Avoiding WTF Moments as a Young Attorney
As a young attorney, you will experience more WTF moments than you would like. Fortunately, there is more than one way to deal with, and get past those moments.
Another solution is to avoid them in the first place. Here are three ways to decrease the likelihood of those hair-pulling/cringe-inducing/cry-to-your mom moments.
Know your clients inside and out
There’s a tendency as a new solo attorney to take every case that walks into your door. Unfortunately, most attorneys don’t learn this lesson until they learn it the hard way. Even if you don’t get to pick your clients, you still need to know your clients inside and out.
For example, you have doubts about the reliability or believability of your client. But, you really need some cash flow and decide to take the case anyway.
When you find out during discovery that your client didn’t tell you the full story, or worse, told you the wrong story, that’s a serious WTF moment. Every case is different, but it can range from “why didn’t you tell me that” to “you need to dismiss your case now—if the other side will even let you.” The worst part is that this is a WTF moment that you could have prevented.
Or maybe your client is totally believable, but is really bad about showing up to meetings on time, or returning phone calls. Be prepared to spend extra babysitting and worrying about that client. When they miss a meeting, a deposition, or a court hearing because of their own carelessness, it might be their fault—but you made the decision to represent them. In fact, you probably had an inkling that something like that could happen.
The majority of my cases are Plaintiff’s cases, which means that reliability, credibility, and presentability are of the utmost importance. Sure, I need to know if they have provable claims. But I have turned down more than one “great” case because of the client’s reliability or credibility. If they miss a meeting they have both feet out the door and need to drag their way back in. If their story changes between meetings, that’s usually the end of the line.
Use a calendar and a to-do list (something redundant)
Regardless of whether you work for yourself, or someone else, you still need to be responsible for your cases and deadlines. If you work for a firm, you may be fortunate enough to have a paralegal or assistant who is tasked with administrative oversight on cases. But that doesn’t mean you are in the clear.
Depending on the task, I may have it marked down in 2-3 different places, but almost always at least two places. I use Clio and it’s task system for each case. Once I get a scheduling order (and even before) every case and it’s deadlines are in there, along with scheduled e-mail reminders. I will also generally put reminders on my calendar for certain events.
You don’t have to do it that way, but simply hoping that you will remember to do something, assuming someone else will remind you, or blindly trusting that you will look at a scheduling order is a bad idea. Missing a deadline is bad news, but not recognizing an important deadline until the day before can be just as stressful.
Take the extra five minutes and make use of multiple systems to make sure you stay on top of your cases and can plan ahead when necessary.
Don’t be an a$$
As I have developed stronger relationships with opposing counsel, I have noticed that I don’t receive nearly as many WTF e-mails, letters, or motions. I’m not saying opposing counsel rolls out the red carpet, but they usually reach out when there’s an issue, rather than file a motion at 5:00 on a Friday, or send snarky e-mails or letters.
For the most part, I believe that’s because I approach each case knowing that I will have to work with this attorney down the road. Rather than match their apparently nasty conduct with my own nasty conduct, I try and inject civility into our interactions. In some cases, the only way to earn their respect is to punch them in the mouth and be just as nasty. But don’t assume that you have to get nasty to get things done.
In some cases, you may be misreading or misinterpreting things. If you start acting like a jerk because you think opposing counsel is acting like a jerk then you can kiss civility goodbye. Frankly, you may find your last nasty e-mail is exhibit A in a motion to compel or motion for sanctions. And it doesn’t matter who started it.
Reign in your emotions and act like a professional. You don’t have to be best friends with opposing counsel, but you don’t have be a arch enemies either. In my experience, striving to create civility will not only make working together less stressful, it will also result in fewer uncomfortable surprises.