Practice Law

7 tips for getting experience as a new or retooling lawyer

A lot of lawyers today find themselves in the unexpected position of trying to practice law in an area in which they have insufficient experience. Some of them are new lawyers who had hoped to get hired upon graduation and receive on-the-job training under the guidance of experienced lawyers. Some were downsized in the recession and, due to a slow market for their existing expertise, they find it necessary to develop a new area of practice. Other lawyers just want to make a change into a different type of practice.

This article sets out a number of ideas on how to garner needed experience when you don't already have the support system to provide it. Since I'm a Texas lawyer, I cite examples of Texas programs, but other jurisdictions have similar options.

1. Participate in a pro bono program or voluteer lawyers group.

A number of volunteer lawyer organizations take on matters for low-income clients who don't qualify for legal aid. Some provide training and mentorship in exchange for a commitment to take on a certain number of pro bono cases. Although these organizations always need more volunteer lawyers, this is a perfect time to join in. The National Pro Bono Week observance runs from Oct. 24-30, 2010. Check out the ABA listing of pro bono and public service organizations for one in your jurisdiction.

By way of example of the career development benefits gained from volunteering, the Houston Volunteer Lawyers Program provides forms, training, mentoring and even malpractice coverage for the areas of law commonly handled in the program. The State Bar of Texas Pro Bono Mentor Program provides similar benefits, plus up to five hours of CLE credit for both the mentor and mentee. Besides enhancing your own self esteem by providing a much needed public service, you can develop relationships with experienced attorneys who care about helping others. They may be pleased to refer their smaller cases to you to help you get started in building a new practice.

2. Look for sponsored mentor programs.

Many state and local bar associations and law schools have an official mentor program. They attempt to find an appropriate match for your needs. The career services office of your law school can steer you to their mentors, and the ABA has a list of some state bar mentor programs.

If you find that there are more potential mentees than mentors available, consider trying to join up with others who seek help in the same practice area. Perhaps you can find a mentor willing to meet regularly with a small group of mentees to give some instruction, share forms and answer questions. The volunteer mentors may be paying forward the invaluable assistance they received from a gracious experienced lawyer in the past. Express your willingness to do the same.

3. Be willing to work for free.

You may notice a theme here of giving away your services. Think of it as payment-in-kind for valuable opportunities and guidance. Offer to "carry the briefcase" of an experienced lawyer for free.

It's not easy to get trial experience today. I know a lawyer who already had several trials under his belt, yet he regularly offered to second-chair cases with his friends for free. He just wanted time in front of a jury. He still does that occasionally on an interesting matter, although he has decades of high-dollar experience and has tried over 75 cases to verdict. Don't let your ego stand between you and the experience you want.

In the early 1990s (another challenging era for lawyers), a former in-house client asked me for a job. Although I knew he was very bright, I didn't want the responsibility of another salary on the payroll, so I declined. He asked if we had a corner he could work out of, just to have an address. We made space for him, and over time I began handing off to him the work I didn't like to do. I told him how much time I felt was appropriate for the task and gave him guidance. He wrote off any excess time he expended due to his inexperience in the practice area. It turned into a win-win situation, which now he sometimes refers to as the "Debra Bruce School of Law."

4. Offer reverse mentoring.

You may have more to offer a potential mentor than you realize. In this economic downturn, some real estate lawyers may want to learn more about bankruptcy work. Find a solo or small firm that handles bankruptcy matters, but doesn't have any real estate lawyers in-house. Offer to share your in-depth real estate expertise on their bankruptcy cases, in exchange for guidance in taking on your own bankruptcy cases. Alternatively, you might offer to work for them now on bankruptcy cases, and give them guidance and work on real estate matters during the next boom, when bankruptcy work drops off.

If you are a recent graduate with no legal experience to share, you may have other valuable skills. Offer to mentor a more senior lawyer in using technology or social media. Be willing to spend time on the phone dealing with tech support to help resolve their problems. Set up a blog or a Facebook page for the law firm and write some posts for their approval, based on recent significant cases you discussed in school. Introduce them to apps for their iPhone that are useful for mobile lawyering. What seems quick and easy to you may be baffling or too time consuming for them to handle alone.

5. Get involved with the blogging community.

It might be enlightened self-interest, but bloggers are incredibly generous with their knowledge. Start following the legal bloggers in your area of interest. Read topical articles on JD Supra. You will learn a lot about the cutting-edge issues in your practice area.

Post comments when you find a blogger's information or viewpoints helpful or informative. Tweet links to their blog posts or articles on Twitter or retweet their tweets there. Share links to their informative articles in relevant groups on LinkedIn or Facebook, and give them a heads up about it.

Soon, you will have a cyber-relationship with someone who is knowledgeable, well-connected and usually helpful. They might even devote a blog post to some of your questions. When you have benefitted them in advance by spreading their name and their words, many will accept an invitation to have a conversation offline.

6. Take practice-specific CLE and other legal training courses.

Some CLE courses, especially the "nuts and bolts" courses, will include sample forms and drafting advice. Sometimes they give discounts for new lawyers or graduates who are not yet licensed to practice. The speakers almost always welcome questions. (It lets them know you were listening.) Check out Solo Practice University (where I write a monthly blog post) for online courses from experienced lawyers about how to practice in specific areas.

7. Research bar association benefits and resources.

I find that most lawyers have no idea about the extent of resources available to them through their bar associations and law schools. Get online, and call the practrice management division of your state bar association, the ABA or even another state bar. Many such websites are so loaded with content that it's hard to find what you need. Ask what they have to help new lawyers or lawyers who are re-tooling.

Watch the brief 10-Minute Mentor videos created by the Texas Young Lawyers Association and the State Bar of Texas. (They're free to anyone.) Subscribe to the TexasBarCLE Online Library for access to the articles from past CLE courses. Watch the free monthly webcast in the "Practice Tips in Good Times and Bad" series offered by the State Bar of Texas. To learn of upcoming practice tips programs, visit each month and click the Webcasts tab.

There is more help than you realize in gaining the experience you need. It just takes some online research, plus getting out to talk to other lawyers. Don't let fear or your ego keep you from becoming the lawyer you want to be!

(Published by – October, 19, 2010)

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