As recent law school graduates prepare to take the bar exam at the end of July, and our newest lawyers enter the profession after being sworn in this June, a more seasoned attorney cannot help but feel nostalgic. I have been practicing law for 31 years, yet I can clearly recall the trepidation I felt upon graduating. I knew where I wanted to end up, but I didn’t yet know how I would get there or what twists and turns my career path would take.
In the current climate, there are other reasons for trepidation beyond the average nerves. We cannot and would not want to diminish the fact that the job market is precarious and that debt remains high. I personally understand this because I too faced a difficult economic situation when I graduated from law school. I was even told several times that I had made a huge mistake, a statement that would be repeated to me at other points during my early career. No one would have guessed that I would become the General Counsel of EMC Corporation, nor that EMC would grow to become the premier global company that it is today with 60,000 employees and a legal department that has grown from one attorney – me – to 120 worldwide. It was a long process to reach this point, and it was by no means straightforward or easy. The key, I discovered, is to position yourself so that you can spot hard-to-find opportunities that may exist and be ready for the opportunities that will appear during the economy’s recovery, which I saw happen in my early career years and which I expect to see happen again.
It is from the perspective of having navigated the surprises and challenges of starting a legal career that I would offer a few pieces of advice:
Always seek to keep learning, and always listen.
My first job out of law school was at a firm in suburban Milwaukee, and I was immediately thrown into the mix. I learned just as much as – if not more than – I had in law school. It helps to ask questions and pay close attention in the courtroom; in fact, I used to sit in court and listen to judges, lawyers, and litigants alike. You will also need to be prepared to constantly improve upon your work and pick up new techniques. I quickly found that my writing skills always had to be better to keep up with the real world. Your learning will continue for life, but the passing grades are given to you differently – that’s very exciting.
Don’t be afraid to take risks, jump to take new opportunities, and keep your goals in sight.
Moving from my work at a law firm to working at Apollo Computer in Chelmsford, MA was fortuitous. At the time I had no experience in the technology industry – the company’s general counsel took a chance on me, and I worked hard to convince him that he had made the right choice. Learning a whole new set of skills to navigate corporate legal life took intensive study and time, but I was determined to acquire business acumen. It was a risk, but it paid off.
After Apollo was acquired by Hewlett Packard, I initially turned down a job offer from EMC before hastily reconsidering – it was my great luck that they called back to reoffer the job, and it changed the entire trajectory of my legal career. What started as a relatively small pursuit as the only in-house lawyer at EMC, which at the time had just one patent as it tried to compete with companies like IBM, would grow into a major role. From starting as corporate counsel for the company, I now hold a position with tremendous weight that fundamentally affects how the company does business.
My point is this: you cannot be afraid to pursue your goals relentlessly, but you should also take the time to consider your options and not immediately disregard any, because it could very well make a huge difference to your future. Don’t discount something that may open a door for you, because you never know where it will lead.
Take the time to enjoy yourself.
It is much harder to practice than it is to preach, but at the end of the day, you must remember to take some time to enjoy life. Despite more than a few 100-hour work weeks at the beginning of my career, and even now as I serve as Executive Vice President and General Counsel of EMC and the President of the Boston Bar Association, I seek out time to spend with my family. While it may seem difficult – perhaps nearly impossible – to do, it is important to seek out and cherish the opportunities you do have to turn your attention to personal pursuits. You never want to be in a position where you look back and regret the landmark moments or opportunities that you might have missed while you were too busy to take advantage of them at the time.
Be proud of your degree.
This above all else is true: there is not a higher calling than to be a member of the bar. As a lawyer, your job is to defend the innocent, protect the right to a fair trial, navigate disputes fairly, and see that justice in the Commonwealth is available and served correctly to all. You will be seen as a leader in the community, and people will seek you out for your expertise. Your skills and knowledge can truly change the lives of other people, and you must not underestimate how being a part of this noble profession will change your life as well. In times of difficulty or confusion, this will always be true, so take great pride in choosing this as your life’s calling.
Congratulations to all of the new lawyers who have recently passed the bar, and good luck to those yet to take it. We wish you the best, and the BBA stands ready to support you as you enter the noble profession of law.