7 Things I Wish I Knew When I First Started Practicing Law

Keep Track of Your Time

Bad habits start early and grow on you. That includes time-keeping habits too. If you’re a new lawyer, start tracking your time carefully from the very start. If you’re an older lawyer, well start fixing the problem right now. In my first decade I gave away more time than I ever billed - all because of a lack of tracking the time right in the first place. And I’ve been paid less for the billed time than I thought I was going to get too - because when your bill arrives later, there’s always some other bill that got there first. Besides, when people need help right now, they will pay for help right now - tomorrow they may not be so committed to it. And being paid leads me to the second thing I wish I knew when I first started.

Get Paid up Front

The simple fact is that the best time to get paid is when the client needs your service. Afterwards, your bill is just one of several sitting on a counter or in a folder waiting to come “due.” I can’t tell you how many times I was hard at work on a brief or memo or getting ready for a trial when a potential client with an emergency needed to interrupt me with their situation and to get their question answered. If you are working on a case for a client who is paying you, don’t let yourself be interrupted by someone who isn’t paying you for your time. Sending a bill later doesn’t pay for the interruption caused right now.

The Most Important Person in Your Law Practice Isn’t You and it Isn’t Your Client

At the beginning, I thought I was the most important person in my law firm. Wrong. Without clients, there is no law firm. So, I started thinking that clients were the most important person in my law firm. Wrong again. Law firms, like life itself, are about relationships. Unless you really like being alone in life, the most important person in your law practice is the person you go home to at the end of a day. They are the only one that you can honestly commiserate with over the tough days and who will patiently listen and sympathize with you. And they are the only one that you can truly celebrate with over the great days because they are the only one who truly know the depth of your hard days and the height of your best days. If you don’t share it all with someone, you don’t really live.

When Dealing with a New Opponent, Try to Settle Before You Try to Sue

Clients will come and go, but the merchants our clients deal with usually stick around. When a client complains about a merchant you haven’t dealt with in a case before, give them the benefit of the doubt at first and try to settle the dispute without filing a case against them. As time goes by, you’ll learn the people you can work with successfully and the ones that just don’t work that way. Settling a dispute fast is a great benefit for the client as well as for you, the attorney. Happy clients tell other people about you and while winning in court is great, it is even greater to have a happy client who avoided court and who goes around bragging about how you got them quick relief instead of a long lawsuit. Sometimes everyone really can win.

Give Them Something Extra Every Once in Awhile

At the start of a career, we often think that we do the job requested and get paid and go on to the next job and that’s true of most people I suspect, whether it’s a lawyer’s job or not that is being done. It’s a bit like showing up on time. It’s nice, but you just don’t stand out. After all, you are being paid to show up on time and do the work. If that’s all you do, then you could be anybody doing anything. What people remember are those times when someone did something extra or went out of their way just because that was what was needed to do something right. Every once in awhile, it’s nice to do something extra (without charging anyone for it). That’s true whether it’s a client, another lawyer, a Judge, or anyone at all. Giving something extra for the effort makes you stand out from the crowd. It also makes people appreciate you. And sooner or later, it comes back to you.

Be Nice to People - You’re Not a Big Shot

When most lawyers start practicing law, they reflect on the fact that they just spent 7 or so years of their life and went through a grueling multi-day examination and waited months to find out if they passed and they finally made it. It’s a difficult road to go down and a proud accomplishment when you successfully get to the end of it. But that end is just the start of a career. It’s important to remember that you are still just an ordinary person. Don’t let the “Esq” behind your name become a big ego in front of your name. Treat everyone with the courtesy and respect you want for yourself too. Being nice to people shows them that you are an approachable, understanding - but professional - attorney.
Go Home on Time

In the early years, it is very easy to tell yourself that you are building your practice and your reputation and need to work those extra hours in the evening and on the weekend. It seems true too - after all, you have something to prove to yourself and your clients. Well, don’t forget that every day in your life you also have something to prove to your family. And that is that you put them above everything else. I’ve heard too many lawyers talk about working their way through life until they reached the point where they realized that their kids grew up without them and their spouse grew apart from them in the process. Family matters. Sure, winning is important. Sure, having a great reputation is important. Sure, knowing the details of every dispute is critical. But don’t convince yourself that all that matters more than anything else. Your family and your home are what really matters. As tough as it is to turn out the lights and leave the office, and trust me on this, it’ll all still be there tomorrow.

Ron Burdge
Helping Lawyers Help Clients, Everyday.