Words of Wisdom for Practicing Law:

My Advice to New Lawyers

Terryl Rushing

Article by Terryl Rushing Featured Author


My daughter-in-law, Stevie, graduated from law school a few months ago. During the commencement speech, my mind began to wander (no offense, Attorney General Hood, my mind wanders whenever I sit longer than 90 seconds), and I wondered what I’d say to new law school graduates, in the unlikely event that I was ever called upon to give a commencement speech. It’s unlikely, since I think I’m practically the only member of my graduating class who is not a judge, but I guess it could happen.

I rode that train of thought back to the mid-70’s, when I started watching this strange, funny new program called Saturday Night Live. Yup, those were the early years, with Dan Ackroyd’s Coneheads, John Belushi’s Samurai Optometrist, Gilda Radner’s Emily Litella, and Garrett Morris’s hilarious sketch about spending his summer posing for the jockey statue. But one of my favorite recurring characters was Father Guido Sarducci, the editor of The Vatican Enquirer, played by comedian Don Novello.

Father Guido had an idea for a “Five Minute University.” His premise was that, five years out of college, most of us remember just a few phrases and buzzwords from our courses. For the price of a mere twenty dollars (which included tuition, cap and gown rental, graduation picture, and snacks), Father Guido could teach you everything that the average person remembers from college after five years. (At the end of the routine, he announces that he’s thinking about starting a law school next door, “You know, if you have another minute …”)

With that in mind, I toyed with the idea of a five minute commencement address, delivering the buzzwords and phrases that would turn a recent law school graduate into a successful lawyer. Unfortunately, I don’t think it can be done in five minutes, but, in ten minutes, fifteen at most, I think I can get it done, to wit:

Congratulations. You have achieved a major milestone in your life, and you have every reason to be proud. Some of you will go on from here (assuming you pass the bar exam) to private practice; some of you will go to work for private businesses; some of you will become government lawyers; some will become teachers; some of you will go into a field unrelated to law; and many of you don’t know exactly where you’re going or what you’ll become. For those of you who will be functioning as lawyers, in private practice, industry, or government, I’d like to give you some short pieces of advice:

Avoid Arrogance.

Your class is most likely about evenly divided between people who think they already know everything they need to know to become a legal superstar, and people who are scared out of their minds that they are about to be let loose on the world knowing nothing. To the first group: I don’t know who is the smartest person to ever graduate from law school — there are many likely candidates — but I’m pretty confident that person is not in this room. Get over yourselves. The legal world is full of ex law review editors, ex moot court chairmen, and ex Am Jur recipients. No matter what you did in law school, you’re never going to be the smartest person in class again. Learn humility. Learn what you don’t know. To the second group: You’re much smarter than the first group, because you know what you don’t know. You’re uninformed, but not dangerous. Law school was never intended to teach you everything, but to teach you to think like a lawyer, ask the right questions, and find the law when you need it. You’re going to be fine. And that leads to the next advice:

Ask Questions.

Older lawyers are thrilled to be asked for advice, as long as you’re not using us as a substitute for easy research. If you can find it in the rulebook or on the computer in two minutes, don’t ask. Otherwise, we’re glad to help.

Be Accountable.

Everyone reports to someone. Associates report to partners; junior partners report to senior partners; senior partners report to clients; government lawyers report to judges or agency heads; corporate lawyers report to the CEO; and the CEO reports to the shareholders. Be sure that the person to whom you report has a general idea of what you’re up to and approves of it. And here’s a tip: Whenever you have to report a problem to your boss, you become the problem, even if you’re not the one at fault. Think about it: she didn’t have a problem until you walked through her door. So never go in with just the problem. Go in with the problem and your solution. Suddenly, you’re not the problem, you’re the problem-solver.

Be Kind.

Everyone deserves dignity and respect. You should treat the building custodian just like you treat a senior partner or a judge. You should do it because it’s the right thing to do; if that’s not enough, do it because it could help you in the long run. The day that you spill coffee all over your desk, the most important person in your life becomes the one who knows where the extra rolls of paper towels are stored. That’s not likely to be a senior partner. And I’ve never seen a judge jumpstart someone else’s dead battery. Professor and author Kalu Ndukwe Kalu wrote, “The things you do for yourself are gone when you are gone, but the things you do for others remain as your legacy.” At the end of your life, you will regret hundreds of incidents where you were unkind; you will have few, if any, regrets about the times you were nice to someone.

Opposing Counsel Are People, Too.

We have a relatively small bar in Mississippi, and I’ve heard many attorneys from larger cities express envy at our informality and trust in one another. You will hear over and over, from judges, other practitioners, and bar officials that civility and professionalism go hand in hand. Let me put it in more practical terms. IT’S.A.SMALL.BAR. The next time you elect the nuclear option for dealing with the lawyer on the other side, don’t be surprised to find yourself, at a later date, sitting next to him at a PTA or Bar meeting, or worse — in front of him at church.

Respect Your Clients.

For us, another case is another case. But think about the non-lawyer members of your family. How many of them have ever been involved in a lawsuit as a party or as a witness? Hardly any, right? For a layperson, a lawsuit or an appearance in court is a big, hairy deal. Be compassionate to these people – they’re nervous; they’re scared; they’re bewildered. Treat every case like it’s the most important one you’ve ever had. Back in chambers, or later at the gym, you can joke with the other lawyer and the judge. But a cavalier approach in front of your client — whether in a meeting, a deposition, or a hearing — is the functional equivalent of wearing cut-offs to your grandmother’s funeral. Don’t do it. On the other hand,

Set Boundaries.

You’ll find out early on that people in general, and clients in particular, want you to shoulder the responsibility for resolving their problems. That’s not necessarily your job. Your job is to give your clients legal advice and assistance, to the best of your ability, but their problems are … well, their problems. Sometimes, the legal assistance you give them can fix what’s wrong; sometimes it can’t. If you can’t, under the law, make their issues disappear, you have to give them back. That epiphany came in the middle of a sleepless night, when I realized that, in one of the very few divorce cases I took, my client didn’t want a divorce; she wanted body parts. She got the divorce, but I couldn’t give her what she wanted. As she marched out of the courtroom disappointed, I realized that she had to resolve that issue on her own.

Keep in Touch.

The most common complaint clients have about their lawyers is that they never hear from them. Really? In the age of Instagram, people don’t communicate? Always respond to phone calls, emails, letters, texts or inquiries that come in any other form from your clients. Unless you’ve assured your client that his case is a slam dunk (please tell me you didn’t do that), he’s prepared for the fact that there may be bad news as well as good. Bad news isn’t going to get any more palatable by your sitting on it. In fact, develop a routine of sending regular updates to your clients, even if it’s just to say that nothing has happened. When you start ignoring your clients, you’re one step closer to bar discipline.

Find Your Spiritual Core.

You may belong to a traditional Christian faith, a non-traditional Christian faith, a non-Christian faith, or have no faith practice at all. No matter. A distinct moral code goes a long way toward keeping our bar licenses intact and us out of the federal pen. It doesn’t matter whether your code comes from Catholicism, Islam, Taoism, Buddhism, or humanist philosophy, find one and incorporate it into your life.

Admit Mistakes.

It is almost always easier to fix something that was done wrong than it is to fix something that was not done at all. When in doubt, do the best job you can, file something, and hope that you can amend it later. It’s also almost always easier to fix something immediately than it is to delay. Some problems may ultimately disappear, but don’t count on yours being one of those. Own up to your mistakes; we’ve all made them. If you’re like me, some of your best war stories will come from the abysmally stupid things you’ve done: painful at the time, but funny later. As the Greek poet Aeschylus wrote, “He who learns must suffer.” You will not only survive your mistakes, you will learn from them.

Control Yourself.

Men — get that testosterone under control. It’s not about you; it’s about your client. Turning over a table during a mediation might say a lot about your vaunted temper, as well as your strength-training regimen, but it will not advance your client’s cause. Histrionics, screaming matches, and temper tantrums have no place in legal practice. Women — get that estrogen under control. I don’t care how cute you are, six-inch stilettos are not appropriate court attire; neither is a skirt one-and-a-half sizes too small. You want to come into court looking like you’ve got a firm grasp on the law, not a pole.


Graduating from law school is a huge accomplishment, and you deserve a huge celebration. But take a designated driver with you; a DUI, or worse, is not a great beginning to your legal career. Let’s have a great time tonight and let’s get everyone home safely. Congratulations, and thanks for asking me to share your day.

So that’s it; I’ve timed it, and it takes about thirteen minutes, which should make it very popular to those who value brevity in presentations. This speech is available, by the way, for use by other commencement speakers, for the incredible bargain price of twenty dollars. And I’ll throw in the snacks.