English: Getting in top shape: Tips from 6 top lawyers

As a young lawyer, I found that the best way to grow as a lawyer is to learn from others. For this reason, I thought that an article sharing advice from the “best of the best” would be beneficial to other young lawyers. I asked six respected Indianapolis attorneys, ranging in experience from nine to 41 years, to give me a piece of advice they wish they knew as a freshman. I have purposefully selected six attorneys who have made a difference in my practice, whether as a mentor, supervisor or even opposing counsel. That’s right – you can learn from lawyers across the table! Below are the tips I received from these six attorneys, who together have over 165 years of legal practice:

Listen to everyone

“When I try to think of all the things I wish someone had told me about life as a freshman associate, what tops the list is … to listen. Listen to everyone: family, friends, partners, fellow attorneys, people in your law firm and building…everyone. You never know when you’ll learn one of your greatest lessons, have an opportunity to grow, and form relationships with mentors that will change the direction of your career and life. As attorneys, we are blessed to be in a profession where helping others is high on our list. As a lawyer, however, it is often difficult to accept help and criticism. As a result, we so often hear what others are saying, but we really don’t always listen. As I began to really listen, I was able to become more organized, gain the trust of clients and other attorneys, and grow both in my practice and in my overall purpose.”

-Kristin McClellan, Partners, Ice Miller LLP

Create personal connections

“When I first started practicing law, email hadn’t been invented yet! All of our communications with clients, counterparties and counsel, insurance companies, witnesses and the courts have been in person, by telephone or by letter. My tip for young lawyers today is not to rely on email, social media or apps as your primary means of communication. Call and talk to your clients and opposing attorneys. Take the opposing attorney out for coffee or lunch. Write a thank you or congratulations message to someone every day. Building personal relationships with those you work with and against will improve the quality of your life and practice!”

Lee Christie, Partners, Christie Farrell Lee & Bell PC

Admit when you don’t know the answer and when you’re wrong

“I wish I had known that it’s okay not to always know the answer. Even seasoned, seasoned lawyers don’t always know the answers. It took me a long time to realize that I could answer that, “I don’t know, let me investigate,” and that it was a perfectly acceptable answer. There’s also something to be said for walking into any situation with confidence (even if you don’t know what you’re doing), because you can be very persuasive even if you’re not the most knowledgeable person in the room. However, remember to be humble when exuding confidence. Never be afraid to approach an attorney who has more experience than you and ask them what their thoughts are based on their experience. Finally, as a general rule, when dealing with the court, opposing counsel, or even your clients, you should never be too proud to admit when you’re wrong. Being able to admit you’re wrong helps build a reputation based on honesty and goes a long way in maintaining the respect of those around you.”

– Rachelle PonistManaging Partner, Hand Ponist Smith & Rayl LLC

Take possession

“Take charge of case and calendar management. Nothing will endear you to a busy law firm partner more than making sure the team meets deadlines, anticipates filings and strategic moves, and calendars work to allow the client time to contribute. You work in a team; never lose sight of that. The chain of work often begins with you – the research, the draft brief or application, the filing plan. Think ahead. plan ahead. Don’t wait for a partner to give you deadlines – propose them.”

– Wayne Turner, Founding Partner, Hoover Hull Turner LLP

Follow the 80/20 rule

“As a new lawyer, the concept of marketing may seem daunting. I recommend following the 80/20 rule from the start – spend 80% of your time on legal work and 20% on “marketing,” which is a broad term. Network with your law school classmates and join state and local bar associations to build your network. Set aside time each week for marketing. This can be anything from meeting a contact over lunch or interacting with your network on LinkedIn. It may be years before you reap the fruits of the seeds you sow today, but your law school peers will be the judges, hiring partners, and business consultants of tomorrow.”

– Stephanie Cassmann, Partners, Wagner Reese LLP

Treat your attending attorney as your client

“One of the keys to early success is understanding who your customer is. Your client is NOT just the client that your company may represent. Your client is also the lawyer who gives you work. Like a client, the attorney who hires you is the person who evaluates your work product for timeliness, thoroughness, proofreading and time commitment. This attorney is the person who will give you follow-up business and “refer” you to others within the firm. So if you get repeat business in your first year, you’ll have a happy customer. If you’re not getting repeat orders, you should ask yourself why not.”

-John Trimble, Partners, Lewis Wagner LLP

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Young lawyers can build a solid foundation for their practice by listening to and seeking advice from experienced lawyers. As Kristin advises, listen to everyone — you never know when you’re about to learn one of your greatest lessons. I challenge all young lawyers to look for opportunities to learn from others. Sign up for mentoring programs. Ask your bosses for their top advice. Get coffee with experienced lawyers. If you are defying a reputable attorney or working with an experienced mediator, beware.

Experience cannot be taught because it only comes with time, making it one of the most valuable qualities in the legal profession. Until we young lawyers can call ourselves “seasoned” lawyers, we can learn from and listen to seasoned lawyers.•

Katherine L. English is an Associate at Hoover Hull Turner LLP. The opinions expressed are those of the author.

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