Materials for South Carolina Bar lecture

For the past 25 years, I have–imperfectly, fitfully and on a very ad hoc basis–developed strategies intended to preserve my sanity and maintain and increase my satisfaction in practicing law—specifically family law.  For the past 15 years, I have informally mentored scores of younger attorneys.  The past eight years I have formally mentored ten attorneys.  During this mentoring process, I have tried to impart some of my experience and ideas to preserve sanity and improve job satisfaction, and have watched these young attorneys implement these ideas.

Some of these ideas are universal (e.g., get regular exercise; develop hobbies).  Some of these ideas probably seem tangential to maintaining sanity (learn to appeal; develop your own roster of attorneys to mentor).  And some obvious ways to maintain sanity are too obvious for me to include here: I hope no one needs to point out that getting proper sleep or being moderate in one’s alcohol use is vital to maintaining sanity.  However, the methods I will discuss have proven useful for me and the attorneys I have mentored in increasing their job satisfaction and maintaining their sanity.  No one told me these things when I opened my law practice over two decades ago but I wish someone had.   The goal of this material is to shorten a newly licensed attorney’s learning curve. The list is surely not complete: if I revisit this material in 25 years there will be things my 80 year old self wished my 55 year old self knew.

  1. Don’t be ashamed to get paid for what you do
    • You worked hard to get that degree
    • You deserve to get paid
    • Poverty is stressful
    • Practicing law is stressful
    • Money can buy things that help lawyers alleviate stress
    • However avoid clients whose current behavior abhors you
      1. Every client is going to have issues
      2. Some of those issues may be current or ongoing
      3. However if the client’s behavior is abhorrent and ongoing or the client is manipulative, you are better off without that client, especially in fields like family law
      4. Manipulative clients will manipulate you
      5. Make your question your own sanity
      6. Use initial consults to spot manipulative clients or clients whose story doesn’t “add up”
    • Pro bono work is important but don’t confuse pro bono for unpaid
  2. Better to be a little underemployed than overemployed
    • Gives you time to think and reflect
    • The overemployed attorney is simply reacting and has no time for strategic planning
    • Our brains can be in either “task-positive” or “task-negative” mode, but not both at once. Our brain benefits from spending time in each state.
    • Task-positive mode allows us to accomplish something in the moment. Task-negative mode is more colloquially known as daydreaming
    • It is responsible for our moments of greatest creativity and insight, when we’re able to solve problems that previously seemed unsolvable.
    • You can bill for this time—call it file review
  3. Read ethics opinions
  4. Read things to expand your general knowledge of areas of law that interest you (e.g., read books on marriage and divorce if you practice family law; read books on the criminal justice system if you practice criminal law) to develop a macro view of the law
    • The micro view of legal practice where no case related to another case is dispiriting
    • If law is simply sausage being made, your practice has no greater purpose
    • Understanding what it is your area of law is trying to accomplish gives your practice purpose
  5. Observe other lawyers in action
    • See how they treat each other, the judge and litigants/witness
    • Zealous but respectful and dignified
  6. See a therapist regularly
    • Law is stressful
    • You spend your days with unhappy people complaining
      1. About you and others
    • You need an hour every week or two where you get to complain, someone else gets to listen, and you learn how to better handle what triggers you
    • When your clients need additional psychological support, recommend it
      1. You’re not trained or equipped to be their counselor
  7. Get into an exercise routine
    • Great way to deal with stress
    • Poor health will affect your ability to practice
  8. Don’t judge—especially yourself
    • Law requires you to continually access other’s behavior
    • Can turn one judgmental
    • Learn to explain how behavior might affect outcome without being judgmental
    • We all have feet of clay
      1. If you don’t learn to forgive your mistakes you will be miserable
  9. Develop a roster of mentors
    • We all need help
    • We all benefit from the insight of others, especially those how have greater experience
    • Let other’s help you
    • Learn from them
    • Don’t fear vulnerability
    • Not knowing is part of the job but experienced attorneys can help you spot the unknown unknowns
  10. Start mentoring others
    • We are part of an honorable and learned profession
    • Within months of being licensed you have more experience than some
    • Share it
    • Mentoring others provides a sense of purpose and accomplishment
    • It can help you “learn” what you know
  11. Take time off and keep/develop a hobby outside of the law
    • The law can take over one’s how life if you let it
    • Ideas often only come when we give ourselves time to relax
    • If you only have lawyer friends at least do non lawyer stuff with them
    • Help avoid burnout
    • Vacations
      1. Can be done on a budget—couch surfing/camping
      2. Get away from stress of practice
      3. Time to reflect on practice and not focus on day-to-day minutia
  12. Learn to appeal
    • You are actually a better appellate attorney than trial attorney when you graduate law school
      1. The skills you learned in law school are appellate skills
    • Judges will sometimes get it wrong
      1. It can be frustrating
      2. Having the ability to remedy trial court errors is empowering and will reduce frustration
      3. It will also make you a better trial attorney
  13. Be kind
    • I acknowledge that I’m not always great at this but I probably work harder to improve on this than on any other aspect of my life
    • Attacks aren’t necessarily personal
      1. Maybe your client or opposing counsel is having a bad day
    • No need to react to every attack
    • No need to respond to every complaint
    • You cannot control how other people act towards you but you can control your response
    • A hostile response is almost never productive
      1. Try not to get triggered
    • Often best way to respond to someone’s rudeness is with kindness
    • Kindness and calm is the best way to reduce conflict
    • We all could use more kindness
  14. If you aren’t energized by your work most days, something isn’t right
    • Law is a learned and noble profession
    • We are well compensated and well respected
    • Wide variety of work
    • Every case is different
    • If you aren’t coming to work energized most days it’s a sign something is wrong
    • Don’t live your life miserable—fix it

Barry Knobel says there are 5 stages in an attorney’s professional life: 1) Optimist – right out of law school; 2) Realist – after 10 years of practice; 3) Pessimist – from the 10th to the 20th year (maybe much sooner); 4) Cynic – anytime after the 10th year; and finally, 5) Hypocrite – the worst of the lot.  Hopefully following these recommendations this will slow your advance through the stages.

Put Mr. Forman’s experience, knowledge, and dedication to your service for any of your South Carolina family law needs.

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