It wasn’t very long ago that I was the new lawyer in the law firm, a recently admitted attorney with a new law license and very little practical knowledge. My advice in this column concerning management of new lawyers is born from experience and from conversing with other attorneys, and isn’t because I’m a high powered hiring partner, managing partner or even a relative of a law firm partner. As the number of lawyers in this country grows, we are seeing an expansion in the “Big Law” megafirms, with hundreds of lawyers scattered among dozens of worldwide offices. Chances are such firms are going to have some sort of mentoring or introductory program for new lawyers. It may not be a perfect solution, to just from informal conversations with friends and classmates who went to work at such firms. Quite often a new lawyer in such a firm has a number of years to spend on minor tasks before coming close to the ideal of “practicing law” as learned from books and television.
Small firms and solo practices are also a growing area of legal business, and there’s more of where I would like to focus my comments. Such practices are usually without a devoted human resources department. Anecdotally, a number of these practices have numbered one overworked attorney, sometimes with clerical and administrative help, who is bringing on a new attorney as a cost-effective way to manage the workload. For a new attorney in such a situation, it can be difficult. Even if the boss or bosses want to be mentors and guiding figures, time and workload don’t always allow for the best oversight. In fact, even the best resources currently available, such as Kimm Alayne Walton’s “What Law School Doesn’t Teach You But You Really Need To Know” seem to focus more on firm life (turn in assignments on time, don’t take on more than you can handle) and less on the day-to-day details. In another article, I’ll address some tips for new attorneys, but at the moment I’d like to share a few tips I’ve picked up that may be helpful to that new boss, the managing partner, sole proprietor or hiring partner with a new attorney ready and willing to do work.
Much like a new pet, you first need to socialize your new lawyer. A thorough tour of the office includes more than standing in your office and pointing “Bathroom here, your office there, kitchen behind that.” Take the time to introduce your new associate to everyone in the office, with a quick explanation about what each person does. Your new lawyer may not remember every person or every detail, but it is a good first step. It’s also useful for imparting some of the office rules. If Mrs. Willowby, estates paralegal, answers only to Mr. Willowby, senior partner, it’s probably important to let your new lawyer know such a thing before she dumps a stack of probate petitions on Mrs. Willowby’s desk late some afternoon. Some new lawyers will be brilliant socially and won’t miss a beat in reading the office. Some won’t have a clue. It’s better to establish a foundation of knowledge to start anyone off right.
As an additional thought in this area, many new attorneys I spoke with preferred (or would have preferred, in some cases, with wistful thoughts of what might have been) a more formal introduction to the office. Sally may have been your Girl Friday for thirty years, knows all your important dates and remembers to send flowers with your signature on the card, and helped you through your first three divorces. That doesn’t mean she wants a twenty-two year old bossing her around as “Old Sal”, calling her at home with instructions for the next day, or anything that might be common for you after years together. More than one new attorney I spoke with wished they’d been introduced, formally, and allowed to build a relationship. In some cases, they felt they had overstepped boundaries and burnt bridges with the office staff by acting as they had been told or shown to act by the boss.
Likewise, introducing and explaining office procedures and equipment in some detail is invaluable. Many a young lawyer has run up tremendous Westlaw or Lexis bills by not understanding the office subscription. It is understandable as a hiring partner or new boss that you don’t want to seem cheap or scare off a new hire, but honestly will be more effective. If the firm is on a budget, let the attorney know. If you only use the laser printer for final drafts that are going to be submitted to the court, address it early in that first walk through. If office supplies are vast in number and free for the taking, let your new lawyer know.
As a penultimate note, if there are any fashion or style rules, clue in your new attorney hire. If it is suits, suits and nothing but suits, preferably dark blue with white shirts and school ties, tell your new lawyer. If it’s anything but jeans, that’s equally important. More important, as your new hire will likely pick up a lot of the rules from observation or asking, is to let your new attorney know what you expect of him/her. If you wear jeans every day because your practice is all via telephone with out-of-state clients, but you want you’re associate to dress the role for handling local clients, say so. My point with all of this isn’t that a new lawyer can’t figure it out, but that a new lawyer shouldn’t have to. A new boss can set the ground rules quickly and easily to establish a good working relationship.
Lastly, I wanted to address the topic of work, or work product as we lawyers are fond of calling it. Your new lawyer likely has a very different concept of the law than you do after years of practice. It’s likely that your view and your experience will be invaluable in shaping that lawyer very quickly. However, your new lawyer has just spent several years learning to assemble every snippet of law and fact at least marginally relevant to a problem, churn it through a complicated bit of analysis, and issue an opinion. It can be a time consuming process. As an experienced lawyer, you likely already know much of the relevant law. You may also, as I have learned over time, know that there are courts or jurisdictions where the relevant law matters less than the facts, or vice versa, or even someone’s name may matter more than the strength of the case. These are essential things for a new lawyer to learn, but a new lawyer also needs to use those skills from law school. The lawyers mind is devoted to questioning and nitpicking. To cut off a new associate with a “No, that won’t work,” without further detail, as many new lawyers reported to me, isn’t helpful to professional development. If your associate is wasting time unnecessarily chasing every boondoggle, then rein him or her in. Anecdotal experience indicates, however, that the most effective new lawyers have been those who were allowed to chase the law and the facts. The lawyer who understands why something won’t work, including the law behind it, is going to be more effective in understanding and evaluating the next case to walk in, even if the two hours spent looking into it would have been cut to ten minutes based on your knowledge.
In conclusion, the advice above isn’t guaranteed to be 110% accurate or entirely applicable to every situation where you are the boss of a new attorney. Far too many new lawyers have reported to me that their training consists of “you’re the lawyer, practice law,” and not enough training in the practical aspects of the office environment. Additionally, new lawyers need time to develop a functional knowledge of the areas in which they practice, which may be inefficient compared to your work as a senior lawyer. However, a little time spent at the beginning can have tremendous payoff for your business.