United States: Easing The Transition From Law Student To Practicing Attorney

Last Updated: August 15 2016
Article by Jacob M. Oksman

Originally published in the New York Law Journal

Jacob M. Oksman authored the New York Law Journal  article, "Easing the Transition From Law Student to Practicing Attorney." 

After three long years of lectures, late nights at the library and enough coffee to keep the lights on at Starbucks through the next millennium, you're finally a licensed attorney and your start date is right around the corner. But, if you didn't figure it out as a summer associate, the life of a law student is quite different from the life of a practicing attorney. Not only will you be learning how to apply volumes of legal theory to practice, you will be navigating a new work environment, building relationships with new colleagues, perhaps moving to a new city and developing a practice.

The transition from law student to professional attorney can be challenging and it's no secret that law schools do little to prepare you for practice. Awareness of some of the major differences between life as a law student and life as a practicing attorney will be helpful in making a smooth transition. In addition, you may find it useful to implement some strategies and tips to ease the transition so that you sleep better and make a great impression on your boss and clients.

Your Time Is Not Your Own

The first thing you may notice as you begin to practice is that your time is no longer your own. As a law student, you have, for the most part, the luxury of setting your schedule and working at your leisure. Not a morning person? Take the afternoon course with the later exam. Work best during the quiet dawn of the day? Put your reading off until the morning. It's up to you to structure your schedule and set benchmarks for outlines and drafts of articles. Your clients, on the other hand, have hard deadlines set by statute, business decision or pure want. Your preferred schedule, as it should, comes secondary to meeting deadlines. Furthermore, as a new attorney, your work will likely need to be reviewed and revised by senior associates and partners before it's ready to go out, so be prepared for tight deadlines with time built in for reviews and revisions.

The best way to adapt to your new work schedule is to get into a routine. Although you'll often find it difficult to maintain, a structured work-week will help your focus and productivity. Try to arrive and leave your office at the same time every day and dedicate different segments of your day to certain recurring tasks. Of course there will be some flexibility and not every matter will be a rush, so, if you can, save some of the heavy lifting for your peak performance hours.

The Billable Hour

In addition to ceding control of your schedule to your clients, you'll have to account for every moment you are working on their behalf. Because every matter presents a unique set of facts, it is nearly impossible to accurately predict the cost to your client. As such, you are expected to track the time it takes to complete their work. Expect your client to review your time carefully to ensure that they are getting the most bang for their buck. Tracking your time can be a difficult habit to pick up because, frankly, nobody ever cared what you were doing every tenth of an hour before. It would have been nice to bill someone for the endless hours of studying in law school, but take comfort in the fact that the knowledge you acquired is baked into your hourly rate.

The best way to keep track of your time is to track your hours as you complete each task. You'll have a hard time remembering what you worked on earlier in the day, let alone last week. If you can't access your billing software, write it down. It helps to designate a yellow-pad or calendar for keeping time in case you don't have a moment to formally write it up.

Efficiency

It is important to note that as a practicing attorney you are not given carte blanche over the time you spend on each matter. As a law student, you're encouraged to spend extended time examining every aspect of a legal issue. You're not accounting to anyone for your time, so you can let your intellectual curiosity run wild. However, in practice, you have to work within a time estimate and the client's budget. Accordingly, you'll have to learn to work efficiently and put (some) of your intellectual curiosity on hold. Some clients and firms are okay with budgeting extra time for a junior attorney to get up to speed on an issue, but most clients are paying for attorneys who are already knowledgeable in the law relevant to their matter, so expect some push-back from the client when you exceed time estimates.

Working efficiently is one of the most challenging parts of early legal practice. Many of your projects will involve tasks completely new to you in areas of the law where you may have little experience. Expect a learning curve but take every opportunity to improve from one project to the next. Your law school notes and outlines may provide a good starting point. In addition, seek the advice of seasoned attorneys in your area who can point you to a great treatise that will cut your research time in half or to a book of forms that are easily adaptable to your practice. Finally, keep your notes, research and drafts from each project to jog your memory when the same type of project comes up again.

Your Audience

To date, you've produced memos, briefs, exams and articles for law professors and, sometimes, your peers. Although most legal analysis follows the same format (see IRAC), in an academic setting, there is a focus on the philosophy underpinning legal principles. While it is important to understand the reason and consequences of a particular law, oftentimes you don't have the time or leeway to ponder such grandiose questions. Clients expect pointed and practical advice so the bulk of your legal analysis will focus on solving the issues at hand. Furthermore, in law school, your work is limited to the legal universe defined by the professor (or the course description). Legal practice is never neat or well defined. You may have, for example, tax, environmental and intellectual property issues embedded in your contract dispute. It is nearly impossible to anticipate all the legal issues that will arise in an engagement, so expect to delve into new areas outside your comfort zone.

Listen to your client, take notes and ask questions. Your work will not address your client's concerns and meet the needs of their engagement unless you fully understand their position and expectations. Also, discussing the matter with your partner or senior associate and asking follow up questions will help you focus your tasks and avoid unnecessary legal frolics. Don't be afraid to ask for help because it may get the job done better and faster. Finally, sharpen your research skills. Take additional research tutorials, explore the software and learn the shortcuts. Get familiar with the treatises and periodicals in your area so you know where to turn when something new comes up.

Bespoke Work Product

As a law student, you probably learned quickly that subjectivity plays a large role in the legal profession. Your work for each class is reviewed by a different professor with a different expertise. Each professor has a preferred format, writing style and their own set of expectations. It can be frustrating when you analyzed the right statutes and cases but your grade was lower than you anticipated. Perhaps the professor didn't buy your argument, couldn't follow the organization of your contract or thought you didn't develop a line of reasoning. In this respect, law school provides good practice for real world situations. Expect to have to tailor your work for your clients and superiors. You may have proudly produced a perfectly cited and well-argued brief, but the partner for whom you prepared the work may have argued before that judge before and know that she is particularly sympathetic to a certain line of reasoning or certain terminology. Or perhaps the partner prefers single spacing and analogies made in the first-person and you're a third-person analogy double-spacing kind of attorney. Everyone expects bespoke work product.

The best way to avoid preparing work that will not be well received is to ask your partner or client how they like their work presented. Ask for an example of work they found acceptable and talk to other attorneys who have prepared work for them for tips. Nevertheless, you should expect a learning curve and accept that early on in the relationship, you will have to adjust to their preferred style and approach. Try not to take critiques of your work personally and resolve to improve with every assignment.

Collaboration

With only one exam or paper gauging your understanding of an area of law, submitting your work to the grading black-box is daunting. In most circumstances, your study group isn't taking the exam with you and you produce work on your own with little guidance. The good news is, however, as a practicing attorney generally the work product is the result of a collaborative effort. Your work will get quick, detailed and ongoing feedback from the client and your superiors. This constant feedback and collaboration helps focus your efforts and tends to increase the likelihood that the final work product meets the needs of the client.

Keep in mind that you can learn quite a bit from your colleagues so check your ego at the door and learn to work with others. Get to know your colleagues and learn their strengths and weaknesses. When your skills compliment your colleagues', the work product will be that much better. Also, practice critiquing the work of others and make an effort to review the final work product to understand how your work was incorporated.

Extracurricular Activities

Law school is a self-contained environment that revolves around legal education. Beyond coursework, law schools endeavor to provide you with the opportunity to explore and engage in various legal initiatives and interests. It's quite easy to sign-up for a new club or committee and become involved. There are professors and clinic leaders you can to turn to for advice and guidance. Pursuing legal avenues of interest outside the office is much more challenging in practice. Unfortunately, the real estate law club does not meet outside the conference room and your colleagues are probably too busy to run law clubs out of their office.

Following your passion and feeding your intellectual curiosity will keep your enthusiasm for the law vibrant. Explore your state and local bar associations (and the American Bar Association) and their various committees to find other attorneys who practice and share ideas in areas that pique your interest. If a committee does not exist, start your own and invite others to join. Subscribe to periodicals, blogs and listservs that provide updates and insights in your area of interest. If you'd like to become more knowledgeable in an area, speak to attorneys already practicing in that area and get up to speed on your own. Go to non-legal industry meetings or conferences and learn how their business works (these are your prospective clients). Finally, take part in pro-bono opportunities whenever you can because there is nothing more satisfying than using your education and skill to help those in need.

Work-Life Balance

Law school is an enjoyable experience, especially after the first year. Law schools provide you with countless convenient opportunities to socialize and have fun. There are middle-school like dances, happy hours, recreational sport leagues, food tours around town and a plethora of interest groups. Making new friends and exploring a new city are some of the best parts of law school. Striking work-life balance after law school is a challenge and should not be aspirational. Between demanding clients, picking up dry cleaning and ordering your favorite Szechuan, who has time for a concert, dinner with old friends or your favorite hobby?

Recognize that a well-balanced personal and professional life will ultimately make you a happier and more effective attorney. There will be times when you are overwhelmed and you'll have to skip a social gathering, but set boundaries and make time for the activities outside work that you find enjoyable. Working with a charity, taking a class and joining a club are great ways to incorporate recurrent activities into your schedule. When you're sick, don't be afraid to use your sick days and be sure to use your vacation. Most importantly, eat right, exercise, socialize and meditate (or attend your house of worship). Remember that you are part of a family and community and your time away from work will help you manage stress and cleanse your intellectual palate.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Authors
Jacob M. Oksman
 
In association with
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Tools
Print
Font Size:
Translation
Channels
Mondaq on Twitter
 
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
 
Email Address
Company Name
Password
Confirm Password
Position
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Accounting
 Anti-trust
 Commercial
 Compliance
 Consumer
 Criminal
 Employment
 Energy
 Environment
 Family
 Finance
 Government
 Healthcare
 Immigration
 Insolvency
 Insurance
 International
 IP
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Litigation
 Media & IT
 Privacy
 Real Estate
 Strategy
 Tax
 Technology
 Transport
 Wealth Mgt
Regions
Africa
Asia
Asia Pacific
Australasia
Canada
Caribbean
Europe
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
U.K.
United States
Worldwide Updates
Check to state you have read and
agree to our Terms and Conditions

Terms & Conditions and Privacy Statement

Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd and as a user you are granted a non-exclusive, revocable license to access the Website under its terms and conditions of use. Your use of the Website constitutes your agreement to the following terms and conditions of use. Mondaq Ltd may terminate your use of the Website if you are in breach of these terms and conditions or if Mondaq Ltd decides to terminate your license of use for whatever reason.

Use of www.mondaq.com

You may use the Website but are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the content and articles available (the Content). You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these terms & conditions or with the prior written consent of Mondaq Ltd. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information about Mondaq.com’s content, users or contributors in order to offer them any services or products which compete directly or indirectly with Mondaq Ltd’s services and products.

Disclaimer

Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the documents and related graphics published on this server for any purpose. All such documents and related graphics are provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers hereby disclaim all warranties and conditions with regard to this information, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use or performance of information available from this server.

The documents and related graphics published on this server could include technical inaccuracies or typographical errors. Changes are periodically added to the information herein. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers may make improvements and/or changes in the product(s) and/or the program(s) described herein at any time.

Registration

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.

Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.

If you do not want us to provide your name and email address you may opt out by clicking here .

If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of products and services offered by Mondaq by clicking here .

Information Collection and Use

We require site users to register with Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to view the free information on the site. We also collect information from our users at several different points on the websites: this is so that we can customise the sites according to individual usage, provide 'session-aware' functionality, and ensure that content is acquired and developed appropriately. This gives us an overall picture of our user profiles, which in turn shows to our Editorial Contributors the type of person they are reaching by posting articles on Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) – meaning more free content for registered users.

We are only able to provide the material on the Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) site free to site visitors because we can pass on information about the pages that users are viewing and the personal information users provide to us (e.g. email addresses) to reputable contributing firms such as law firms who author those pages. We do not sell or rent information to anyone else other than the authors of those pages, who may change from time to time. Should you wish us not to disclose your details to any of these parties, please tick the box above or tick the box marked "Opt out of Registration Information Disclosure" on the Your Profile page. We and our author organisations may only contact you via email or other means if you allow us to do so. Users can opt out of contact when they register on the site, or send an email to unsubscribe@mondaq.com with “no disclosure” in the subject heading

Mondaq News Alerts

In order to receive Mondaq News Alerts, users have to complete a separate registration form. This is a personalised service where users choose regions and topics of interest and we send it only to those users who have requested it. Users can stop receiving these Alerts by going to the Mondaq News Alerts page and deselecting all interest areas. In the same way users can amend their personal preferences to add or remove subject areas.

Cookies

A cookie is a small text file written to a user’s hard drive that contains an identifying user number. The cookies do not contain any personal information about users. We use the cookie so users do not have to log in every time they use the service and the cookie will automatically expire if you do not visit the Mondaq website (or its affiliate sites) for 12 months. We also use the cookie to personalise a user's experience of the site (for example to show information specific to a user's region). As the Mondaq sites are fully personalised and cookies are essential to its core technology the site will function unpredictably with browsers that do not support cookies - or where cookies are disabled (in these circumstances we advise you to attempt to locate the information you require elsewhere on the web). However if you are concerned about the presence of a Mondaq cookie on your machine you can also choose to expire the cookie immediately (remove it) by selecting the 'Log Off' menu option as the last thing you do when you use the site.

Some of our business partners may use cookies on our site (for example, advertisers). However, we have no access to or control over these cookies and we are not aware of any at present that do so.

Log Files

We use IP addresses to analyse trends, administer the site, track movement, and gather broad demographic information for aggregate use. IP addresses are not linked to personally identifiable information.

Links

This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that Mondaq (or its affiliate sites) are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of these third party sites. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this Web site.

Surveys & Contests

From time-to-time our site requests information from users via surveys or contests. Participation in these surveys or contests is completely voluntary and the user therefore has a choice whether or not to disclose any information requested. Information requested may include contact information (such as name and delivery address), and demographic information (such as postcode, age level). Contact information will be used to notify the winners and award prizes. Survey information will be used for purposes of monitoring or improving the functionality of the site.

Mail-A-Friend

If a user elects to use our referral service for informing a friend about our site, we ask them for the friend’s name and email address. Mondaq stores this information and may contact the friend to invite them to register with Mondaq, but they will not be contacted more than once. The friend may contact Mondaq to request the removal of this information from our database.

Security

This website takes every reasonable precaution to protect our users’ information. When users submit sensitive information via the website, your information is protected using firewalls and other security technology. If you have any questions about the security at our website, you can send an email to webmaster@mondaq.com.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user’s personally identifiable information changes (such as postcode), or if a user no longer desires our service, we will endeavour to provide a way to correct, update or remove that user’s personal data provided to us. This can usually be done at the “Your Profile” page or by sending an email to EditorialAdvisor@mondaq.com.

Notification of Changes

If we decide to change our Terms & Conditions or Privacy Policy, we will post those changes on our site so our users are always aware of what information we collect, how we use it, and under what circumstances, if any, we disclose it. If at any point we decide to use personally identifiable information in a manner different from that stated at the time it was collected, we will notify users by way of an email. Users will have a choice as to whether or not we use their information in this different manner. We will use information in accordance with the privacy policy under which the information was collected.

How to contact Mondaq

You can contact us with comments or queries at enquiries@mondaq.com.

If for some reason you believe Mondaq Ltd. has not adhered to these principles, please notify us by e-mail at problems@mondaq.com and we will use commercially reasonable efforts to determine and correct the problem promptly.