Category Archives: Ten Tips Every New Attorney Should Know



PERSONAL UPDATE: I woke up this morning realizing that it had been 6 months since my last post. One of the drawbacks to the aging process is that time seems to pass so much faster than when we were younger. I am now a legal resident of North Scottsdale, Arizona but we will continue to spend summers and fall in Minnesota. We just completed construction on a new home way out in Minnestrista (for those of you geographically challenged) Minnestrista is a picturesque small town located on the western edge of lake Minnetonka. Now that the dust has started to settle I will hopefully get back to posting on a more regular basis. If you need to reach me I have a new email:  As for this week’s post:

Whether you work in a private law firm, city or county Attorneys office, public defenders office, or as a judicial law clerk, someone at your place of employment has responsibility for hiring and firing new attorneys.

Over my 36 year legal career I have worked in all of the above settings (except not as a public defender). I can tell you from personal experience that when management attorneys meet to discuss business, the subject often turns to common mistakes made by new attorneys. This is a topic I wish law schools would spend more time covering with their recent graduates. 

The following is a list of ten typical mistakes to avoid when you’re trying to get your legal career off to a great start.

MENTORING SUGGESTION: If you are an older more experienced attorney I encourage you to share this post with any new attorneys in your firm or office.

  1. Know your place. If you’re the newest lawyer in your firm/office, others with more seniority and experience expect a certain level of respect. Being arrogant, self-righteous, or correcting senior counsel publicly will make your opinions less favored than using a respectful and thoughtful approach. You’re expected, at least initially, to prove that you can work harder and longer hours to prove yourself. Complaining about the work load, taking long lunches, and expecting to have a hand in deciding what cases you’ll work on will appear overreaching and unappreciative. Perks will come with time and experience.
  2. Don’t be afraid to ask for input. Few new attorneys ever ask for input or ask how their work can be improved. This is probably because they don’t really want to receive feedback on these issues for fear of being criticized. However, it shows initiative and maturity to ask how you can improve. Also, if you want advice on how to approach a legal task, it’s often helpful to approach your supervisor early with a plan as to how you will attack the legal problem. It’s better to find out if you’re on the right or wrong track early than to waste time doing something the wrong way. The fact that you’re trying to improve is impressive in itself.
  3. Write a handwritten note. Hardly anyone thinks to write a thoughtful, handwritten note to show appreciation for a kind gesture. Before texts and emails, we actually owned pens and stationery! A nicely written note will earn you major points with both supervisors and clients. Electronic communications can seem impersonal and may get buried in the email morass of the recipient’s inbox. (this is my personal favorite!)
  4. Listen more than you talk. When you’re a new lawyer, there’s a tendency to talk too much and listen too little because you’re trying to impress clients and/or colleagues. However, a good lawyer listens to the client and their issues, concerns, and problems and then asks appropriate follow-up questions before offering legal advice. Learn to be a good listener early on in your career and your clients will appreciate you for it. When dealing with more experienced attorneys in your firm/office your rule of thumb should be “ask them questions, listen, learn from them and then thank them.”  Developing your active listening skills will also help you with negotiations (civil or criminal).
  5. Have empathy. Clients (and victims for prosecutors) are often frightened by being involved in the legal process and may feel very violated. They’re coming to you for legal advice, but showing compassion, being a good listener, and treating them with respect can earn you a client for life .  Many people don’t think that lawyers care about the outcome of the legal issue—do what you can to change this perception of lawyers and you’ll help the profession, and yourself, in the process.
  6. Learn to proofread. Read and reread everything you draft. And always even though you draft it electronically, print your legal work and review it thoroughly before signing it. Doing this helps you catch formatting errors, written mistakes, and less than stellar analysis. Keep it formal; too many young lawyers inappropriately use a casual, unprofessional tone (i.e., “the defendant acted like a Mafia Don”) and colloquialisms or slang. By submitting a technically perfect document, you can set yourself apart from others and enhance the possibilities for future successes. Judges can be especially critical of attorneys that submit sub-par filings.
  7. Get all agreements in writing. Handshake deals aren’t the way we practice law. No matter how friendly your relationship is with opposing counsel, all agreements should be confirmed in writing. For example, if opposing counsel tells you on the phone that he or she will drop a cause of action from the complaint, get it in writing so you aren’t left without recourse if he or she reneges. And if much of your confirmation writings are in email, make sure to have a system for storing these agreements or print them out for future use. This is expecially important when reaching plea deals in criminal cases.
  8. Don’t expect law clerks and Google to tell you how to practice law. Law clerks hate calls from lawyers who try to use them as a reference instead of doing their own independent research. And you don’t want to irritate the clerk. Also, be aware that a search on Google or another online search engine doesn’t replace actual legal research, and any samples you obtain through such a search should be thoroughly researched to make sure the law cited is correct, recent, and relevant. Also, when researching, always read the entire case. Don’t depend on a summary and canned holding that may not be on point with your own case. Remember, if you annoy or agitate a law clerk the judge is sure to hear about it.
  9. For private attorneys, understand what it means to provide client value. Your work, every minute of it, is ultimately billed to a client, and you should think about how the bill will look from the client’s perspective. Keep up with your timesheets on client matters on a daily basis. Your firm and the clients will benefit from your accuracy and value your efficiency. Provide detailed billing so that you can always justify your time and don’t do secretarial work that can be billed by someone else at a lower rate.
  10. Use your tech skills. Younger attorneys are usually proficient at using computer programs, social media, and other technologies. Offer to assist your firm/office with existing skills to add value to the organization while demonstrating your own value. It will take a while to develop legal skills, so why not capitalize on skills you already have in the meantime?

July 24, 2017

Alan F. Pendleton (Former District Court Judge)

Source: CEBblog, California Continuing Legal Education. Anabella Q. Bonfa, Wellman & Warren LLP, and Diane Rifkin, Rifkin Consulting.