Mid-Career Reflections on Advice Received and What Being a Good Lawyer Means

Nathan Smith

Article by Nathan Smith Featured Author


I have received some good, bad, and “it depends” advice over the years.

I was very fortunate to start my career as a law clerk for (now) Chief Judge Donna Barnes on the Mississippi Court of Appeals. Judge Barnes taught me the importance of considering all of the facts presented without jumping to conclusions. I still remember late nights and weekend work as we would sometimes swing like a pendulum between appellant and appellee before arriving on a decision. I learned firsthand the seriousness of the work, since our decisions could result in the incarceration of individuals, or loss of multimillion dollar civil jury verdicts.

When I began private practice, some of the first advice I was given was “you have to be greedy to get ahead.” Yes, that is a quote, not a paraphrase. Yikes. It may be true, I don’t know, but I have spent my career being wary of greed. I’m also wary of hoarding work for myself instead of delegating it to others and helping them to be successful. I do know that to be successful, you must “own” your work. I’ve heard this ad nauseam, and I bet you have too. But it is true: you must make yourself responsible for the work you have, and there is a lot to be responsible for in law. Communicate with your clients, meet your deadlines, do quality work. You are responsible for these things.

Another quote passed down to me was “the key to a good night’s sleep is a clean conscience.” Perhaps, but there have been plenty of nights when I had a clean conscience and couldn’t fall asleep. Also, I’ve seen plenty of lawyers who have a false clean conscience. Regardless, I think the kernel of truth here is to trust your gut. If something feels wrong, really dig into the work you’re doing and figure out where the feeling is coming from. Sometimes you sort it out and it’s no biggie. But if you exhaust every avenue and it still feels bad, don’t do it. Pump the brakes. Even if it costs you fees, your salary, your job.

Last but not least, I was told one time “it doesn’t matter how long I have practiced, I get humbled every day.” To this I would like to respond, “same here.” Always be vigilant, never be complacent. And when you are humbled — which you will be  —  treat it as a learning experience. Defending ego in the face of contrary evidence looks bad on a lawyer, and it is evident to all parties involved. Your job is to find solutions to your clients’ problems, not give off the appearance of a perfect lawyer.

  1. Nathan is a licensed attorney and the Deputy Director of Government Services at Horne, LLP.