Once in a while, new and not-so-new lawyers ask me for advice on what they should do for the first three to 10 years of their career. I must admit that this is difficult to answer because everyone has unique privileges and challenges. And I’m not a fan of giving general cliché advice that we’ve all heard before: network, work hard, never give up, say your prayers, and take your vitamins. All I can provide is advice based on my personal experience and from people I have talked to over the years.
So today, here are five specific pieces of advice to consider for the first five years of law practice. I chose these because I hear this frequently from people I respect. Some I have learned the hard way.
Make the most of your opportunities. The cheerleaders are shouting to the heavens about legal employment growing at a rate of two to nine percent per year. Regardless, most new attorneys are not going to work for the firm or the practice area of their choice. For the first few years in the workforce, their career path will be anything but a predictable straight line.
Wherever you are working, make the most of the experience. Observe everything and learn from it. Find out how the lawyers bring in clients. Who do they frequently talk to? How do they market themselves? What conferences do they attend?
If you are employed, but not in the field of your choice, you’ll have to figure out how the skills and experience you have will be useful to your ideal employer. Some transferable skills are legal research skills and personnel management (if you have a staff), to name a few.
Figure out what you want to do and learn it on your own. Let’s suppose you want to be an international attorney (a broad and somewhat vague field), but none of the international law firms are hiring. Worse yet, there is no “international law firm” in your city. So how do you gain experience when your options are limited?
The hard truth is that most of the experienced attorneys got their fame and reputation mostly on their own. Many have suggested getting a mentor, but the quality varies. Even the good and generous ones can only do so much because they have their own practices to run. And in my opinion, a mentor is someone who double checks your work. He or she is not someone who does the work for you — that’s a very different type of relationship.
If it is an established area of law, you can start by reading treatises to get a general understanding. The more treatises you read, the better. The problem with learning any new area of law is that for every subject you find fun and interesting, there are at least 10 other subjects that are boring.
You can read blog posts or magazine and law review articles from leading practitioners who generally write commentary on modern issues.
If you are interested in a new, developing area of law, it would help to write a few blog posts about it. Even if your position is wrong, or not followed, at least you will show potential clients that you have knowledge in the subject.
You can also attend conferences, although some of these tend to be very expensive. Which brings us to our next topic.
Spend money on the things that matter. For the first few years, your budget will be tight, so you have to be very careful on how you spend your money. Initially, you should invest on your money on things that will help you grow professionally. Similarly, you should be generous to those who have helped you in the past and to a very small few who have the potential to help you in the future.
Or if you don’t need to purchase anything, either save the money or pay down debt.
Some people use what little money they have to purchase expensive things like luxury or sports cars because they think it will impress potential clients or because they think they deserve it. Look, there will come a time when you can buy these things without breaking a sweat. But you shouldn’t buy something that is fun in the short term and ends up being a huge money pit later.
Don’t obsess over student loans. For most lawyers and young professionals, student loans are a second tax. Unfortunately, many people spend hours every day thinking about strategies for paying them off early or fantasizing about the big day when their loans are paid in full.
Have a general plan for paying off the loans or plan for loan forgiveness through an income-based repayment program. The plan should be flexible in case there is a sudden increase or decrease in income. You should check your loan balance only once or twice per month at most.
Obsessing over them is not a productive use of your time. I get that it might make you focused and driven. But for every hour you spend analyzing how many ways to refinance your existing loan or setting up hypothetical repayment schedules, one hour is lost that could have been used to meet people, read a treatise or just sleep.
Take better care of yourself. It’s important to work on developing your career and being financially disciplined as I described above. But if it is costing you your health, then it is all for nothing. You might have friends or family who are your age but are ill. And some are very ill. I am sure that the only advice they will give is to not trade your health for anything.
We generally don’t engage in risky behavior that will kill us instantly. Instead, we do many little things that slowly but gradually deteriorate our health — like eating the wrong foods, smoking, not exercising, or not getting enough sleep.
This will eventually catch up to us and will either shorten our life expectancy or will make the final years of our lives more miserable than they should be.
No client, job, or boss is worth it.
So those are the five things I think a new lawyer should focus on during the first five years of his or her career. I chose five because it is a short and manageable number.
Also, I chose the number five it has been five years since I started my column here about my job search. Or was my column about small-firm life? Or law schools? Or taxes? Or student loans? Oh well. One of these days, I’ll stick to something.
In the meantime, thanks for reading and sharing your stories with me.