We interviewed Wendy Ellen York, Of Counsel at Sheehan & Sheehan in Albuquerque, and former trial court judge in the Civil Division of the Second Judicial District Court, for the 2011 issue of Southwest Super Lawyers, and asked what advice she could give to young lawyers. Unfortunately, we couldn’t fit her entire response in the print magazine. Fortunately, we don’t have that space limitation here. So please enjoy Wendy Ellen York’s Top 12 Things She Learned the Hard Way:
1. Your reputation is everything. You have to be exceedingly careful about what you say to the court and opposing counsel. You want to be the lawyer in the courtroom who the judge trusts and knows that whatever you say, the judge can take it to the bank.
2. Take the high road. It’s really easy to get down in the mud with the other lawyers, but it is not effective advocacy and not a good way to live your life. It doesn’t get you anywhere and the judges hate it.
3. The judges know who the jerks are. Many times I would see otherwise professional lawyers start going down to level of the lawyer who’s not acting ethically or obstructing discovery. If you take the high road, the judges really know. [They know] for the most part, the lawyers who are the bad actors. That’s true in our community of one million plus people. In the even larger communities, the judges will ascertain the bad apples very quickly.
4. The best lawyers are civil to one another and simply agree to disagree. A lot of times, I think young lawyers think that if they’re jerks, that makes them the stronger advocate. That’s not the case. The best lawyers are the ones who say, “I understand your position, but I really disagree with it.” I think it was John F. Kennedy who said, “Rudeness is a weak man’s imitation of strength.”
5. Separate the lawyer from the client. A lot of times, people will assume that the lawyer and the client are the same and they’re not. When I was representing a lot of clients, I always tried to not say, “You did this or you did that,” but I would say, “Your client refused to produce this document, or your client did that,” to make sure that you’re not accusing a lawyer of doing something the client did.
6. Be a good loser. Even if you lose a motions hearing or a trial, go up to the other side, shake their hand, say they did a good job, even if it kills you do it.
7. The judge’s secretary should be treated like a goddess. The judge’s secretary has a lot of power to determine when things are set. Also, the very first thing the judge’s secretary does, if a lawyer is rude, is tell the judge. It has an impact on your relationship with the court. You should also treat your paralegal like a goddess, because chances are, if you’re a new lawyer, the paralegal knows more than you do.
8. Admit what you don’t know. The worst thing to do is to answer a question like you know it and you really don’t. I think judges respect lawyers who say, “You know, judge, I don’t know the answer to that, but if you want some supplementation, I’d be happy to go back to my office and research that.”
9. Your case is only one of many that the judge has. Anything you can do to make it easier for the judge to understand your case, the better. And anything you can do to be respectful of the judge’s and the jury’s time is really important. Not only does it increase your reputation in court, but it also makes you a better advocate. Because if you can present things promptly, are always prepared and never late and are respectful of how busy the court is, you end up getting better decisions.
10. Pick your battles. A lot of times, there would be lawyers that would come before the court on every little thing. Pretty soon they’d become like the boy who cried wolf.
11. Be true to yourself. There are so many lawyers out there who are unhappy, and I think a lot of it is because they’re in jobs that are not right for them. I always encourage young lawyers to not feel like they’re stuck, and to recognize that law expands their opportunities tremendously. Law is incredible training for so many things because you become a critical thinker who can review vast amounts of information and determine what’s important. One can practice in the traditional civil or criminal area, but there’s also business and nonprofits and government work and all kinds of things. If in their heart of hearts they’re really not happy, I encourage young lawyers to have the confidence to go and find something else for their skills.
12. The best lawyers are the ones who have a life. Having a life allows you to relate to jurors and have a better understanding of what arguments work with juries. More importantly, it’s very important to have a life separately from whether or not it would make you a good advocate or not. [Laughs]
So that’s it. Those are my 12 things.
–As told to Betsy Graca