An open letter to the February bar admittees

Issue May 2015 By Gabriel Cheong

Dear February Bar Admittees,

Congratulations on joining the Massachusetts bar! You will come to find that being a lawyer is everything they've said it would be: the good and the bad. You'll also come to find that just like being Spiderman, having great power means having great responsibility. I'm writing to you all today as a member of the Law Practice Management Section Council, but more importantly as a fellow member of the bar. I want to give you some insight that really would have helped me as a new attorney when I started - insight that actually probably someone did give me, but I wasn't wise enough to fully appreciate at the time.

Keep on learning and find a mentor

Your formal education as a lawyer is over, but that doesn't mean that your education as a lawyer is over. As long as you're an active member of the bar, you will keep on learning. In Massachusetts, there is no required continuing legal education requirement, but it would be foolish to think that everything you need to know as a lawyer, you already know. Even seasoned lawyers will tell you that they continue to learn from CLEs, other lawyers and even their own clients.

If you're a member of the Massachusetts Bar Association, you get all MBA CLEs for free, so as a new attorney, take advantage of it and attend, either in-person or via online, as many as you can. Explore different areas of law and business if you haven't yet decided your life's mission. Subscribe to Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly so that you're always up to date on the latest news coming out of the bar and the courts. Take part in mentoring, either one-on-one or as part of a group. You can learn from more experienced attorneys and also from younger attorneys.

Don't stoop down to their level

When I was a new attorney, I had a family case in court where the other, more seasoned attorney yelled at me outside of the courtroom, "You're out of order!" Instead of participating in a screaming match with this other attorney, I told the other attorney that I would come back and talk to him when he calmed down, and I walked away. Eventually he did calm down and he approached me, and we continued to talk.

The longer you practice, the greater the chances are that you'll run into another attorney whom you simply do not like. There will be those attorneys who jeopardize their client's case simply due to poor litigation and negotiation skills, or those attorneys who you know are committing ethical violations. Or you might come across an attorney who simply is mean for the sake of being mean and he or she might try to bully a younger attorney.

The best defense to attorneys like that is to know the law (do your homework) and stand your ground, but don't stoop down to their level. If you know they're lying in court, that doesn't give you the right to do the same. If they're trying to start a shouting match with you, that doesn't mean you have to participate.

Do well by doing good

Doing pro bono work not only helps the community, it also helps you as a lawyer. When I first started my solo practice in family law, I didn't have a lot of clients. I spent a lot of my free time learning the law and doing pro bono work. I volunteered for Lawyer for the Day at the Probate and Family courts (and still do). I volunteered for Dial-a-Lawyer through the Massachusetts Bar Association to give free legal advice to callers once a month. Not only did those experiences give me a great sense of satisfaction in knowing that I'm helping people that couldn't otherwise afford legal help, I was learning how to be a lawyer.

As a new lawyer, I wasn't comfortable giving legal advice and I wasn't sure of myself. The more pro bono work I did, the more I knew the law and learned the court process, and the better I was at giving legal advice. It helped me learn while at the same time, helping others.

There are a lot of volunteer opportunities through the Volunteer Lawyers Project and Senior Partners for Justice.

Learn to make money

You might start out as an associate at a firm or you might soon be opening up your own practice - whatever the situation might be, you need to learn how to make money as a lawyer. Being a lawyer is a profession, but it is also a business. If you're the best lawyer in Massachusetts, but you don't know how to attract clients, your legal skills are not going to matter much.

Knowing how to get clients and make money is an obvious skill to learn if you're your own boss. But if you're an associate, it is also important. You are much more valuable as an employee if you can also bring in business rather than simply do the legal work. As any hiring partner at firms will tell you, it's not that difficult to train a new associate to do the legal work, but it's impossible to replace a rainmaker in a firm. If you want to be partner and rise up the ranks of your firm, you better start thinking about how to make money for your firm now.

Have a life

As I said in the beginning, there is the good and the bad of being a lawyer. A big part of the "bad" is that typically lawyers work very long hours. Especially as a new associate, you might find yourself working 12-13 hour days in order to get in your minimum billable hours. No matter what type of law you find yourself doing, keep a work/life balance that allows you to step away and live a life. If you have trouble finding that balance, counselors at Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers (LCL) can help. LCL is a free service that is paid by your bar dues, so take advantage of it.   

Gabriel Cheong is an attorney with Infinity Law Group LLC.