New Lawyers Column: Good Advice from Herrmann’s Curmudgeon
By: Anna B. Peterson
After passing the bar exam, recently minted Juris Doctors become lawyers, but they still have little idea of what the practice of law will require of them. That understanding can only come through personal experience, but in the interim, fortunate new attorneys may benefit from the guidance of practiced mentors. One such mentor available to all new attorneys for the small price of a paperback book is Mark Herrmann’s curmudgeon in The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law.
Mark Herrmann’s fictitious "Curmudgeon" – a partner at a large firm who has been "practicing law for just a little too long, and… may be a little too jaded for his own good" – provides blunt, practical advice to junior associates that at times may seem elementary, but that could save new attorneys from unnecessary embarrassment and stress.
Much of the Curmudgeon’s advice will be helpful to any young attorney negotiating office interactions in a firm setting. For example, the book begins with a section on memo writing. Although much of the section is dedicated to the fundamentals of structuring and writing persuasive memoranda, it also provides helpful tidbits aimed at preventing a new associate from aggravating the senior attorneys for whom they are researching. For example, the Curmudgeon advises that if an associate does not state the holding of each case discussed in a memo, the senior attorney reading the memo will not believe the associate read and understood the holding, will be forced to go to the library and read the case, and "will not like this."
Unsurprisingly, the section, "How to Fail as an Associate" advises new associates to perform all research and writing assignments as thoroughly, thoughtfully, and carefully as possible. It also reminds them that every new assignment is an opportunity to show just how valuable they are to both that senior attorney and their firm. In the words of the Curmudgeon: "You are not a potted plant. You are valuable, and you can make yourself even more valuable. Prove to the firm that you are indispensible. We can be convinced, and it will open a world of opportunity for you."
The guide also provides advice on other office interactions, beyond those with senior attorneys. For example, "The Curmudgeonly Secretary," a section on working effectively with your assistant, should be mandatory reading for every new associate before she meets her first assistant. Advice, such as, "communicate your expectations," "keep your assistant informed," and "be kind," is not groundbreaking, but it provides a strong framework to help young attorneys cultivate long-lasting and mutually beneficial relationships with their support staff.
Several sections of the guide offer practical advice on other issues, such as taking and defending depositions, working with clients, and developing a practice. These sections are excellent food for thought for any inexperienced attorney, even if just to quell his or her nerves before undertaking an unfamiliar task.
One example is a section titled "Seven Hours Locked in a Room," in which the Curmudgeon takes on the subject of depositions. While his comments do not provide earth-shattering revelations, they absolutely served to relax the nerves of at least one new attorney before she walked into her first deposition.
Similarly, the section advising new attorneys on "How to Enter Time So That Clients Will Pay for It" delves into a topic that is never even mentioned in law school, but is a crucial, everyday task for the practicing attorney.
Overall, the book’s advice is targeted at the new attorney working as a litigator in a larger law firm. As a second-year litigation associate in one of New Hampshire’s larger firms, I have found that the Curmudgeon’s advice has already enriched my practice. At only 135 pages, however, it is worth a read for any new practitioner.
Anna B. Peterson
Anna B. Peterson is a litigation associate at Devine, Millimet & Branch, PA in Manchester, NH. She joined the NH Bar in 2011 and is a member of the NH Bar Association’s New Lawyers Committee.