January 23rd was the 46th anniversary of the day I became a member of the California Bar. I had passed the July Bar Exam, was clerking for US District Judge Milton Pollack in Manhattan when I passed, and got permission to be admitted in absentia by any court of record. I asked Judge Pollack to swear me in, in his chambers. “Do you solemnly promise to do whatever it says you’re supposed to do on that little pink card you handed me?” he asked. I responded, “Judge, I’m becoming a lawyer. Please read the oath.” (He did, and I took the oath.)
That anniversary made me wonder: if I could give career advice to my 26–year old self, what advice would I give?
Avoid Big Firms
At 26 I wanted stability and income. It was my keen desire to plant myself in a prestigious law firm, do a great job and pursue my entire career with the same cohort of smart, (then) young lawyers. So I began my career at a 60-person, 100-year-old San Francisco firm. Bad idea. That firm (which grew to 850 lawyers in 14 offices) no longer exists. It merged with a Boston firm which for a dozen years had acquired a new firm every 14 months, guaranteed multi-million dollar salaries which it couldn’t afford, suffered from defecting partners, massive layoffs, cuts in compensation, and ultimately ceased operation. Other once great firms ended up in bankruptcy. Loyalty is in short supply at big firms. There is little transparency and great difficulty in integrating talent.
Do Pro Bono Work
Conventional wisdom is that pro bono work is good for the soul. It is. But it also affords the opportunity for inexperienced lawyers to occupy first chair against sophisticated adversaries. Big firms never offer this chance. I brought suit against a water-less cookware company that sought to bilk my clients out of hundreds of dollars while enforcing contracts entered into when its corporate powers were suspended. (The company settled.) Then I defended a Vietnam War protester who was arrested for carrying a Viet Cong flag and an unconcealed weapon. (When I sought a continuance to file a demurrer to the criminal information, the court dismissed the case.) These are rare opportunities which should be embraced.
Become a Bar Junkie
Bar Association work affords a great opportunity to network and build relationships with leading figures in the legal community. It is also the best way to stay up-to-date on legal developments. It also forces you to sit down with lawyers from different practices holding very different points of view. (Antitrust defense counsel sit on panels with plaintiff class action counsel; counsel for PI plaintiffs with PI defense counsel.) And you can pursue meaningful advocacy and interact with judges. Leadership skills – including when to speak up and when to shut up – are learned in the trenches. I’ve been privileged to climb the leadership ladder at BHBA but also have served as a section leader at LACBA for many years. These have been among my best career experiences.
Replant Yourself Frequently
Sometimes opportunities begin well enough and become stale. Exciting jobs lose their luster. I worked in-house for a large oil company on bet-your-company litigation. The work was fascinating; there were travel opportunities; compensation and benefits were fine. But I learned that I missed the hands-on aspects of litigation–always the bridesmaid, never the bride. And I was not keen on corporate culture, even in a progressive company. If I had moved on after 5 years it would have been a great experience. But I found it extremely difficult to move on and stayed for 11 years. Bad idea.
Don’t Delay Going After the Prize
One day, as I was pushing 60, I decided that I really wanted to be a Judge. I wrote a great application, met with the pols, pursued that all the way to Sacramento where I met with the Governor’s appointment secretary. And was told, “Gee, why did you wait? Why didn’t you apply 5 years earlier?” So if you really want to be a Judge (or Professor or Congressman), go for it. Don’t delay. Time is not your friend.
Toxic Clients Are Simply Not Worth It
I’ve had a couple of clients who should never have been my clients. Often they are charming at first–even compelling–but you should listen to that small voice in your head that says, “Not him. Never her.” Both occasions were contingent fee matters. Both cases seemed like sure winners. Both turned into protracted lawsuits in which I had occasion to learn that everything my adversaries were saying about my clients was true. And worse. The best way to avoid malpractice suits is to avoid bad clients. (Yes, be diligent and ethical, but spot and stay away from toxic clients.)
Be Good Colleague
Most of my best cases have come from other lawyers who respected me. I kept and keep an open door, well-packed legal bookshelves and always take the time to discuss cases and issues with other attorneys. I do favors– referrals, experts, authorities. I learned along the way that you can spend three hours researching an issue or five minutes talking to another attorney who knows the answer. You want to be the lawyer who is called for the answer. Those are not wasted billable hours; they bring dividends.
Expect the Unexpected
Once, while working at what had become a dead-end job, I joined a company choral group (the “Towertones”). Our family went on a cruise, and my kids signed me up for the passenger talent show. At midnight I was introduced as an oil company lawyer to 1,000 passengers in the main mezzanine and was roundly hissed. I sang, “If I Were a Rich Man.” My next boss was in the audience. He was impressed that an oil company lawyer would transform into Tevya and sing before the hostile crowd. After the performance, he followed me up the aisle and took my card. We met twice, spoke by phone, and he offered me a job (permitting me to transition from in-house to outside lawyer). So some surprises are quite welcome!
In sum: Trust your gut when you hear that inner voice. Never say never and expect the unexpected. Over the course of your career as a lawyer one thing is guaranteed: you’ll have a “hell-of-a-ride.”
Howard Fredman is a business litigation partner at Fredman Lieberman Pearl LLP,
www.flpllp.com, with extensive trial and appellate experience, especially in federal court.
Contact him online today.