Chapter 10 - Versatility

This topic needs to be set aside on its own. You need to be versatile. There is an oversupply of lawyers out there. You do NOT want to have a collections client ask you if you can help with a real estate purchase and then, you say, "I don't do real estate, but I can hook you up with a friend who does."

There is too much risk in that. Your friend - whether a friend or not - may hit it off with the client. Your friend helped with the real estate deal, and now your client asks your friend, "By the way, do you think I need to update my will?"

The opportunity costs of not being versatile are just too high. Worse, you can lose existing clients to the competition.

This is the reason for the previous emphasis on why you need such a robust source for legal research and forms. With a good resource, you can handle diverse areas in the law with confidence. Never turn down legal work that will pay at the going rate unless:

  1. you know you will not take the time to learn to do it right
  2. it is a huge case and it is "out of your league" (decimal places alone do not dictate this)

As a corollary to the rule above, if the only reason you would tend to shy from handling a matter is because you feel you lack knowledge and confidence, perform some research first before declining. You might find you can do it with relative ease. In so many cases, once you turn down a client and force him or her to go elsewhere, you are not likely to see that client again.

This is one of the greatest beauties of a good research resource. The more you research, the more you expand upon your ability to take advantage of new opportunities. The more you research, the more comfortable you become with your ability to quickly research and learn.

Keep in mind that in the early days of becoming a lawyer, you will spend an inordinate amount of time researching. Hours will be devoted where experienced attorneys spend minutes. This is okay. It is not a sign of your intellectual incapacity. It is something we all must go through. You are learning some new things about the way lawyer's think. You are learning how concepts are organized within a gargantuan framework of "the law." You will encounter recognizable patterns as you spend more and more time just perusing the key number digests. Heck, spend hours. Waste time there. Lots of it. Just look, look, look. There is a world of knowledge in there.

For example, who would have thought that there were separate key numbers for vacating a divorce decree versus setting aside a judgment by filing a bill of review? They are both judgments, are they not? You need to know that topics are often splintered in this way. It does not necessarily make sense that they are splintered, but they are. Just accept the imperfection and learn to deal with it efficiently. You will only become comfortable with this after many hours of sifting through the digests just to see what all is there. An experienced researcher already knows about these limitations and is familiar with how to quickly navigate around them to insure a thorough research session. You cannot be the family lawyer who believes that all he needs to do is look in the digests under Divorce -> Decrees and Orders -> Vacating. You must also know that you need to look under Judgments -> Vacating and Setting Aside.

Although it has not been stated previously, you need to approach everything with "Murphy's Law" in mind. Ask yourself, "What could go wrong? What might happen to cause a big fight?" When you ask these questions, you ought to routinely tell yourself, "Hmmm…. Interesting question. I need to research that." This will make you work more, bill more, be a better lawyer and provide a service that is actually worth those unconscionably high rates you charge. It is a win-win for the lawyer and the client.

Never be worried that you have to tell your client you need to spend some time researching as part of the project and that you will bill for that time (unless it is a flat-fee). Young attorneys worry about this all too often. Clients might not expect to be told that you need to charge them to learn. But that is life in the profession. If you feel the need to explain, tell the client to go to the law library at the nearest university so he or she can have an appreciation of how much law there is out there. Tell the client that the world would not be overrun by lawyers if they all knew "the law." If "the law" was something a trained lawyer could ever grasp completely, we would not have any lawyers at all - just judges who knew "the law" and doled out justice.

If you have really done your homework, and there is just not an answer to be found on "what's the rule when…," know that this is fairly common. The statutes and case law do not cover everything. Do your best and find the closest analogies. Reason your way to an informed and reasonable argument for why the rule would be "x" if it was squarely presented in the courts of appeals. This is what good lawyers do. This is not solely the domain of big firm attorneys. This type of access is available to all attorneys, and there are plenty of solos out there who are every bit as diligent as the big firm attorneys (even though they only have to work 1/3 of the time to make the same money).

Finally, get to know other lawyers and talk to them regularly - about anything. Do not be afraid to call a lawyer out of the blue because you saw he authored an article or his name was given to you by another lawyer. Lawyers are notorious for freely helping each other and letting you bend their ears. Do this all the time. If you need them to help a little more than just a quick call, you can say, "Hey, I drafted a petition I'd like you to review and get your input on. If you could help me out, I'd appreciate it. I'll take you to lunch. My treat." When, you have some experience behind your belt, as they say, "Pay it forward." Help the young attorneys who are now looking to you as an experienced and successful lawyer.

© 2015, Jeff M