As Darth Vader once said: “When I left you, I was but the learner. Now I am the master.” I do not consider myself a master of law (very few are masters of law, that is why they call it practicing law) but I know I have come a long way since the time when I was a first-year. Hopefully, however, I am not the Darth Vader of the law, but rather the Obi-Wan.
Like most fields, the legal industry changes frequently; not just from the macro-legal perspective of Congress enacting new laws, courts deciding new cases, and new technology and ideas resulting in different ways at looking at things, but also from the micro-legal perspective of individual roles at law firms and in businesses. This article focuses on the later, and mainly how I have found transitioning from a role where I was instructed to do most of the work to a role where I am now overseeing others and making decisions for what should be done.
The Beginning of Your Legal Career
Very few people start their legal career anywhere but at the bottom of the totem pole. That was no different at my firm and I would not have had it any other way. As I have written about before, I actually really enjoy legal research, writing memoranda of law, and doing the initial drafting of motions and pleadings. I have a borderline obsession with finding answers and explanations to things and this served me very well in my work as an attorney, especially in my first year.
Transitioning from law school to beginning lawyer duties can be challenging to some and the learning curve is steep, but (believe it or not) law school did prepare you for it. However, the next transition, from the beginning of your career to the middle of your career, when you need to start managing others, is something that can only come with experience.
The “Middle” of Your Legal Career
This is the time when you are more than just a lawyer that does research, reviews documents, and edits more experienced attorneys work. Rather, while you may still do a lot of research and drafting, you also supervise others in their research, drafting, and in asking for memoranda of law to be written. By the time you are in the middle of your legal career you have undoubtedly worked with, and been given instruction by, someone else. But that does not mean that you are necessarily prepared to take on a more managerial role.
However, this is something law school does not prepare you for: transitioning from the managee to the manager. This is a real skill that needs to be developed on the job. Of course there are classes, and majors, for management but managing others in a legal setting is entirely different. Sure, you can find the perfect case, know when a document is responsive, or work on discovery but can you explain and teach those skills to others? That is what being a manger is: teaching, explaining, and delegating some work.
I am not saying that you should delegate the entirety of your work but as you gain experience (and your hourly rate increases) it just does not make sense for you to be the one researching the elements of a breach of contract or whether there are differences in the law of two states.
Rather, as you gain experience, it becomes more important for you to look at the overall goal and be able to work toward that overall goal by properly working with others. The most important thing, that I have found both through working with my colleagues and from my limited experience in managing others is knowing when and how to delegate things and when you need to be the one to do something. There is on science to this but comes with a variety of factors, including client management, the amount of time you could do something verse someone else doing it, the opportunity cost of you doing that thing verse doing something else, and the cost of potentially having someone with a lesser hourly rate do something when it may take them longer (this is the hardest consideration as it requires your estimating not only how quickly you can do something but how quickly someone else can do something and then comparing the costs).
The Prime of Your Legal Career
While I know “prime” does not make sense with beginning and middle as my first two sections, I want to explain why I chose prime and not end or later portion. To start, I am not yet in the prime of my legal career. In my opinion, I am somewhere near the end of the beginning or the beginning of the middle of my career (based on my own entirely made-up definitions for those phases). But I chose prime instead of end because I believe the prime of an attorneys’ career is likely the largest portion. So while it is the last of the three, it just did not seem right to consider it the end. Lawyers are also learning, adapting, and getting better at what they do.
Now, what is the prime of your legal career? This is when you are at the top of the pyramid, you are managing others who may in turn may even be managing more people beneath them. You bring clients in, you are the primary attorney on your case, you make the strategic decisions, and you designate who does what in regards to everything about the case. I can’t speak too much to this portion of your career as, to be frank, I am not yet there.
Regardless of where you are in your career there is always more to learn and places to grow, whether it is in your legal or management skills.
Brian Grossman is an attorney at Balestriere Fariello. He graduated from Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in June 2016. Brian represents clients in all aspects of complex commercial litigation and arbitration from pre-filing investigations to trial and appeals. You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.