President's Message November/December 2016

Our Bar Offers Assistance to New Lawyers
Armando E. Batastini, Esq.

President, Rhode Island Bar Association

New lawyers ultimately have to focus upon finding the intersection between what they like doing, what they are good at, and what will generate sufficient income.
In the early 2000s, I was often asked to address new associates about the transition from law school to practicing lawyer.  I often began my remarks by stating that when I die and come back to life, I wanted to return as a summer associate.  The pay was good, not much was required, and the summer events and free meals were really good.  I would transition by adding that I would not want to come back as a first year associate, which is perhaps the most stressful time in many lawyers’ professional lives.     

A lot has changed since then.  Summer associate classes and programs at bigger firms are far more modest, if they exist at all.  And, firms generally now use the summer associate program as a try-out, so that summers have to work hard to earn an offer.  One thing remains true, however.  The first years of practice are amongst the most difficult.  While I imagine that it was difficult to establish oneself as an attorney in Abraham Lincoln’s day, it is more difficult now to develop a sustainable legal practice than at any time since I have been a lawyer.  The reasons are well-known and oft-repeated: more lawyers; growing competition from non-lawyers, particularly on the internet; and, a growing do-it-yourself ethos have coalesced to reduce demand for services from lawyers. 

Because of these challenges, I spoke with our New Lawyers Committee this fall about ways with which new lawyers can begin developing their practices.  I thought that it might be beneficial to share those comments more broadly. 

Through a combination of competence and hard work, newer lawyers can succeed.  I know many lawyers in Rhode Island who started from scratch and now have thriving practices because they applied themselves.  The old bromide that success does not happen overnight is particularly apt in this context and for new lawyers.  Continued hard work over time is still the most proven path to a successful practice. 

Additionally, the best way for a lawyer to distinguish him or herself is to become highly competent.  Work will find its way to really good lawyers.  That said, new lawyers in private practice need to establish themselves in practice areas that will generate profitable work. 

While all of the foregoing may seem manifest, it is not so obvious to many new lawyers, particularly those who are starting out on their own.  Over the years, I have fielded calls from many new lawyers seeking advice.  One of the first questions I ask is what that lawyer is doing to develop profitable work.  The responses I receive run the gamut, from not having an answer to detailing the work that the lawyer is currently attracting.  These conversations inevitably turn to law practice economics, and the question of whether that lawyer’s current work will lead to a sustainable practice.  This subject is one that most new lawyers (me included) have not thought through sufficiently.  I do not mean to underplay how difficult it is, and new lawyers generally are happy to be generating any paying business.  However, new lawyers ultimately have to focus upon finding the intersection between what they like doing, what they are good at, and what will generate sufficient income.                                

The Bar Association is mindful of and sensitive to these issues, and has several ways to assist.  Two of the most underutilized Bar programs are the Lawyer Referral Service and the Reduced Fee Program.  In August 2016 alone, the Bar placed over 900 new matters through these programs.  Multiple attorneys receive well over 50 placements over the course of a year.  Underemployed new lawyers would be well-served in joining both of these programs.  At a minimum, placements could provide a base of work from which a new lawyer could expand his or her practice.

The Bar Association also has a stand-alone mentorship program and a Volunteer Lawyer Program mentorship program.  The Bar Association has experienced attorneys ready, willing and able to serve as mentors to young lawyers.  The limited numbers of persons who have participated have generally had very positive experiences. 

The VLP mentorship program provides a double benefit.  The purpose of the program is to allow new lawyers to take on a case in combination with a more senior lawyer in an area in which the junior lawyer has limited experience.  The team approach provides real-world experience to the new lawyer and delivers needed pro bono services.  I have served as a VLP mentor, and had a very good experience doing so.       

Unfortunately, few new lawyers take advantage of these opportunities.  We will be doing more, consequently, to publicize these programs to new lawyers, particularly through media that this demographic favors, over the next year. 

The New Lawyers Committee is also a great way for new lawyers to begin forming professional relationships.  Over the next year, the Bar Association will be facilitating collaboration of that Committee with like professional groups, including new CPAs and new financial planners, with the aim to begin developing career-long referral sources. 

The new Bar Association Law Center is also a resource for all members, including new lawyers.  The Law Center has work spaces and conference rooms available for use for member attorneys at no charge.  This resource is particularly helpful to new lawyers who utilize virtual offices - -a phenomena that continues to grow.  

Establishing oneself in practice today is difficult, but not impossible.  The Bar and its members are here to help.  I strongly encourage new members to contact me directly if they would like to discuss this or any other topic, and further encourage new members to take advantage of Bar programs and resources that will assist in making those stressful first years of practice a little easier.