A lawyer’s reputation can either be a helpful asset or a career dead-weight. And while this axiom has always been true, the evolution of technology can amplify and accelerate both the benefits and dangers of reputation. For lawyers joining the profession in 2013, it is increasingly important to establish a good reputation from the very first court appearance, e-mail to opposing counsel or personal posting on Facebook.
Research indicates that it takes 9 positive, subsequent impressions to overcome one negative first impression. And those studies pre-date the now common practice of a tweet or other social media posting “going viral”.
We all make mistakes at some point in our careers and I’m no exception so let me reach back through three decades of experience and observation and throw out 5 pointers to get you started in your professional lives.
1. Be Professional
Obvious you say, but nonetheless true, as professionalism is the foundation for creating and maintaining a good reputation. Two key components of professionalism are ethics and civility.
Ethics for lawyers are clearly defined — professional responsibility courses are required in law school, passage of the MPRE is necessary for bar admission, and state rules and model codes lay out the rules. So knowing the rules of ethics can be easy, but like most things in life, studying a topic in a book is rarely sufficient preparation for the reality of making critical decisions in practice. It’s a tough choice when professional ethics require a lawyer to decline a case that will provide needed revenue because of a possible, but remote conflict of interest. It is a painful choice in the short term, but builds an excellent reputation over a long career.
Civility is not as easily codified as ethics, although examples are easily identified. It means being on time for a court call or real estate closing; diligently returning phone calls to clients or opposing counsel; or not waiting until Friday night before a holiday weekend to file a lengthy motion even though technically allowed. Civility is not just an old-fashioned notion of politeness, but applies to how we live and do business today.
2. Be Prepared
Lawyers have an obligation to provide competent representation to their clients. Competency takes hard work and preparation. If you’re in litigation, even a simple appearance before a judge requires you to be well-acquainted with the facts, law and status of your case. If the appearance is more substantial like arguing a motion, make sure you know the legal standard, elements and defenses for each claim. Think ahead of time about “if I were the judge, what would I want to know?” Learn about the judge and her procedures before you go to court. It’s easy to research a judge through court websites, Google, office mates or bar association networks. Also many law clerks are willing to provide information about a judge’s procedures. Follow those guidelines and always remember to treat the court staff with respect as they are often the eyes and ears of the court.
If you do transactional work, always review the file before meeting with the client. Keep up on case law in your area through subscription daily briefings or regular CLE courses so that you can anticipate issues that may impact a client. Be ready to ask specific questions of your client to identify issues and help the client with any concerns. Keep clients informed and communicate regularly with them. Our Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission notes that failure to communicate with clients is a leading complaint among consumers.
3. Be Aware of the Rules
Know the rules and follow them – there are lots of them. Practice rules are different in state and federal courts, between criminal and civil practice and from county to county. Read and understand the Illinois Rules of Professional Conduct since violating them, even unintentionally, could result in suspension or loss of law license. The Supreme Court of Illinois has adopted minimum requirements for 30 hours of continuing legal education every 2 years, including 6 hours of professionalism credits. Brand new lawyers have specific courses they must complete within one year of admission.
4. Be Willing to Ask for Help
As a new lawyer, you should ask for help whether you think you need it or not. Take my word for it, you do. And it’s not just a matter of avoiding embarrassment, as the Rules of Professional Conduct require lawyers to provide “competent representation” and there are no exceptions just because you’re new. Don’t let your client suffer because you were too embarrassed, afraid or arrogant to ask for help. There are all kinds of resources including experienced lawyers in your firm or agency, mentors, bar association or Inn of Court colleagues, list serves, “learn by doing” or on-line CLE courses. If possible, observe a respected trial lawyer in court, shadow a colleague during a negotiation or watch a deal closing.
5. Be Judicious in “Battle”
Learning which “battles” to fight will help you establish a good reputation and candidly, a better life. Discovery issues are the No. 1 battleground in litigation Don’t fight over trivial issues or technicalities. Figure out what’s critical and persevere with civility. It will help your case, your reputation with lawyers and judges, and your health! Clients are no longer willing to pay for excessive and superficial attorney “gamesmanship”. They want value. Establishing a reputation for providing value will lead to repeat business.
While these 5 pointers are not exhaustive, each one will help you get started on building an excellent reputation and a successful career.