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Advice for 2020 Law School Graduates from America’s Top Lawyers

Photo of Randi McGinn by Kip Malone.

Here at Lawdragon, we’re fascinated by the many ways lawyers shape the world.

Legal precedent impacts everyone, from the CEO of a Fortune 50 company to a new mother whose child was born with birth defects.

It’s lawyers who help multinational corporations protect their crown jewels, the intellectual property. And it’s lawyers who advise #MeToo plaintiffs on how to proceed with their claim and find some justice. Lawyers help high-net worth individuals manage their tax issues, and counsel whistleblowers on the best strategy to tell their story. Lawyers defend those accused of crimes, or in prison and seeking release because of Covid-19. And it’s lawyers who talk to workers wondering if they have worker compensation claims, and to family members whose elderly loved ones have passed in a nursing home.

The world is in crisis; the lawyers are working overtime.

And you just joined their ranks.

So, congratulations?

Definitely. You now have the ability to change people’s lives, help companies stay in business and make the world a better place.

In honor of the 2020 law school graduates, we’ve rounded up advice from top lawyers across the country. Their timeless lessons show the power of a lawyer to make a difference.


Do excellent work and start building your professional network now.

Doing excellent work will give you credibility and professional recognition within your firm or company, which will in turn lead to promotions. If you are in private practice, credibility, promotions, and a strong professional network will help you develop a book of business, which is necessary if you want to control your own destiny. Your book of business and professional network will give you a strong voice within your firm and will decrease your dependence upon others for your livelihood. When you begin practicing law, time will fly. The sooner you develop friendships and professional relationships, the sooner those friendships and relationships will cultivate into opportunities.

Jenny Martinez, partner in the complex litigation and dispute resolution practice at Munck Wilson Mandala 


Going from law school to being a first-year associate is a big change.

With respect to young associates, whom I try to mentor, you have to show that you’re intellectually curious, no matter what the topic. If you have a topic to research, do a little extra. And then be proactive with finding a mentor. Every place has their mentoring programs, which are quite formal and you get assigned a mentor. Maybe that will be perfect, but maybe it won’t.

You can find a mentor completely outside of one of those programs. You work on a deal or litigation with somebody, or an assignment, and you just get along. Use that person as your mentor.”

Valerie Ford Jacob, partner at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, co-head of their global financial institutions sector group and their global capital markets practice.


Don’t just follow the money.

You should pursue what appeals to you and find an area of practice that you will feel that you are making a difference and enjoy. A law career lasts a long time and you should do something that you feel passionate about.”

Thomas Giuffra, name partner at New York-based Rheingold Giuffra Ruffo & Plotkin


Work hard, exercise good judgment, provide the highest level of client service, and still find time to have a fulfilling personal life.

But while I believe men are more focused today on balancing the demands of work with their personal lives, I think women continue to struggle with this more acutely. My advice to younger female attorneys is to continue striving towards their professional goals in addition to personal fulfillment, even if they cannot see right now how they can make it all work.

But part of making it work is being OK with the reality of what that means – for me, it is that I cannot have a career like mine and be home every night with my kids. We ourselves, as women, have to be ok with breaking from what are still firmly-held cultural norms.”

Jamie Wine, litigator at Latham & Watkins 


If you want to specialize in financial services law:

Try to read the Wall Street Journal or a similar financial publication each day. As attorneys, we are called on for our legal advice.  But having an understanding of our client’s business is fundamental to giving good advice.”

Bentley Stansbury, financial services litigator at Keesal, Young & Logan


“Be true to yourself.

Do what you love.”

Diane Cafferata, complex commercial litigator at Quinn Emanuel 


My advice for current law students would be to spend time — in school and early in their careers — exploring a variety of different subjects that interest them.

There are a lot of practice areas at big law firms, and gaining experience in as many of them as possible as a summer student or junior associate is a great idea. Students should take ownership of their careers by volunteering for assignments that involve clients in industries that interest them, by seeking out time with senior associates, counsel and partners, and by getting involved in pro bono matters and social activities that give them a chance to expand their networks. Finding one’s preferred subject can start with identifying a specific skillset one wants to use — for me, it was relationship- and consensus-building — and then finding an area of law that heavily utilizes that skillset. We all put a lot of time in at the office, so it’s important that those hours are spent in a way that you find meaningful and rewarding.”

Ryan Dzierniejko, capital markets partner at Skadden


“Do as many types of different assignments as you can get .… You can learn as much from doing things you don’t like as you can from the things you do like.”

Betty Graumlich, labor and employment lawyer at Reed Smith


My advice to law students is to travel and read as much as possible. You can only serve people well if you understand the human condition. The human condition comes in many different forms, affected by socio-economic factors, race, religion, custom, culture, sex.  We learn about people and their condition when we meet them and learn their histories.  If we can’t even imagine walking in someone else’s shoes, we cannot competently serve them.” 

Doris Cheng

I’m biased, but I always tell folks to go out and cut their teeth trying cases in a PD or DA’s office. Then, when they come on over to the world of civil law, they will have that experience under their belts. Armed with those trial skills, they’ll demonstrate that they’re not afraid to try cases and will default in favor of trial as opposed to the often-easier choice of settlement.”

Richard Schoenberger

I would tell them to go hang out in courtrooms. Meet lawyers who try cases. Ask questions, network, volunteer to work for the lawyers who look like the best they see. Take note of how jurors look when the evidence is presented. Find a position as early as possible in law school that gets them near lawyers who try cases. Network with those lawyers. Volunteer if necessary to get experience.”

— Michael Kelly

Cheng, Schoenberger, and Kelly are personal injury attorneys at Walkup Melodia Kelly & Schoenberger.


Find an area of law that you find interesting and exciting – we spend a lot of time at work and you should enjoy coming to the office each day.”

Marissa Holob, corporate employment lawyer at Kramer Levin


Pick an area of law that you like and develop it as a craft or an art.

See where it takes you. Don’t let money be the driving force in your entire career. The practice of law is a craft or an art that has to be slowly developed over time. When something is a craft or an art, you love doing it and put your whole self into it. Sometimes, it might give back, sometimes it may disappoint. But because you love it you will keep at it.”

Milton Williams, white-collar defense lawyer with Walden Macht & Haran


You may think you know what you want to do or have a particular plan. However, don’t ignore serendipity and chance. Things happen for a reason. Just be smart enough to see it when it happens.”    

Thomas Scolaro, personal injury attorney at Leesfield Scolaro in southern Florida 


When I talk to young women who are beginning their legal careers, I find that many of them want to do trial work because it is a place where they can make a difference for people and for their communities. There is no greater power to exact change than the power wielded by a jury. Trial work was a hard area of the law for women to break into because they were expected to emulate men in their styles of conflict resolution and at battle in trial. 

It turns out that, when they simply are who they are, women are some of the fiercest advocates in the courtroom.”

Kathleen Love, personal injury attorney and name partner at McGinn Montoya Love & Curry


“Clerk, clerk, and clerk to learn the practice you wish to enter.”

Stephen Garcia, elder abuse litigator based in Los Angeles 

 


You’ve got to choose what you want to do because you’ve got to enjoy what you’re doing.

It’s the number one thing. If you’re not enjoying what you’re doing, then there’s no point in doing it. It’s your life. You’ve got to take the initiative to figure out how you want to structure it. You’re not a victim here. You are more in control of your future than you realize. The practice of law is symbiotic; enthusiasm and creativity from young people are a necessary component to the success of the enterprise.”

Alexandra D. Korry, M&A lawyer at Sullivan & Cromwell


 It is crucial to stay humble and be hardworking in your legal career.

The lawyers who make a difference are those who put in the time on their cases and who understand that it can take many years to peak in a legal career.”

Kirk Stange, family lawyer and name partner at Stange Law Firm


I had a colleague once who told me that he didn’t want to practice employment litigation because he wasn’t comfortable with his own emotions, much less other people’s. Any employment lawyer on either side of the table is going to spend a good amount of time holding hands and dealing with people’s emotions – make sure you’re someone who isn’t just comfortable with that, but embraces it.”

Julie Taylor, employment litigator at Kessal Young & Logan


Be true to yourself. There are so many people out there who need effective legal representation. Above everything else, they need real people who can relate to problems on a personal level. As our world becomes increasingly automated, I believe the legal profession still needs more personality and less rote work product. Being true to oneself leads to a more satisfying work-life balance, and I also believe it leads to more satisfied clients.”

Chris Stecher, employment and securities litigator at Keesal Young & Logan


My advice would be to keep your passion, but remember that your clients need your skill and brains much more than they need your heart.

Plaintiff employment lawyers often are referred to as ‘passionate.’ I would much rather be known as ‘smart and effective.’”

Samuel Cordes, employment lawyer at Rothman Gordon in Pittsburgh


Become a student of storytelling. 

When you read a book, or see a movie which resonates with you, study why it was so effective. Was it the sequencing of the facts? Was it the point of view from which the story was told? Was it the power of the language or visuals used? Then, take what you’ve learned and bring it into the courtroom.”

Randi McGinn, personal injury litigator and name partner at McGinn Montoya Love & Curry


Know that your initial choices are not set in stone.

I qualified in healthcare law and now act for multinational corporations in bet-the-company investigations.”

Caroline Black, white-collar lawyer at Dechert


As soon as you know what you really want to do, don’t wait to do it.

It’s very easy to be a sheep and just follow the herd – by seeking and taking the opportunity that everyone else wants and is seeking. But the sooner you can figure out what you really want to do the better, because once you are in that situation, the professional fulfillment will come immediately.”

Brian Ratner, antitrust partner at Hausfeld