be one of the best in the world at what you do. Put a different way, actively reading for one hour a day will translate to about one book per week, or over five hundred books over the next ten years. That kind of study will eventually make you one of the most well read, knowledgeable, and authoritative attorneys in your field.
Maximizing your legal knowledge and competence is critical to the effective representation of your clients, and it will also develop you as a confident attorney. By making sure that you’re committing the time to active and regular study, you can set yourself apart and drastically improve your career path in a relatively short amount of time.
I know firsthand that it can be intimidating to leave the familiar law school environment and venture into a tough job market. It’s true that law school leaves out some important aspects of practicing law, but it’s also true that if you can make it through law school, you can make it in the practice of law. Be cordial, be compassionate, and be confident. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, but commit yourself to learning from the mistakes that you do make. Best of luck to you!
David G. Omer is a 2014 graduate of the Norman Adrian Wiggins School of Law at Campbell University. He practices with Wallace Pierce Law, PLLC in Durham.