Graduating from law school and passing the bar exam in the state(s) wherein you plan on practicing is a tremendous feeling. You have spent countless hours studying, reading cases, preparing for mock arguments, enduring final exams, and then prepared for the bar exam and now you have passed and are ready to commence the actual practice of law. However, there is an abundance of learning that you have to do because there are many practical implications of the practice of law that are simply not taught in law school. Those that have had the benefit of a family member, employer, or mentor who is an attorney may have shed some light on these points; however, listed below are some practical tips that every newly admitted attorney can benefit from in addition to continuing to expand your abilities as an attorney.
Treat Pro Se litigants With the Same Professionalism That You Would to Another Attorney
A skill that was never taught when I attended law school and quite frankly, there should be an entire class dedicated to this issue is what do you do as a new attorney when you are facing a pro se (self-represented), litigant? It is very easy to have a conversation debate over an issue with opposing counsel who knows the law based on the type of case in which you are against each other. You both can usually take the emotion out of the case and hopefully come to a practical resolution of the issue over which you are trying to resolve or potentially have a pretrial conference with the Court to weigh in on the dispute and provide its insight.
However, what do you do when the opposing party is self-represented? Most, if not all, pro se litigants are not attorneys; they did not attend law school as you did, they did not pass the bar exam, and they often do not fully understand the rules of evidence and procedure because they do not have the education and training that you do. Engaging in a conversation regarding the law is often difficult because they may not fully understand the nuances in the same manner in which you do or that their pleading may be fraught with conclusory statements. The answer to the question is that you treat a pro se litigant with the same level of respect as you would another attorney, and you do the best that you can to work with them and try and bring whatever type of case it is to a resolution.
Many jurisdictions hold pro se litigants to the same standard as that of the attorneys. However, you have to grasp the fact that to do so it is impractical because as noted above, a pro se litigant does not know the law or the rules in the same manner that you do and to hold them to such a standard would make participating in the litigation virtually impossible. Thus, you have to prepare your case as you would with any other case; acknowledging that the same procedural steps such as pretrial conferences may not occur (most judges will not hold them with a pro se litigant) and move forward to the best of your abilities and advocate for your client.
Setting Boundaries and Make Yourself Available for Your Clients and Your Friends and Family
When I first became an attorney, I was not seeing anyone, and I had virtually no responsibility (other than to work). My focus was to be available to all of my clients whenever they needed me because my marketing strategy was that “if people knew that they could reach me all the time, they would tell their friends, family, etc. and that will help me build my client base.” It was not uncommon for me to take a phone call at 2:00 a.m. because a client was scared about Court the following morning and needed reassurances that everything was going to be okay. The reality is that my initial thought process is exactly how I was able to build my practice, i.e., being available when other attorneys are often not available. However, often people can take advantage of you trying to be there for them, just like in any relationship, attorney/client or otherwise you need to make sure that you set boundaries because as your practice grows, you are going to have more clients and more responsibility (and there are only so many hours in a day).
Fast forward to the present date, I am in a committed relationship, I have a mountain of responsibility, and I still maintain the same “business model,” and as a result, I have an incredible client base that fortunately continues to grow. Thus, how do you balance making yourself available to your clients (who are your livelihood) while making sure that your loved ones and responsibilities receive proper attention and are not neglected? Unfortunately, there is no bright line answer to that question, and only you can determine the best balance for yourself. There are not many days where I am not personally on the phone with clients less than at least three hours per day, in addition to all of the other tasks that I need to complete. However, part of building my reputation (discussed above) was based on making myself available when my clients need me. Even if you call a client back and tell them that you are behind and you will call them back as soon as you catch up, most clients are understanding of that fact, especially if you have developed a good report with them from the outset. I tell every client that hires me that I will treat them like they are my only client, but I ask that they understand that they are not my only client and that other clients depend on me just like they do and to be respectful of that fact. I have fortunately never had a problem with a client being respectful of that boundary.
Next, you have to figure out how many hours per day are you available. I was fortunate enough to be raised by an attorney and watched my dad when he was practicing and how he interacted with his clients from a very young age. Something that I learned from the outset was that the practice of law (again depending on the area) is a service business and people’s problems do not conveniently occur between 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m., and no statement could have been more accurate. As someone’s attorney, you are their confidant, sometimes their therapist, and often the only person that is on their side but you still have to have “me time,” so that you can recharge and continue to be all of those things for your clients. Make sure that you set aside personal time each day for yourself to take a mental break. Something as simple as going for a walk and getting out of the office for a few minutes on your lunch break or exercising each day. There is no model answer; you simply have to do something that gives your mind a break and allows you to separate from your work. It is imperative that you have that personal time so that you can continue to be the attorney that your clients deserve and the friend and family member that your friends and family deserve as well.
“The opinions expressed herein are solely opinions of the author and are by no means to be referenced in any pleading, document, or to be used for republication in any platform whatsoever.”
This series will continue next month with part three which looks at hostile clients and hostile opposing counsel.
To read part one, please see last month’s post What Law School Doesn’t Teach You Part One.