Paying Your Dues, Done Right

It’s often said that new lawyers need to “pay their dues” before stepping up to greater responsibility.

What the dues are can vary depending on what sort of practice setting you’re in.  For BigLaw associates, the dues might be late nights document reviewing, researching on Westlaw, and preparing documents for filing.  For prosecutors, it might be a busy misdemeanor docket.  Whatever it is, the dues are the scut work of the legal world.  In this post: A little bit about what dues shouldn’t be, why you have to pay them, and how to do them right. 

Start with what paying your dues shouldn’t be.  Dues shouldn’t be hazing.  You shouldn’t have to do menial tasks, at abysmal hours, with fake fire-drill deadlines, simply because that is what your partners or bosses did in their day.  If it doesn’t need doing or doesn’t need doing right now, it shouldn’t be done simply because someone thinks it builds character. 

Nonetheless, I am a supporter of dues.  And here is why:  No matter how much raw talent you may have as a new lawyer, what you don’t have is wisdom.  By wisdom, I mean the “feel” for law an attorney acquires from doing it for years.  A new lawyer may be able to tell you the considerations governing a motion to compel.  A wise lawyer will be able to tell you that Judge Smith is likely to split the difference by allowing half of the requested depositions because he’s appeared in front of Judge Smith for a decade. 

How does a new lawyer make up for the lack of wisdom and bring value to his team?  Paying dues.  Doing the more-menial tasks, working the late nights, and essentially substituting sweat for experience.  Dues are how lawyers provide value despite having only a very formal knowledge of the law. 

To make a crude economic analogy:  Dues are the new attorney’s comparative advantage.  Your supervisor can likely research cases or write a brief better you can (though some more-senior attorneys lose those skills as they become more senior).  But they still have you do it—rather than do it themselves—because at a certain level of seniority, attorneys are paid for their wisdom rather than their ability to craft a Boolean search string or do the first draft on a statement of facts. 

So how can you make the most out of paying your dues?

First, realize that dues are how you contribute to your team and how you pick up—through proximity and repetition—the wisdom that will allow you to offer nuanced advice based on your experience in the future.  And you should be learning.  For example, you shouldn’t just be mindlessly compiling trial exhibits.  You should know what the trial strategy is and how the exhibits fit into that strategy.  It is how you learn and how you can do your job in the most-helpful way possible.  Dues aren’t just—or shouldn’t be just—needless suffering. 

Second, be of good cheer about dues.  Because you do not have the experience through repetition of doing the tasks you have been assigned, you will likely make mistakes.  Many, many mistakes.  In many different permutations.  Enthusiasm, good humor, hustle, and dedication is what makes people still want to work with you, even when the inevitable stumbles happen. 

Third, dues are important!  The little stuff matters.  Take knowing the local rules in a court, classic dues paying for a junior associate.  You are working on an opening brief in support of a motion to dismiss, and the senior associate proposes to cut a discussion, saying “we’ll save it for the reply.”  But many courts don’t allow replies as of right in support of motions.  Knowing that—and telling the senior associate that—may well change your entire strategy for the brief.  Or suppose you know that motions in a particular court requires certain statements about meet-and-confers and formatting.  If you can save a brief from getting bounced, that is real value that you are adding to your team. 

Fourth, because you don’t have wisdom, you need to be fastidious about citation and documentation for the recommendations you make.  A wise senior attorney can confidently say, “In my experience, the agency is likely to approve the application,” and have no citation follow that sentence.  An attorney paying dues needs to say, “In the last three applications like ours, the agency has approved the application,” and provide citations for each. 

Finally, dues and wisdom are relative.  We’ve generally talked about the dues that a brand-new attorney pays, but the dues differ as you go up the ladder, as does the wisdom you acquire.  A mid-level associate may have some wisdom on court procedure, but may be paying dues in preparing witnesses for trial.  A senior associate may be wise on managing omnibus pretrial submissions but paying her dues on handling witnesses during trial.  And a junior partner may be wise on the nuts-and-bolts of trial, but paying his dues on developing and attracting clients.   

You pay dues and acquire wisdom throughout your career.  It doesn’t stop when you become a mid-level associate or even when you make partner. 

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