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Paul Mark Sandler: Tips for young lawyers for a fulfilling career

Paul Mark Sandler

Paul Mark Sandler

Hello young lawyers and welcome to the profession. By now you may feel the practice of law is overwhelming. But being an attorney requires that you assume the responsibilities of a true professional, as well as a business person, minding the economics of law practice and meeting the challenges of unending demands. The overwhelming nature of practicing law will never change, so do not expect it to. Each year that you continue to be engaged in our honorable profession, you will assume more responsibilities and the demands placed on you will grow. But with experience and maturity, you can learn to confront these ever-expanding challenges and master them.

To help guide you, I have compiled a total of 10 tips worthy of discussion. The first two are things all young lawyers should consider as they embark upon this journey. 

  1. Develop a personal career plan. 

During these first few years of practice, as law school becomes history, consider what field of law interests you most. Plan how you can undertake the work you relish and think about how to attain your objectives. Create a personal timeline covering several years – at least three or perhaps even five. Include subjects you seek to master, experiences you hope to have, CLE programs you plan to attend, and books you want to read. You can even include future articles you would like to write.

After identifying what you want to accomplish, focus on developing opportunities to get there.

Your goal may be to remain where you are practicing now or to obtain valued experience and then move on. But on to what? That is for you to figure out, and figure it out you must. Review your plan each year to assess where you are and whether you are headed where you want to go. Gain insight by talking to others, such as a mentor or other trusted advisor. Then modify your plan accordingly.

What is important is not to flounder. Within your work environment, take command of your own life. Sometimes when you are not doing the work you prefer or you are in a law environment that does not suit you, the next best thing is to strive to get where you desire to be. Worst is to accept the status quo as fate, and flounder. Take control of your career. 

  1. Find a mentor outside of the office.

Paramount in the development of your career is securing a mentor, preferably outside of the office. Just as you might choose a guide to show you the way when traveling to a new place, so too can your mentor lead the way through the maze of lawyering. A mentor can provide guidance in addition to the guidance you receive from colleagues and senior partners where you work.

A mentor outside of the office provides confidentiality –  and objectivity –  and avoids any possible conflict inherent in an employer–employee relationship. But whether outside or within your work environment, the value of a mentor cannot be overstated.

Outstanding mentors can be lifelong advisors, friends and even saviors when you run into seemingly insolvable career problems. They can serve as sounding boards for both legal issues and issues at work, and they can provide career advice and serve as references for you.

I was fortunate to have a mentor – and friend – for more than 45 years, the late Melvin J. Sykes. He would read much of my writing and correct what he observed were errors in my thinking. Often, he would moot court proposed arguments. When, as a cub lawyer, I felt intimidated by more experienced lawyers, he would encourage me to have and exude confidence.

He schooled me in civility and professionalism. He also showed me the value of humor.

Once, while walking down the street, he stopped and asked: “Do you know what Rule Number One is?”

I responded promptly with a serious, almost stern voice.

“Yes, I do, Mr. Sykes.”

“Well, what is it?”

“Rule Number One,” I replied, “is the lawyer gets paid first.”

He laughed.

“Absolutely wrong!” he said. “Rule Number One is: Never be nice to a son of a b—-.”

He laughed, walked on, then treated me to lunch. It was more than four decades ago, yet I remember the conversation as if it were yesterday. But when it came to advice, he was very serious. He would always steer me in the proper direction. He was instrumental in the development of my love for the law and my unwavering dedication to clients and fighting for their causes.

I wish you the same good fortune in securing the perfect mentor who will add an extra dimension to the development of your career. Do not be shy to initiate repeated contact. If you encounter difficulties in finding a mentor, email me. I shall help you find one.

Next time, we will discuss the following two tips: conduct yourself professionally in the office; and seek knowledge and stay current with the law.  

Paul Mark Sandler, a trial lawyer and author, can be reached at pms@shapirosher.com.