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.

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