THE INSIDE SCOOP > What New Lawyers Want to Know
Q&A with Stacia Hofmann, Marcel Green, and Stan Glisson
WRITE TO US > This is a new semi-regular column, developed in collaboration with members of the Washington Young Lawyers Committee (WYLC), in which experienced practitioners will answer questions from those new to the practice of law. Submit your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or anonymously here: https://forms.gle/ZNsubS1C9LFATyTC9.
Q: What is your time-management strategy, and what is your biggest motivation?
Stacia Hofmann: I arrange my schedule and organize my tasks as much as I can in advance, but the nature of my current practice is one in which I need to have some flexibility. Except for deadline-driven items, I break up my upcoming tasks into two-day or three-day “windows of completion” so that I can adjust as needed on a daily basis. I took the CliftonStrengths personality assessment (highly recommended for new and seasoned attorneys!), and it was enlightening to learn that planning and completing a task is the sort of thing that naturally matches my personality. It is no wonder, then, that I gravitate toward to-do lists and outlines.
However, I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all approach to time management. I’ve worked in a law firm setting, a corporate setting, and a solo practice setting, and how I manage my time has been fairly different in each. I recommend tailoring time management in a way that is appropriate for your attorney role, but don’t fix what isn’t broken: The time-management, problem-solving, and studying approaches that worked for you in law school should form a terrific foundation for how you manage your work as a new attorney.
Marcel Green: My time-management strategy is threefold. First—and this step need only be done once—is reflecting on my “on” and “off” productivity periods—that is, those times where I tend to be productive no matter what versus those periods where, no matter what I do, I can never concentrate. Once I determine those periods, I try to keep my most important, urgent work scheduled in my productive periods, and all other work set for my “unproductive” (less productive?) periods. Second, I make use of a scheduling app, namely Google Calendar. Whatever it is, from a meeting to a deadline, I try my best to input it into my calendar so that at a glance, I can understand what needs to be done now and what can be put off until later. Lastly, I always try to preview tasks. That is, I try to understand the basic goal of a task each day. I also start to brainstorm on what needs to be done during downtimes such as on my ride home or just before bed. While many of the ideas that pop into my head are nonsense, by the time I start work the next day, all the mental clutter has been removed and it is easier to focus on the specifics.
Stan Glisson: Time management is a critical skill for attorneys, not only for professional success but also for minimizing stress. One of my pitfalls is delaying unpleasant tasks. A very smart person once taught me to always start the day off with the calendar item you are most dreading. I find that having it out of the way really clears the mind for the rest of the day’s obligations, and I am able to use my limited time much more productively without the specter of the dreaded obligation.
It’s also vital to dedicate non-interrupted time for larger projects. Allowing oneself to get distracted mid-project, then having to go back and reestablish your place and frame of mind, is a really poor use of time and focus and can lead to lower-quality work product. It’s OK to not take a client’s non-urgent call right at that moment, or to tell a sociable coworker that you are unavailable for a while, in order to commit your full attention to an important task. Don’t lose those good study habits that got you through law school and bar review; they will continue to serve you well.
One of the larger hurdles for me is a task with flexible deadlines. If client A’s brief is due in five days, and client B’s brief does not have a specific date to be filed, it is very easy to put client B’s brief on the back burner. The challenge is that there will always be another deadline, another client emergency, and the temptation to “get to that later.” You need a strategy for avoiding that temptation, to avoid having client B calling in frustration demanding an explanation that you can’t provide. My personal strategy often comes down to spending five minutes writing a list of what needs to get done and in what order. Once the list is written, I don’t allow myself to skip projects or reorder them; I just power through them in the order they have been prioritized.
Q: How do you typically balance “I can’t take on too many cases or they’ll all go to trial at the same time and I won’t be able to correctly handle them” with “I can’t take on too few cases or I won’t make my billable hours”? Do you lean toward overbooking your time or underbooking it?
Hofmann: If you have the option of saying “no,” I think it’s better to turn down cases when things get too busy rather than burn out trying to keep all of the balls up in the air. I have found that when I need to decline a matter, the next opportunity or the one after that ends up being a better fit for my interests and bandwidth. Even when there is a lull in billable work, there are so many things an attorney can be doing to become a better lawyer or businessperson, from volunteering their time to continuing education to networking. There is no shortage of opportunities to grow.
Green: I do not do trials in my present capacity, but I do take clients. Practicing as long as I have, I tend to understand how much work I can do and when. Experience has told me what is “too much.” Accordingly, I will take as many clients as I believe I can effectively handle without a degradation in the level of work that I put into each. I do prefer to have a fuller schedule rather than a thinner one. One reason for this is, as a solo attorney, there is a significant need to have a constant flow of work. Days off are, unfortunately, job opportunities missed. However, for cases that are likely to go to trial, if I were a solo trial lawyer, I would focus on those and would take only as many other cases as I could handle without interfering with my trial preparation.
Glisson: This is a very difficult skill to learn—and probably one that I have yet to master. For me, certainly the most important thing is properly representing the client. As long as you are willing to put in the extra hours that may be required during busy times in order to do that, then you can afford to accept more cases when they present themselves. The most important thing is to communicate clearly and honestly with the client. If you know you are going to be very busy and realistically not able to start work on their case for a month, tell them so. If they understand and appreciate your work, they will still want to hire you. If they don’t, then in all likelihood it would have been a needlessly challenging relationship, and you are both better served if they go elsewhere.
There is a great temptation during lean times to take on a difficult client or a case that you otherwise wouldn’t. Be confident that the better client and case is right around the corner, and when it appears, you don’t want to be tied up with a case you took out of a momentary panic. For many of us, our month-to-month income is unsteady and it’s counterintuitive to turn away work. But you’re better off personally and professionally with fewer, higher-quality clients than with too many potentially dissatisfied ones. Remember that as attorneys the main product we have to offer is our reputation, and you earn that by being genuine with client expectations and doing high-quality work.
Q: What does mentorship mean to you? What approach would you recommend to a new lawyer trying to find a mentor?
Hofmann: To me, mentorship means learning from someone else’s experiences or skills, and I found out early on that mentorship can arise in many types of repeated interactions. A mentor might be a supervising attorney or a senior attorney within your workplace, but it might also be another new attorney. A mentor might be opposing counsel, a mediator, or even a judge. Most lawyers like to share stories or talk about what they do and how they help clients. Use that to your advantage.
Green: While I never experienced official mentorship when I was a new lawyer, I have been a mentor to a few new lawyers. I think it is a great way to experience the practice of law in a real-world setting, but with the help and assistance that is so important in a new lawyer’s development. My advice to getting the best mentorship possible is to seek out lawyers who practice in a desired field and contact them. This allows them, if they choose, to start getting to know you. Additionally, it allows you to understand whether you want to actually take the mentorship.
Glisson: Mentorship takes several forms in the practice of law. As a practical concern, subject matter mentors are essential. It is crucial to the development of young lawyers to have an experienced practitioner in their area upon whom they can rely for day-to-day practice advice. Whether it’s an office mate or just another lawyer in the area you can call or email with everyday questions, find this person as soon as you can. I hope you will find that the great majority of experienced lawyers are more than happy to take that call and offer what they know.
It is also vital to seek out people in your profession with whom you can discuss aspects of this job other than just your specific practice questions. I found it essential to have experienced lawyers around me to discuss work-life balance, long-term career goals, and what it means to be a lawyer in your community. For this kind of mentorship, it’s nice to be in the same practice area, but I believe it’s more important to find people with similar life and family goals. Is it important for you to travel? To save and retire early? Or maybe to manage your work life around being present as a parent? Older lawyers are great resources, sometimes just to help envision the direction of a career. I think it’s valuable to ask of colleagues, and of yourself, “Why did you become a lawyer?”
Q: Do experienced attorneys see young practitioners as future competition? Or is there a desire to support them in their growth/practice?
Hofmann: In my opinion, competition breeds innovation, so I’m all for competition. But truth be told, there is more legal work to be done than there are attorneys to do the work, so I don’t think most attorneys view other attorneys as threats.
At the risk of sounding cliché, every attorney was once a new attorney, so don’t hesitate to reach out to one to ask them to share a bit of their time. It truly helps to have a genuine interest in the attorney—maybe you graduated from the same law school or college, have a mutual friend or family connection, or even read about one of their cases. The worst they can do is not respond.
I got my first attorney job because I cold-emailed an attorney who went to my law school. He was gracious enough to meet with me for an informational interview and ask about my legal interests. He knew people who knew people and so on and so forth, and connections were made. Within a few weeks, and because of that meeting, I had an exciting new job. I know many attorneys with similar stories, and I think most of us try to pay it forward by helping new attorneys when we can.
Green: I do not see, or think experienced attorneys should see, young practitioners as future competition. First, there is the fact that the legal profession is an experience-heavy field. That is, there are few younger lawyers who can easily match the experiences and understanding of a more experienced lawyer. That is, they are not a threat. Second, experienced lawyers tend to get set in their ways. However, working with younger lawyers provides an endless opportunity to revamp, upgrade, and deepen one’s understanding of the law and its applicability. As such, new attorneys should be supported and nurtured to not only grow the practice but also to keep more senior lawyers up to date on the law.
Glisson: This is a great question, because at its core this is a competitive profession. From my perspective though, I have not seen that sense of competition extend outside of the professional arena. In other words, while we want to win and get great results for our clients, no one wants to see another attorney fail. At the end of the day, we probably have a lot more in common with opposing counsel than with most of our clients. Further, at different stages of our careers, we’re chasing different goals and we really do want to see newer lawyers succeed.
When I first went into private practice, the most amazing thing happened. Established lawyers referred clients to me. Good clients, who actually could afford to pay, and I remember every single one of them. What humbled me was that there was no financial reason to send these clients to me. All of these lawyers could easily have taken these cases, but they referred them to me out of sheer kindness and good will. I have been fortunate enough to pass that along to many new lawyers in my community, and I really believe that spirit of support within the profession continues to thrive.
There is always room for the next generation. You are creative, smart, driven, and highly capable. If the legal community ever seems crowded, young lawyers always seem to find a new way to thrive in sometimes non-traditional paths and forge their way to the place that’s right for them. A significant amount of legal need still goes unmet in this state, and we definitely need the energy and inspired thinking of new lawyers to meet those needs. I am always excited to meet new lawyers in my area and do what I can to let them know they are welcome and extend any support I can. The legal community (like all communities) stagnates without a constant influx of new, diverse voices from different backgrounds and experiences. You make us all better and we need and welcome the challenge.