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April 12, 2023

Lawyering: You Don’t Get to Have a Bad Day.


Job and His Friends, Vladimir Borovikovsky, 1810

There are bad days. A parent is sick. A child gets stitches. You are coming down with the flu. You learn your girlfriend is cheating on you. In fact, both of your girlfriends are cheating on you. But at least not with each other.

Rule 10: Be Accurate, Thorough and Timely--But Not Perfect. Practicing law is getting it right, saying it right and winning--all with a gun to your head. Being accurate, thorough and timely are qualities most of us had in the 6th grade, right? Back when everyone told us we were geniuses and destined for great things? But school's out--now it's about real rights, real duties, real money and personal freedom. That's a weight, and it should be. Suddenly facts are everything--and the actual law less important than you ever imagined. In time you learn to research, think and put things together better and faster. You develop instincts.

You learn there is really no boilerplate and no cookie-cutter work. There are few forms. You learn there are no right answers--but several approaches and solutions to any problem. You are being asked to pick one. But at first, and maybe for a few years, being accurate, thorough and on time is not easy to do.

‘I Have Clients?’ One day, you start to visualize your clients as real companies and real people with real problems. These are your clients--not your parents or professors--and they are all different. You feel their pain, and it's now yours, too.

Mistakes. If you work with the right mentors and senior people, they will allow you to make mistakes. You need freedom to make mistakes. You'll be reminded, however, not to let those mistakes out of the office and hurt any client. It's a balancing act, a hard one.

Bad days? So sorry. But your problem, Justin. You are expected to be ‘professional’--no, that is not about being polite and courtly with other lawyers--and put clients first on your worst day. And it's going to happen. Expect it. You have a difficult day ahead of you. A critical court hearing or motion. A jurisdictional deadline to file something. A meeting. A pitch to a new would-be client. But a parent is sick. You are coming down with something yourself. Your boyfriend is cheating on you. Your teenage kids hate you. Or maybe this morning you had to abandon that 12-year-old Honda you had in law school on the 14th Street Bridge. Minutes before your big afternoon meeting or court appearance, a GC or co-worker calls you with the worst possible news.

These things will happen. You sag visibly--like an animal taking a bullet. You're beaten, beaten completely--and now you have to get up and fight or act for someone other than yourself. In five minutes, you have to be at your very best. You up for this? Because, in our experience, very few of your peers are.

Bucking up. Using fear. While you can't work in a state of constant worry, fear and paralysis, talking yourself into heroics, getting a little paranoid and even embracing a little fear won't hurt you, and may even help. You are being paid both (1) to be accurate, thorough, timely and (2) to just plain not screw up.

Thorough means ‘anticipating,’ too. What makes you really good in a few years is being able to "see the future" and spot a ripple effect in a flash. To take a small example, if your client is in an active dispute with the government or on the brink of a full-blown litigation with a competitor, the client's and many of your own letters and e-mails aren't just letters and e-mails. Whoa, letters. Emails. They are potential exhibits, too. They can be used for you or against you. So they need to be written advisedly and clearly so that they advance your position and so that a judge, jury or someone 5 years from now can look at it cold and figure out what's going on. No talking to yourself here; think about future unintended consequences when you think and write.

But Not Perfect. Not talking about mistakes here. I refer to the paralysis of high standards. I know something about the second part of Rule 10--because I tended to violate it when I was younger. And I still want to.
Perfectionism is the great destroyer of young lawyers. Don't go there. Don't be so stiff and scared you can't even turn anything in because you want it "perfect” and you keep asking other lawyers and courts for extensions. It's not school, and it's no longer about you. Think instead about Rule 8: Think Like The Client--and Help Control Costs. Balance efficiency with "being perfect", and err on the side of holding down costs. If a client or senior lawyer in your firm wants your work to be perfect, and for you to charge for it, believe me, they will let you know.


"Patient Job" by Gerard Seghers (1591–1651), National Gallery, Prague.

Original WAC/P? post: April 3, 2011

Posted by JD Hull at April 12, 2023 10:59 PM


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