Three Tips for Young Attorneys

The Bencher—January/February 2024

By Joshua L. Sohn, Esquire

“Hey, I don’t have all the answers. In life, to be honest, I failed as much as I have succeeded.  But I love my life…and I wish you my kind of success.”

—Jerry Maguire (1996)

Like the wise sports agent in the movie “Jerry Maguire,” I don’t have all the answers for young attorneys. But here are three tips for career success.

TIP 1—Do Extracurricular Legal Writing. By this, I mean legal writing that’s not on behalf of a client. The opportunities abound. There are hundreds of law reviews across the country, all of which need longform articles to fill their pages. For shorter articles, publications like Law360 (and The Bencher!) also accept guest submissions from practicing attorneys.

Racking up these sorts of outside writing credits can do wonders for your career. For example, when partners are looking to staff a research-heavy appellate matter, they are more likely to favor associates with one or more law review articles to their name. Or if you’re trying to build your own book of business, it’s great to refer prospective clients to articles you’ve written on legal topics relevant to them. Finally, if you have any desire to move to legal academia someday, building a resume of writing credits is essential.

Of course, finding topics to write about and finding the time to write about them can be tricky. Keep your antennae up for new legal developments. Think about whether you have something fresh and insightful to say. If you spot an aspect of the law where existing doctrine could be improved, try making a persuasive written case for why it should be improved. Back when I was a patent litigator, I eventually realized that the law was frustratingly ambiguous about when patent infringement disputes should go to a judge versus a jury. So I wrote a law review article proposing a new way to resolve the ambiguity.

As for finding the time to write, there are several options. Nights and weekends are one obvious choice. Also, you’ll inevitably have some slow periods during your career (think about the days or weeks right after your biggest case settles). I even wrote law review articles during paternity leave, with the newborn baby sleeping in a deluxe Scrabble box on my desk. The point is, you can usually find time to write if you make it a priority. And some law firms count the time spent on outside writing projects toward billable-hour targets, on the theory that outside writings are a form of business development.

TIP 2—Do Pro Bono Work. Pro bono work is a way to further the public good by providing legal representation to disadvantaged clients. But pro bono work can also further your own career by allowing you to gain early experience that you might not be able to get elsewhere. For example, the Ninth Circuit has a longstanding pro bono program under which private lawyers can sign up as potential pro bono counsel. When a new pro bono case becomes available, the pro bono coordinator emails the roster of counsel to see who’s interested in taking the case. Even as a junior associate, you could find yourself as lead counsel in a pro bono appeal, writing the briefs and delivering oral argument before a panel of Ninth Circuit judges. This is a far cry from most paid cases at law firms, where appellate arguments are generally reserved for senior partners.

TIP 3—Seek Out Opportunities. You won’t have a successful legal career by being a wallflower, so seek out opportunities. When a new case arises at your firm, err on the side of volunteering for it even if your schedule isn’t entirely free or even if you’re not entirely comfortable with its subject matter. If you’ve briefed a motion, ask if you can orally argue it, even if the default procedure would be for a more senior partner to handle the argument. Build your professional network, go to bar association events, and keep your eyes open for new clients or even new jobs.

When I was a young lawyer, some of my greatest successes came from taking this advice—and some of my biggest regrets came from ignoring it. I was once staffed on a major trial as a junior associate and was tasked with writing some of the mid-trial motions. Late one night, I asked the partners if I could orally argue one of these motions in court the next day. After conferring with in-house counsel, they agreed. After hearing oral argument the next day, the judge summarily granted my motion and dismissed $350 million in damages exposure for our client. Not a bad day’s work for a junior associate!

On the flip side, as a mid-level associate, I was tasked with preparing a pitch for a new appellate matter. The lead partner on the pitch—an esteemed appellate advocate—was quite demanding. She read my work with a fine-toothed comb, cross-examined me on the caselaw I found, and pushed me to find more and better cases. By the end of the (successful) pitch, I was so frazzled that I declined the opportunity to actually work on the appeal. Big mistake. The appeal proved to be an important one, and working hand-in-glove with this partner would have been a major feather in my cap. I foolishly turned it down because, in the heat of the moment, I was intimidated and overstressed.

This is not to say you should ignore self-care, work yourself to the bone, or accept every opportunity that comes your way. Part of being a successful lawyer is knowing your limits and rationing your bandwidth. But when in doubt, at the margins, you should err on the side of accepting opportunities and embracing challenges. As the old saying goes, you tend to regret the things you don’t do more than the things you do.

Indeed, embracing opportunities and challenges is the overarching theme that ties together all my tips. Embrace outside writing projects, embrace pro bono, and embrace new cases even when they’re slightly outside your comfort zone. Your legal career will have its share of opportunities and challenges. Grab on to them when you can.

Joshua L. Sohn, Esqsquire, is a trial attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). He graduated from Harvard Law School and Stanford University and clerked on the Ninth Circuit. He is a member of the Giles S. Rich American Inn of Court in Washington, DC. The views expressed herein are his own and should not be taken to represent those of the DOJ.

© 2024 Joshua L. Sohn, Esquire. This article was originally published in the January/February 2024 issue of The Bencher, a bi-monthly publication of the American Inns of Court. This article, in full or in part, may not be copied, reprinted, distributed, or stored electronically in any form without the written consent of the American Inns of Court.