5 mistakes to avoid as a first-year legal professional

First year legal professional makes a mistake

Once you’ve lived through your first year as a legal professional, you’ll never forget it. For lawyers, it is a massive transition away from three years of theory, discussion, and a grading system that tells you exactly how you stack up against your peers. For paralegals, it can be a harsh transition away from the relatively supporting environment of a paralegal program, into the cutthroat world of lawyers and clients.

Invariably, first-year legal professionals make mistakes. The good news is, they’re largely avoidable. We’ve compiled a list of some of the top mistakes new legal professionals make. Now it is simply up to you to avoid them.

#1: Don’t tell yourself you can make up billable hours at the end of the year

Most new attorneys and paralegals are required to bill a certain number of hours to clients each year. That number may range from 1,500 to 2,000, but nearly everyone is immediately handed this new responsibility. To make matters worse, it is often directly tied to your future compensation.

During your first year of practice, it is tempting to try to make your billable hour requirement into a neat mathematical equation. If you’re required to bill 1,800 hours a year, for example, that boils down to a cool 150 hours per month, roughly 35 hours per week, and/or 7 hours per workday. Sounds easy, right? That’s why, when things get slow, some new legal professionals are tempted to tell themselves they’ll simply make up the hours later in the year.

Not so fast. You need to start worrying about making your hours now. Anyone who has practiced law for any length of time will tell you that you absolutely cannot count on having sufficient work to do at the end of the year to meet your hours. In fact, if your firm counts hours on a January-to-December calendar, you will find that the last two months of the year can be incredibly slow due to the holidays, partner vacations, etc.

Thus, the best practice for a new attorney is to work as hard as you can for as long as you can. There’s no worse feeling professionally than cruising into November with 450 hours left to bill.

#2: Don’t fail to track your time

Similarly, it is important for all legal professionals to keep track of their billable hours in real time. New attorneys and paralegals make this mistake all the time. They get busy working, forget to record their time, and tell themselves they’ll record it later.

When you do this, you not only tend to cheat yourself out of actual hours billed (e.g., “there’s no way that brief took me five hours” — when it actually took ten), you also run the risk of defrauding a client when you try to piece together your time from things like emails and texts. Starting from day one, get in the practice of recording your billable hours as they happen.

#3: Don’t hesitate to admit what you don’t know

In your first months and years, especially, you’ll be learning things above and beyond what you learned in law school or your credential program. Everything will be new and you’ll have to catch up on countless processes and procedures.

By freely admitting to those gaps in your knowledge and asking questions about how things are done in your current home firm specifically, you’re demonstrating a desire to learn. This helps set you on a path to being a valued member of your team who isn’t afraid to ask for help.

#4: Don’t forget your duty of confidentiality

For all the doldrums of paperwork and manual data entry, the practice of law is exciting. Sometimes young legal professionals can be blown away by the juicy fact patterns that cross their desks.

No matter what you do, don’t forget your duty of confidentiality. For attorneys, this is part of your ethical oath but the duty is also imputed to other legal professionals in the firm. Remember, no matter how badly you want to tell your friends about the crazy client who is being sued for shooting the neighbor’s pet raccoon, you have to keep quiet. Your failure to do so could put your firm — and your legal career — at great risk.

#5: Don’t ever miss a deadline

No matter what you do as a new legal professional, don’t miss a deadline.

Don’t miss internal deadlines that you receive from your bosses, don’t miss a client deadline, and don’t ever miss a court deadline.

What this may mean for you is that you never trust a deadline supplied to you by someone else. If, for example, a colleague tells you a reply brief is due to the court in 10 days, go back and look at the rules and any relevant orders yourself. Then, get that brief done with plenty of time for it to be reviewed and approved by others on your team.

Up until this point in your life, deadlines may not have been a big deal to you. In the practice of law, however, missed deadlines can equate to malpractice claims and the unemployment line.

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What tips do you have for young legal professionals based on mistakes you made in your first year of practice? We’d love to hear about them in the comments section, below.

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