So, you have received your license to practice law and have been set free to zealously represent clients within the commonwealth. While there is endless advice that could be given, here are five basic tips to help new practitioners as they navigate the practice of law.
First, act with civility. The legal community may seem vast at the outset of your career, but do not be fooled: it is much smaller than it seems. Therefore, it is important to establish a good reputation from the start. An easy way to do this is to treat others as you would like, and reasonably expect, to be treated. This includes the many times when attorneys will ask you to extend professional courtesy.
A common example of a professional courtesy is a request for an extension to a deadline. A wise attorney once told me to remember that today I may be the one being asked to extend the favor, but tomorrow I would be the one asking. Despite your best efforts, there will be times when you cannot meet a deadline. Perhaps an assignment took longer than you expected. Perhaps your client was unable to immediately provide you with necessary information. Or perhaps something in your personal life distracted you from the task. Whatever the cause, there will come a time when you need an extension. Remember this when someone else asks you for one, and grant that person the professional courtesy you would like to be extended. You can be sure that if you refuse to grant the extension, counsel will return in kind when you ask for one.
That said, professional courtesy is a balancing act; you cannot grant every favor. You have a client’s interests to protect. Ask yourself whether you would reasonably expect counsel to grant you the favor that has been asked of you. Moreover, do not let counsel thwart your legal position with kindness. It is easy for counsel to agree to something (for example, to supplement a discovery response), but unless counsel actually does it, the agreement is worthless.
Also, whenever a courtesy or extension is granted, or an agreement is reached, be sure to confirm in writing. A brief email stating the new deadline will save you a headache in the event that opposing counsel fails to respond by the extended date.
Second, write well. You will be judged by your written work product, which is often your first impression on counsel and the court. Sophisticated clients who require written status reports will also judge you on your writing. Always proofread. For written communications with counsel (including email), always consider what a judge might think of your writing (both substance and grammar) if it were to be filed with the court as an exhibit.
Third, check your citations. Legal documents are often written using prior versions or templates. Always remember to check the status of (“Shepardize”) all cited legal authority. What might have been binding precedent last year may not be solid grounds this year.
Fourth, know what cited cases actually say. Do not rely on case summaries. Be familiar with the facts and holdings of cases you cite, or else risk making a flimsy argument or being unprepared at hearing.
Fifth, do not forget the basics as you progress in your career and face new tasks. Know the applicable rules (such as Massachusetts Rules of Civil Procedure, Superior Court Rules, and Superior Court Standing Orders), and the Massachusetts Guide to Evidence. Drafting or answering a complaint? Know the elements of the claims. Drafting or answering discovery? Know the scope of discovery, applicable objections, and rules pertaining to electronic discovery and privilege logs. Conducting or defending a deposition? Know the scope and procedure of the deposition. Being prepared and armed with knowledge of the applicable rules will assist you as you encounter more experienced counsel throughout litigation.
Hopefully, these tips will help you avoid common pitfalls of inexperienced attorneys, and become an effective, zealous advocate for your client.
Nicole Paquin, Esq. is an attorney and mediator in Newton, Massachusetts, practicing in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
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