Swimming with sharks: Grover Cleveland shares some lessons for new attorneys

Attorney and author Grover E. Cleveland

Attorney and author Grover E. Cleveland

Grover Cleveland, a Seattle attorney and the author of Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: The Essential Guide to Thriving as a New Lawyer, delivered a talk at Harvard Law School on Wednesday, March 5. Cleveland’s talk, sponsored by the Program on the Legal Profession, focused on career advice for students and recent law school graduates. In a Q&A with Harvard Law Today, Cleveland offered practical tips for career success:

 Q: You were a partner at a firm, and you work with law firms; what is the one thing you hear most often that firms want from new law grads?

A: It takes many skills to become a successful lawyer, but one thing that stands out is that firms want new lawyers to understand that a firm is a business enterprise. I hear that quite often. Firms also want new lawyers to be committed to the economic success of the firm. Post-recession, that has become even more critical.

Q: What is one of the most important tips you give new lawyers just starting out on the job?

A: It is extremely important for lawyers to take responsibility for their careers early on. Lawyers have to create their own best careers, because in law, there is no single pathway to success. I recommend that all lawyers – regardless of their practice setting – think of themselves as being self-employed. That puts them in the mindset of being proactive about their careers.

Q: What are some other things that new graduates need to focus on when they are employed that are not necessarily critical for success in law school?

A: New graduates need to remember that as soon as they start work, they are building their own reputations. Their actions also reflect on their firms, and many firms have cultivated their reputations for generations. It is also important for new lawyers to focus on providing value to clients. New graduates need to translate their legal knowledge into useful advice, because clients generally will not pay for a general dissertation on the law.

Q: How is the economy impacting new grads once they are on the job?

A: Even though the economy is improving, clients are still very focused on keeping legal fees in check. Clients are saying they don’t want to pay for on-the-job training of new lawyers. In response, many law firms are providing more formal training programs, but the burden is also falling on new lawyers themselves – and law schools.

Q: Are there ways that new graduates can avoid or limit some of the more mundane tasks at law firms, such as document review?

A: New lawyers can learn from document review, and at least for litigators, most cannot avoid it. But they do need to “graduate” to more complex work, and lawyers can do that by continually enhancing their skills. Firms have an economic incentive to have their lawyers performing the highest-value work possible.

Q: How did you come up with the title of your book?

A: I took a trip to Costa Rica to get away and make significant progress on my book. My hotel was on a bluff with a beautiful view of the ocean. On the very first day, I was sitting outside working on my laptop. A hotel guest walked by and jokingly said, “You should not be working on your vacation.” I replied that I was writing a book, and the guest asked what it was about. I said that it was a career advice book for new lawyers. Without missing a beat, he said, “What are you going to call it, “Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks?” My jaw dropped, and I said, “I am now.”

Q: Are you related to Grover Cleveland, the former president?

A: As you might imagine, I do get that question frequently, but I am not related. I was named after my grandfather, who was named after the president.