Denver Bar Association
September 1999
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10 Things to do Every Day to Succeed

by Jeff Tolman


As I look at the lawyers I know who are successful, I see that they have good habits. They are organized and spend their days doing productive work and moving files. They get things done, and so get paid by clients and feel good about the time they have spent in the office.

The opposite is also true. The lawyers I know who are struggling, or who hate the practice of law, have one habit: they come to their office and put out the biggest fire. No forethought. No planning. No productivity. Just trying to keep from getting sued by the client who is the most mad, or sanctioned by the court most ignored.

In law school I roomed with an engineer who felt there was an objective formula for everything. “Love,” he said, “is predictable. We just don’t know the formula yet.” I disagree with him that love and lots of other things (kids come to mind) are predictable. It is clear to me, though, that the chance for success in the law can be quantified by a lawyer’s good, and bad, habits.

Following are some things that should be done every day. Some are small habits, others bigger. They will, though, help get your practice, and you, on the right track.

  1. Answer all of your phone messages, even if your message to the caller is that you are unavailable (in trial, etc.). It will tell clients that you are not ignoring them. Loneliness is one of the most powerful human emotions. Feeling uncared-about by someone you are paying $2 a minute almost immediately turns loneliness into aggression.

  2. Call clients you have worked with in the past, but don’t have any cases with now, just to see how they are doing. A lawyer’s number one referral source is existing clients, especially those you keep in touch with.

  3. Work 15 minutes on a case you are ignoring (we all have them). Sometimes absence does make the heart grow fonder. Even if it doesn’t, your attention to the file may inspire you to contact the client, refer the case out or plot your next work project on the case.

  4. Read and immediately answer your mail. This “quick in-quick out” system will be productive for you and your clients, and will keep today’s mail from getting stacked on yesterday’s.

  5. Ask staff members about their families. The simple inquiry shows that you are interested in them as people and often you will learn interesting things about them. Never forget that your staff often has more “hands-on” contact with clients than you do. They can be your most ardent supporters.

  6. At the end of your appointment, genuinely thank the client for coming in. There are lots of good lawyers in your community. This client has chosen you. She feeds your family. Let her know you appreciate it.

  7. Bring your receptionist a cup of coffee. He or she is the first contact in your office and can make or break you.

  8. Take five minutes to talk to one of your colleagues. Lawyers are a wonderfully interesting group if you ask and listen. They can, and will, help you with your cases if you ask.

  9. Give someone a compliment. It will help that person and you, and is a good habit to get into. No one ever thought less of you for saying something nice.

  10. Finally, put in a hard day’s work. “Lawyer” is a verb. You get paid to do things, not think or talk about doing things. You will feel good, and ready to go home, when you have moved the files on your desk that greeted you in the morning.

When I look at the lawyers I know who are successful, I see that they began their good work habit one day. A day like today. Copyright Jeff Tolman 1997. Reprinted from the September 1998 Washington State Bar Journal.

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