Letter to a law school graduate

Ask Judge Smith

By Judge Layne Smith
Special to the Outlook

Dear Law School Graduate:
Congratulations – graduating from law school is a milestone! Take time to celebrate your achievement with family and friends. Tomorrow you can refocus on passing the bar exam, finding a job, and paying back student loans.
Good fortune has already smiled on you. Your chosen profession will open doors for you in private practice, public service, business and government. With continued effort and focus you can earn a good living and be a difference maker.
However, only you can decide how to live and what you want to accomplish with your career. President Kennedy said, “To whom much is given, much is expected.” Likewise, Luke the Evangelist wrote, “When someone has been given much, much will be required in return.” Luke 12:48. So, think big, aim high and realize your potential.
That being said, don’t get too full of yourself because you still have a lot to learn and there is no substitute for actual experience. Be patient, humble and pay your dues. The key to success is earning the confidence of others through sustained effort, professional growth and high achievement over an extended period of time.
Diligently protect your reputation by being honest and avoiding even the appearance of impropriety. Having good character and a reputation for fairness will serve you well. Don’t say or do anything that you wouldn’t say or do in front of your mother, your boss, a journalist or the sheriff. Likewise, be careful what you post, say or do on the internet. Social media is a double-edged sword. You can avoid scandal, prison, heartache and disbarment by following this simple advice.
People notice how you treat others, including the janitor, your paralegal, and opposing counsel. Show respect to everyone and be plain-spoken. Make it a habit to introduce yourself and network with a purpose.
Do you want to be a successful trial lawyer? Visit your local courthouse and observe how skilled lawyers and judges handle hearings and trials. Screen out and eliminate bad cases up front. Outwork your opponents, don’t overreach and adopt a style suitable to your personality.
Great trial lawyers are great storytellers! Tell simple, direct and memorable stories. Juries are more likely to return favorable verdicts if your presentation at trial involves a combination of visual, auditory and kinetic learning.
Try to listen twice as much as you speak, because when you are new you don’t have a clue. Listen to what people say and notice what they don’t say. Often their body language will verify or betray their words. Ask questions to clarify, distinguish, expose and summarize.
As an up and coming lawyer, don’t lose touch with ordinary people or lose the ability to empathize with their daily concerns. Be mindful about other people’s priorities and schedules (single moms really do need to pick their kids up from daycare at specific times!).
A good trial lawyer is a born skeptic who thinks, questions, evaluates, processes and communicates clearly. Be mindful of the words you use; otherwise, your doctorate level vocabulary will be both a gift and a curse. Craft your words to strike a chord with your target audience.
Read everything and stay current with popular culture. Learn the lyrics to songs and lines of poetry. You never know when information, a well-turned phrase, or a cultural reference will come in handy; if nothing else, it will make you more relatable. Often, in a contest between two evenly matched sides, the odds favor the one who is the most likeable and relatable.
Finally, be a community leader and stretch beyond your comfort zone. Good luck, God bless you and I hope to see you in my courtroom.
J. Layne Smith
Email questions about civics or law to askjudgesmith@gmail.com and we will talk again in two weeks.
J. Layne Smith is a Leon County Judge who handles a wide variety of criminal and civil cases. He often speaks and writes about civics, the law, our legal system, and the administration of justice.