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Things to Consider Before Getting Started on Your Legal Career

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A noticeable anxiety in the senior class in law school starts to build up in the autumn of the final year. Prior to that time the anxieties related to courses. What is a constructive condition in a contract? Or, more to the point, why did the court "construct" a condition in one case in the casebook and refuse to do so in the case reported on the very next page? By autumn of the senior year, however, the realization has come that there are no pat formulas in the law and that the search for them is fruitless. But with the abandonment of this quest another opens up, real, earnest, and pressing- -Where shall I begin to practice? How do I go about getting established?

Some preliminary decisions will now have to be made. First of all, in what geographical area do you want to live --North, South, East, or West? Some part of the country may seem especially attractive to you. (This was particularly noticeable in students returning to the law schools after the close of World War II. Sometimes they couldn't get back to Seattle or Houston or Louisville fast enough.) If such is the case, make a real effort to start there. It is important, despite what some may say. Although it is undoubtedly true that you would eventually become adjusted to any locality, why fight it? Moreover, once settled in a community it is extremely difficult for a lawyer to pull up stakes and start all over again.


Just see this case: a young lawyer moved successfully from Detroit to Saginaw to Tawas City and finally to Rogers City. The last three are progressively smaller communities in Michigan. He said he moved because each place eventually got "too big" for him. His reason for moving from Detroit is okay, but not for going from Saginaw to Tawas. "Too big," he explained, "means I can't park in front of where I want to go." Just before he died he was planning to leave Rogers, also.

Professional welfare

This story makes the point such moves are highly exceptional and utterly detrimental to your professional welfare. So, the initial choice is important. In most cases that's it.

Should a lawyer go back to his home town to practice? Opinions differ on this. Some say that it is unwise, that the community knows you as little Johnny Jones, who once tried to fly off the barn, and they will not entrust important legal matters to you. These fears are largely unfounded largely because there is no doubt that there is an initial standoffishness for this reason. But it wears off very rapidly. All you have to do is to win one good case, or give some businessman a particularly helpful piece of advice, and the word goes round that that Jones boy has a long head on him, he's going places! A feeling involving some thing of community pride develops. Your youth is forgotten and you are respected for what you are and what you have. If you want to return to your home town, if it offers the kind of life and the kind of practice you want, by all means do so.

That expression "the kind of practice you want" has much to do with your choice of location. If you want a corporate practice you aren't going to get it in a village, nor are you if you want antitrust work or complex tax cases. Turn this thought around. If you want the simple life, if you are fiercely independent, if you want to know (and be known by) every one you pass on the street as you walk over to the courthouse, hesitate before going to Chicago. You'd better shoot for the county-seat towns. They will probably be just your dish, but be sure you have a nest egg to start out with. Even on a sharing-expenses basis, or simply office space alone, you're going to have a rough time, financially, at the beginning.

You decide, then, where you want to practice. What do you do next? You start the round of personal interviews. We shall note a special situation at the outset. The top-ranking men in their classes have certain opportunities not available to their less gifted (perhaps "less industrious" should be the term) classmates. Many of the large metropolitan firms have well- planned programs of recruitment. They hire each year a certain number of promising young graduates. The competition for the openings is keen, the legal work demanding, and only those best equipped are considered. Should you be in this group you should not, however, wait to be sought out. Although a few of these firms do seek out the most gifted of the class, it would be better not to wait to be tapped. While you are waiting some classmate may get the job. Go, yourself, to the firms, no later than the spring vacation in your senior year, and ask to see the attorney who handles employment interviews. Bring with you a typewritten summary of your scholastic record, both under graduate and professional (the latter should come first), and of your personal background. It should mention your birthplace and date and your marital and Armed Forces status. Never mind a long list of references; name one or two, nonfamily preferably, together with someone on your law-school faculty.

You should, of course, note any honors that have come your way, such as Order of the Coif, or selection to the Board of Editors of your law review, as well as such undergraduate honors as Phi Beta Kappa, or the honorary engineering societies if such has been your background.

It is hardly necessary to stress that much depends upon the impression you make at the personal interview. You will be respectful but not servile, formal but not stiff, neat but not prissy. Be careful that you are not going to be turned down because you need a haircut, but the partner may wonder if slovenly work habits go along with slovenly personal habits.

Primary interest

If your primary interest is quitting time, don't betray it. Just look at this case: A couple of years ago one of the honor men from a nearby university went to see a practicing lawyer about clerking for a year. He made an excellent impression, alert, a good presence, obviously well grounded in the law. After telling him something of the work, the lawyer asked him if he wouldn't like to ask him some questions about things he might have overlooked. He could hardly wait. Would he ever have to work at night? Did he get weekends off? Were they long weekends or just ordinary weekends? This sounds incredible. If you really are interested in such things, rather than your opportunity, be sure you explain why. It may be courtship, it may be family illness, or it may be a confused standard of values. If your prospective associate thinks it's the last, you've had it. He just doesn't have the time or the inclination to straighten you out.

Don't prolong the interview. Don't linger at the door. But you should ask if you may leave a copy of the summary sheet you made up. And it would be well, also, not to leave things hanging in a bight. Ask if you may check back with the office from time to time in case any additional information is wanted.

Actually, what you're asking is to learn whether you have a chance or not, but the circumlocution is a little less blunt.

Finally, it would be no more than the exercise of common courtesy to write a short thank-you note for the interview.

There are a couple of additional opportunities for the top men in the class, not available to those a little lower on the scholastic scale. One is that of judge's clerk, an appointment, usually, for one year only. The word "clerk," by the way, as here used, is a historic term of legal prestige and dignity, not to be confused with its more common use as descriptive of a sales agent in a store. The legal clerk is a young man who assists the judge with the law. He looks up cases, checks points of law, and generally makes himself useful. Those who clerked for Holmes, Brandeis, Cardozo, and others of our great jurists, look back upon the day-by-day association with their great legal minds and their rich personalities as high points of their lives. Of course, few jurists approach the caliber of these men, and some judges, indeed, are just plain low-powered steamers, it's a matter of degree, after all, like everything else. The value to a young man in clerking depends largely upon the personality of the judge for whom he clerks and the way his services are used. To most judges the clerk is an esteemed and respected professional companion, whose youthful enthusiasms and fresh perceptions bring to the old fogy a refreshingly different point of view. It is important that those in high places not forget that the spirits and the fires now so nearly banked in them still burn, in others, with undiminished intensity. Appellate judges, in truth, tend to be more than merely mature. Clerking gives the young graduate a postgraduate course in legal analysis that is invaluable, training in legal procedures, and much insight into the process of decision. If you can get a clerkship with a good judge, you should grab it.

Another "prize" is a position in the so-called "Honors Program." As presently set up, these are attorneys' positions in the Federal government, offering much higher-than-average starting salaries and with unusual professional potential. The selections are made well in advance of graduation, and only those with the highest law-school records are considered. The details of this program should be obtained from the Placement Office, or the dean, of your law school if you are eligible and interested. The requirements, and the opportunities, vary from time to time.

Top positions

Let us assume, however, that you are uninterested in (or possibly ineligible for) any of the top-ranking positions. What do you do then? The first thing to do is to talk with your law school placement officer, if it has one. Not only will inquiries for young lawyers be routed to him, but he will also have some knowledge of your own capabilities and temperament and will be able to counsel you wisely as to the desirability, for you, of the various openings. (If there is no such officer, the dean usually assumes this responsibility.)

The placement officer will know something else, also, the standing of the firm or lawyer seeking help. A young man should not associate himself, unless the situation were very unusual, with a lawyer who has been disbarred, or suspended from practice, and who is seeking to reestablish himself. Also, despite the vigilant work of the grievance committees of the bar, there are some firms that (temporarily) engage in unethical practices, as well as others that cut the comers too sharply. There aren't many of these pathological cases. A few discreet inquiries to older lawyers, either personally or through friends, will serve to establish the firm's reputation at the bar. Of course, in or near your home community this will present no problem. But if you are in a completely strange community, dealing with a small firm or solo practitioner, you should do a little investigating on your own before you go too far to back water.

If the placement officer has no leads, you are strictly on your own. In that case your procedure as to interviews is just about as I have described, though your search will take in more territory and may take a little longer. First of all, if you have any personal or family friends who can open doors for you, I wouldn't hesitate to ask a word from them to someone in the firm, at least to the effect that you are coming in for an inter view. There's no pressure here, no sweat, no hard sell, just a friendly word. You will be taken on (or not) on your own merits.

In addition you should consult the Martindale-Hubbell legal directory in your law-school library. It lists all the law firms in the communities where you want to practice. It is more than a listing, however. It contains, as well, biographical sketches of the partners and associates, together with lists of clients and other pertinent information. From Martindale pick the firms you think it might profit you to visit. Some will be in general practice; some will be specialists, possibly in tax matters or in trial work. If a firm is a small one, mostly older men, a visit would seem in order. On the other hand, the listing of many young associates should not lead you to believe that there is no room for another. It may be a rapidly expanding group.

Martindale will also indicate the firms to stay away from. Unless you have had an engineering background, for instance, or special training, don't waste your time on firms of patent attorneys.

If it is your wish to practice law with one of the departments of the government (Department of Justice, for in-Stance), you will find your problem somewhat simplified, at least so far as leg work is concerned, for there will be centralized hiring officials, operating under standard procedures. Well before the graduation date, write to the agency in which you are interested to find out about their current hiring procedures, their interviewing dates, places, and so forth. These are changed from time to time, and it would not be helpful to generalize.

Professional connection

A similar procedure is followed with respect to openings as corporation counsel. Write to, or visit, the corporation well in advance of graduation, for you will not usually get as rapid action in these large companies as you will from firms of attorneys, where the hiring practices are more direct. Take with you, or enclose in your letter, a copy of your summary sheet listing your qualifications and your background. Incidentally, many law-school seniors utilize the Christmas vacation period for these interviews where a decided time lag seems indicated.

You must know how to keep your professional connection or how you build up your practice.

First of all, the professional malcontents will seek you out. They have a fancied grievance against some person or some situation. They have been to everyone else in town, and their matter is either litigated and lost or refused. They come to you because you are new, you are inexperienced, and you need practice. Don't become a partner with one of these adventurers. If his case had real merit, he wouldn't have found it necessary to peddle it from door to door. Your duty is to render legal help. Many of these people need, on the other hand, psychiatric assistance. You should permit anybody to use you.

Many of the cases coming to you in your opening years of practice will be trivial cases. A client just will not go to the leading lawyer in the community with a small case, even though it is meritorious. So he goes to a younger man. (The same thing is true in law firms. The cat-and-dog stuff goes to the lowest man on the totem pole.) It is extremely important that you give these cases the very best you've got.

It will be a temptation to do otherwise. You have just come from law school, where you studied the most famous cases in history. The case coming to you, however, doesn't involve the legality of what the President did, but, possibly, the legality of what some cow did.

These early cases are extremely important to you. Use all of your skill and energy in their solution, even though they appear to be trivial. In the first place you owe it to your client.

In the second place you owe it to your future. If you handle the case intelligently and energetically, you will have cast bread upon the waters. When that farmer has his big case, or his automobile accident, or when oil is struck on his farm he will figure it this way: Young Jones is a smart lawyer. What's more, if he would work as hard as he did on a cow case, what wouldn't he do with a big one!

Back, now, to the search for a suitable opening, and a final thought: All of this isn't as one-sided as it sounds. I know it takes time, and it is always something of a strain to be on the selling end. But, remember, you've got a lot to offer. You are well grounded in the law, you are energetic, and you have an agreeable personality! Somewhere there's just the spot for you, and you will find it.

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