Some tips from a graduate of Utah’s New Lawyer Training Program

Last year, the Utah Bar Association for the first time implemented the “New Lawyer Training Program,” (NLTP) a requirement for new lawyers in Utah.

The goal of the Utah NLTP is to match new lawyers with more experienced lawyers for training during their first year of practice in professionalism, ethics, and civility; to assist new lawyers in acquiring the practical skills and judgment necessary to practice in a highly competent manner; and to provide a means for all Utah attorneys to learn the importance of organizational mentoring, including the building of developmental networks and long-term, multiple mentoring relationships.

Or, more simply put, the Utah Bar will put you with an older lawyer to teach you to play nice with others, while also how to succeed (i.e. make some money, ethically) and avoid ending up on the Attorney Discipline pages of the bar journal.

As a recent graduate of the program myself, I think it’s a useful and wise program. As I’ve noted in just starting this blog, I’m of the opinion that a lot of a new lawyer’s education upon graduation from law school is learned in real practice. We have a J.D., but little experience, and, if Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes is to be believed, “The life of the law has not been logic, but experience.” By paring new lawyers with more experienced lawyers, the opportunities for mistakes are fewer and the wisdom of ages is shared with younger attorneys.

Recently, a friend of mine had the opportunity to share some of the lessons he learned as a result of the program in the Utah Bar Journal. Zach Derr, of Foxhill Legal, LC, has a story not unlike many attorneys who graduated at the same time I did.

I graduated from The George Washington University School of Law in 2009 during the worst legal market since the Great Depression. I was lucky to have an offer at a small firm in Lehi. I took the job, but, because of slow work, the firm could not afford to keep me on salary. For several months, I looked for a job and had some interviews but no offers. As I was looking, a good friend and mentor referred a small business owner to me to write a letter of intent for a contract. This small business owner gave me more work and I gradually picked up a few more clients. In May, I stopped sending out resumes, and set up my firm, Foxhall Legal, LC.

It’s a story I’ve heard a dozen times over the last year, and in many ways, Zach is one of the lucky, if not enterprising attorneys, I’ve heard it from. He works hard, he can hustle, and he’s a good attorney.

He offers some great advice, as well as some interesting insights, about why the mentor program worked for him. I think it is worth noting that an attorney, or any person, doesn’t need a formal mentor program to have a mentor. Perhaps it helps if formalized, but, as Zach notes, there’s no reason you can’t reach out to your network for insights and experience you don’t have.

When I was at a firm, I could walk down the hall and ask other attorneys questions. As a solo practitioner, I have learned to rely on emails, instant messaging, and phone calls to colleagues. Fortunately, I received advice, forms, and assistance from mentors, law school friends, and attorneys I met through networking. It’s nice to talk through things with another attorney to see if I am on the right track. My mentor helped talk me through some tough situations and prepare for hearings.

Using a mentor isn’t just about advice, either. A lot of the law is about getting the language right, whether for a pleading, a form, or a contract.

Getting the right forms has saved me a lot of work and helped me in drafting documents. Most of my work has been transactional and getting the right forms has made all of the difference in developing my practice. However, I’ve found it’s important to know how to use the forms and how to change them to fit the needs of clients. Forms can be dangerous. Even with the right forms, areas can be more complicated than they appear on the surface. I would advise anyone using forms to spend the necessary time getting familiar with the area of practice before using the form. My mentor helped me find forms and the underlying legal concepts.

Forms and the law aside, an attorney must still make a living. One of the more difficult aspects for new attorneys, especially solo practitioners, is the business side of a law practice. There aren’t many classes about how to bill clients, track expenses, market yourself, and so on. In fact, I don’t know that there were any at my school (fellow graduates of SJ Quinney can correct me, now, if they’re reading this). We were taught the ethics of what we could and could not do, but knowing the formal ethics of legal marketing is a world away from managing and marketing a law firm, which is exactly what a new lawyer needs.

On this point, Zach makes two observations: 1. Spend Money Wisely, and 2. Avoid Non-Payment. On the first point, he uses a virtual office that helps him avoid the costs of a full office lease and staff. On the second, he recommends getting payment up front.

It only takes not being paid once for most attorneys to change the way they bill clients. Although it may scare some clients away, a retainer protects the attorney and ensures prompt payment. Although most of my clients have paid, some have waited a month or two to send payment. A retainer provides immediate payment; after billing the client, I can simply withdraw earned fees. When charging a flat fee, get the money upfront to avoid headache down the road.

Zach, as far as I can tell, likes what he does, and he likes the freedom that his practice allows him to have. He skis more often than I do, and I know he loves spending time with his family, especially since he can put the kids to bed at night, and go back to work without leaving the house. Could his practice have worked if Zach went it alone? Probably. But has he benefited from a community of associates and a great mentor? No doubt about it.

Mad props  to those mentors who take the time out from their practice to help younger lawyers learn the ropes. They do credit to both themselves and the profession.

(Thanks to Zach Derr for his help on this post. You can reach him at www.foxhalllegal.com and by email to zderr@foxhalllegal.com.

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2 responses to “Some tips from a graduate of Utah’s New Lawyer Training Program

  1. Pingback: Legal Talk Network–New Lawyer: New Solo « lennyesq

  2. Pingback: Practice Tip (via ABL): How to Become an (Almost) Indispensable Junior Associate | What they didn't teach in law school

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