With associate attorneys settling into new positions and law students interviewing for internships, October is a time when many look forward to entering the legal profession.
For lawyers who have been practicing for a while, it might also be a time to look back and consider lessons learned.
In this occasional series, “If I Knew Then …” we’ll put those reflections to use by asking lawyers to talk about what they’ve gained from their experiences.
Today, we offer advice for those starting out in practice.
It’s been nearly 40 years since Ric Domnitz was considered a new attorney.
But he can easily recall the near panic he felt in those days.
“It’s that nightmare of ‘I didn’t know,’” said Domnitz, a personal-injury trial lawyer and senior and managing shareholder at Domnitz & Skemp in Milwaukee. “Young lawyers are afraid of what I always refer to as the black hole. They’re afraid that when they walk into the courtroom there is going to be something they haven’t even thought of in the remotest sense. It’s like going to law school and no one told them about voir dire, and the judge tells them it’s time to select a jury.”
It can take years to shake that feeling.
The good news, Domnitz said, is that it eventually goes away.
“That’s why an integral part of the training of a young lawyer and the maturation of a young lawyer is just getting in there and doing it,” he said. “You realize there are no black holes. You have been taught all of the component parts of trying a case, and it’s your job to learn how to be effective doing that.”
For Travis James West, learning to be effective meant understanding just how much he didn’t know and when to ask for help.
“One of the biggest things you don’t think about when you’re in law school is just how much you learn on the ground after you graduate,” West said. “It was a lesson I had to learn very quickly.”
West was fortunate enough to start off as part of a team that brought dozens of experienced litigators within easy reach.
“There was always a sounding board. You could send an email out and within 10 minutes you could have the name of someone who could point you in the right direction,” said West, who has been a lawyer since 2007 and who worked at Whyte Hirschboeck Dudek before becoming a partner at the Waunakee-based firm now called West & Dunn.
“When you’re in a smaller shop or a solo firm you can’t depend on just popping your head in next door and asking the older partner. You have to build relationships elsewhere in the legal community,” West said. “For me, part of that network came from people I graduated law school with who went to other firms. Part of it came when I taught. Many of the other adjuncts were more established and taught longer than I had.
“A lot of it is just not being afraid to reach out to people. Sometimes they’re a jerk and you realize you won’t reach out to them again. Sometimes they become a great resource. Sometimes you develop a friendship with them. This is a business of relationships. And unless you put yourself out there and risk something in forming those relationships, you probably won’t be as successful as you want to be.”
And it’s not just other lawyers whom you should reach out to. Relationships with clients can prove just as valuable.
“I think when you’re a young lawyer you’re probably so overwhelmed with learning the law,” said Ann Murphy, an equity partner at Quarles & Brady in Milwaukee. “But any kind of investment you can make in terms of your client — going to visit their business, for instance — helps put your advice in context.
“You can understand what’s important to them, what keeps them up at night. You can be much more than a lawyer; you can be a business adviser. It makes you more valuable as a lawyer, and it’s more personally rewarding. You feel you’re much more part of the team, and your client appreciates that you matter to them. You’re in this together.”
Murphy got a strong reminder of the wisdom behind such advice when she recently met with a client who recalled how Murphy had provided some assistance when the client was first starting to work at a bank.
“She said, ‘You were so patient explaining things to me, not just legal things but how the bank I work with likes to do things, and I really appreciated that,” Murphy said. “It made me a better banker.’
“On one level, I didn’t even think about that. That’s just what I do. But on the other hand, you’re an extension of the client, and you can be helpful in educating that person. That’s just something they never forget.”
Memories can be long in the law, especially when tempers flare.
“It’s important to remember your reputation is really everything,” Murphy said. “It’s not just a deal you’re working on and you’re representing your client. There are other lawyers, the other side. It’s really important not to be a jerk. Be collaborative. You can accomplish so much more.”
“It’s one thing to be confident and be a good advocate for your client,” he said. “But, on the other hand, the lawyers you’re working with, you’re going to run into these people again and again and again. And if you’re a jerk, there could be problems for you.”
Considerations like these are part of the reason Domnitz changed his attitude toward opposing counsel.
“It took me a while to develop a healthy respect for my opponents,” Domnitz conceded. “For many, many years I felt like the guys and the women on the other side of my cases were bad people, and I’ve come to realize over the years that they’re lawyers just like I am. They have the same obligations of zealous representation that I do. And, for the last several decades of my career, I pride myself on the relationships I have with the lawyers against whom I’m litigating. We are conducting civil litigation.”
Of course, much of that work could not be done without staff. Murphy almost had to learn that lesson the hard way.
“Years and years ago I was working with my assistant and I told her I needed her to prepare signature pages for a closing,” Murphy recalled. “But I didn’t tell her exactly when I needed them. So I asked her about it 15 minutes before the paralegal was set to go, and she looked at me and realized I hadn’t communicated the exact deadline. She’s so good, she went flying and we got it all done.
But I realized you really need to communicate well. Let people know deadlines.”
But, she said, the bigger lesson — or, at least, the equally important lesson — was that you should recognize that “a lot people are involved in making you successful as a lawyer.
“My assistant got that done and made me look good. She was able to make me more efficient and effective, and she knew my clients. Sometimes, when I’m speaking to our younger lawyers and summer associates, I see it may be the first secretary they’ve ever had and they may not realize how important that person is, but that person is critical. Every person in the organization matters.”
That is why relationships — and the investments attorneys are willing to make in them — cannot be over-prized, West said.
“This is not an easy profession,” he said. “It’s not rocket science, but it’s not easy either. You have to be willing to put in the work.”