Career Audit

A Word To The Wise

Accomplished Attorneys Give Some Credit to the Advice and Example of Their Mentors

Posted Dec 1, 2007 11:55 AM CDT
By Martha Neil

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Years ago, one of Michael J. Ham­blet’s mentors gave him some good advice.

“When he decided whether he was going to take a case, he al­ways worried much more about whether the client was on the side of the angels than what the law was,” recounts Hamblet, a Chicago practitioner for decades. “If the cli­ent was on the side of the angels, he would take the case, regardless of what the law was.”

Although Hamblet says he rarely refuses a representation, he did turn down one potential client in a will contest, in accord with his mentor’s counsel. When Hamblet asked if the man had attended the funeral of the testatrix—the man’s own mother—he shamelessly said no, he had been too busy.

“I didn’t want to be in court when that came out,” Ham­blet says. “As soon as a judge hears that, you will lose one way or another.”

In spite of all the time they spent in law school classrooms, many lawyers say the best ad­vice they ever got about succeeding in the profession was from seasoned attorneys after graduation.

“When I first started out, a partner told me to become the world’s expert in something. It didn’t matter what, something I was interested in, and the world would come to me if I was the person in an area,” says Steven O. Weise, a Los Angeles lawyer who chairs the ABA Busi­ness Law Section.

Weise followed that counsel by specializing in the Uni­form Commercial Code. “In the law firm I was in at the time, nobody knew anything about it, so I made myself useful,” he says.

Though having expertise is valuable, another piece of advice from the same partner has also been crucial, Weise says. “Get back to clients when they call. Don’t leave them waiting.”

Dennis W. Archer, ABA president and a former mayor of Detroit, also credits a senior partner at the small law firm where he began his career for advice that put him on the path toward success.

In addition to being ethical and returning phone calls promptly, “Always keep your desk clean, so that when cli­ents come into your office, they feel the only thing you’ve got to do in life is represent them,” Archer says the partner told him. And “when clients come into your office, get out of your chair and go to the reception room and greet them and personally bring them back to your office.”

Archer says his current partners still marvel at how neat his desk is. This allows him to focus on clients’ problems without shuffling papers around to find a legal pad or clear space for writing, he says, “so I’m able to provide eye con­tact and support. And they’re not looking around at a desk or an office that’s swamped, with the feeling that, ‘Gosh, how’s he ever going to get to me or my concerns?’ ”

Hamblet also recalls advice that a lawyer should work just as hard on pro bono cases as for paying clients. Slack­ing off hurts a reputation, he says—plus, pro bono cases can generate referrals for paid work.

Actions can sometimes speak louder than words, and for Cynthia L. Strout, having a chance to try several murder cases in recent years with a brilliant colleague has been an inspiration. Although Strout is a longtime criminal defense lawyer in Anchorage, Alaska, she nonetheless found that watching her colleague in court taught her a lot about what it takes to win.

“What I learned from him is that it’s all in the details. It’s all hard work,” she says. “Basically, you have to work harder than [your opponents] work. You have to be more prepared than they are. And you can’t back down.”

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