There is so much to know when starting out as a personal injury lawyer. How do I get a foot in the door? How can I prove myself? Where do I get my first job as a lawyer?
Where do I begin?
I'm Steve Gursten, a partner of Michigan Auto Law. Our law firm has been specializing in helping people injured in auto accidents for more than 50 years. But I remember the anxiety of looking for my first job. I know it's not easy. There are some things I wish I would have known as a new lawyer. That's why I've composed this list of 10 tips for law students.
The law of supply and demand applies to the practice of law too.
Today, the supply of lawyers is greater than the demand. That's bad news for law students looking for jobs and bad news for lawyers looking to make partner one day.
To be successful, you will have to differentiate yourself from everyone else. There are lots of lawyers. And there are lots of lawyers willing to put in long hours and work very hard. This is not enough to cut it.
But there are not a lot of lawyers out there who know how to try a case. Even at the top law firms, there are so-called top litigators - lawyers who have arbitrated 500 cases, yet haven't tried a case in 20 years. If you want to truly differentiate yourself, learn how to be a real trial lawyer. Try cases.
Don't lose the common touch.
Law students often forget how to talk and write like normal human beings. Your juries are normal people, not law school professors grading moot court competitions. The average juror has a fifth grade education level. So don't talk like a lawyer. Don't use big words when you can use small words. Avoid complicated sentences.
Jurors, like all people, tend to favor people they like and people who they feel are like them.
Try to find the humor in things when they go wrong.
They will. There's an old saying that you are not a real trial lawyer until win a case you should have lost, and you lose a case you should have won.
Especially considering the legal landscape today, you can have a just case, a deserving client, soundly beat your opposing counsel in every phase of trial, and still lose at trial. You can spend days preparing for an important motion, get to court and find its obvious the judge hasn't even read it.
This is real life and real life isn't always fair. If you can't laugh about it, you'll do a lot of crying.
Create a personal filing system and do professional development reading.
Dedicate a half hour to an hour a day, at least a few mornings or evenings a week, to professional development reading.
If you want to become a great trial lawyer, there is a wealth of incredible information for you to choose from. You can learn about the fundamentals of trying a case and specific issues you will face one day. You can read what has been written by some of the greatest trial lawyers ever. This wisdom is just sitting on the shelves of your law school library.
As you read, create a personal filing system. If you read something - for example, a great opening statement, or a compelling analogy, something that you can visualize yourself saying one day - then copy it and put it in your folder on opening statements.
Doing this will put you far ahead of your peers, and help immensely when you are preparing for trial.
Want to learn more about being a trial lawyer in one week then you can in three years of law school? Join the American Association for Justice (AAJ) as a law student and you get to go to the summer convention for free. For five days, you can learn cutting-edge techniques on trial advocacy and persuasion from some of the best trial lawyers and jury consultants in the country. There are introductory programs specifically for law students and new lawyers, where you can learn about taking and defending depositions, your first trial, and more.
It is fantastic learning opportunity. And did I mention it's free?
Develop your own support network.
Join the e-mail list serves and legal forums that now exist for nearly every area of law. Create online relationships with lawyers throughout the country. These lawyers face the same issues you face, and can share motions, ideas, and strategies that can save you hundreds of hours of work.
I belong to several trial lawyer list serves. There are dedicated forums for lawyers who handle car accidents, truck accidents, traumatic brain injuries, as well as personal injury law in every state. I also have a group of doctors and lawyers from around the country and together we form a fantastic support network, constantly e-mailing each other articles and ideas.
There are fantastic resources out there that lawyers even 10 years ago could never have imagined. Find them, join them and above all, participate. It will give you tremendous competitive advantages.
Know the real truth about mentors.
Everyone says law school students should have a mentor. The problem is, many lawyers are probably not well-suited to become mentors, and you might want to think twice before learning from them and copying their habits.
Some of the best mentors are waiting to help you - they can be found in your law library. In other words, you can learn from some of the best lawyers that ever lived on tapes, CDs, DVDs, and countless books.
If you do seek out a mentor, make sure he or she is the one of the best in the field. This can be verified by a solid trial record, leadership positions in legal associations, speaking engagements and a strong reputation in the community.
Think about marketing and management.
You can be the best lawyer in the world, but if no one knows who you are and what you do, it won't matter. There are a lot of amazing lawyers waiting everyday for phones to ring. That's why every lawyer should think about marketing, everyday.
My law school didn't offer classes on marketing, management, accounting, and the other real-life things that many of us ex-political science majors who then went to law school are one day going to need. If your law school offers classes in these areas, count yourself as lucky and take them. If not, read and teach yourself about marketing and management. It's rare to find lawyers who are both technically skilled and who are also good business people.
Yes, law is a profession, not a business. But if you can't balance your books or bring in new clients, it really doesn't matter how true to the ideals of the legal profession you are.
Lawyers have some of the highest rates of alcohol abuse, drug abuse, suicide, divorce, and depression. If you're reading this now, it's probably too late. You blew it. You went to law school. Okay, gallows humor.
But try to remember to be human, and try to spend time with the people you love. That includes spending some time on yourself. Find something you are really passionate about that has nothing to do with law and carve out time to pursue it. It will help keep you from burning out.
What others think about you is far less important than what you think of yourself.
If you are really lucky, and I mean really lucky, you will learn this early on in your legal career. Trust me, the law firms that everyone talks about in law school will not be that important years from now. Think about the first girl or boy that you ever dated. Years later you just have to shake your head and laugh because the things that were so important to you then seem silly and preposterous.
If you can keep yourself from thinking how important it is to be at THE FIRM, and instead find a job that's interesting, rewarding and fulfilling, then you are one of the lucky ones.