As much as I want to try and fight the notion that I’m in the twilight of my legal career, I have this often melancholy sense that the days when I felt I had a professional relevance – when my professional words and actions might have “mattered” to my family law colleagues – are now finite. And I now find myself struggling to warn and forewarn my young family law attorneys to perhaps pay closer attention when any of your more “seasoned” (as in, older and greyer) colleagues share suggestions, ideas, lessons, and thoughts which may extend and add to a more successful and impactful legal career for you.
I have shared these “always” and “nevers” over the years, but because we family law attorneys have an amazing tendency to live by the “reverse mantra” that “there is always a great lesson to be learned by the second, third, and fourth kick of a mule”, I wanted to re-send them to my young colleagues, but this time in the form of some “resolutions”. And here they are:
1. ALWAYS “deconstruct” your case by starting at the end of it and working back to the beginning. It is critical in both your case planning and especially in your case presentation at trial that you have a crystal clear understanding of the “end results” you’re wanting to achieve for your client.
2. At least monthly, ALWAYS go the South Carolina Judicial Department’s website – www.sccourts.org – and click on the “Video Portal” menu, and then go the “Supreme Court Archived Video” page and the “Court of Appeals Video” page and watch at least one case being argued before the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals (simply listening to the Justices and judges question and probe the arguments being made by the appellate attorneys will send chills up and down your spine, but you’ll learn more about the practice of law than any book or website or CLE can ever teach you).
3. ALWAYS remember that it truly doesn’t matter as to whether or not you “think” you’re smarter than your opposing attorney…because it is much more important for you to develop your reputation among your peers that you will ALWAYS be prepared to “outwork and out prepare” them on a case.
4. ALWAYS remember that your lifelong reputation among your peers is made within the first 10 years of your professional life.
5. ALWAYS know that it is (infinitely) more important for you to develop your reputation among your peers as being professionally considerate and ethical than for being a professional bully (stated otherwise, our “civility oath” matters in this State).
6. ALWAYS assume that your family court judge knows more about your case than you do … and, at the same time, always assume the judge knows nothing about your case.
7. If you practice family law, then memorize South Carolina Rules of Family Court, Rule 9(b) … and NEVER forget it.
8. ALWAYS know that whenever your family court judges meet anywhere – either at conferences or at lunch or in the hallways behind their courtrooms – they’re asking/talking/gossiping about you… and know that YOUR reputation and ability matters to them (more than you’ll ever know).
9. ALWAYS give your clients “the bad news – 100% of the time”. Since you can’t guarantee a “result” or “outcome” for your client, then it’s professionally dangerous on your part to “paint a rosy picture” about anything involved with your client’s case.
10. NEVER represent a family member or a friend in any contested case, in any court of law, but especially in a family court. And to insure that you remain professionally objective (so that you can do your job effectively), NEVER become your “client’s friend” during the litigation.
11. ALWAYS remember that your professional appearance matters. (For the men) never meet with your clients in your office wearing a golf shirt or casual clothes; (for the women) wear professional attire when meeting with your client. ALWAYS remember that the “visual” of how you present yourself to your client is as important to them as the advice you’re giving them.
12. And ALWAYS remind yourself – daily, if possible – that we are all professionals in this very difficult and demanding profession that we have chosen, and where the effort and the excellence in practicing our craft are monumentally impactful on the lives of others.