From my sophomore year of high school through my first year of law school, I bussed tables, served entrees and endured the occasional disgruntled customer who liked to take a week’s-worth of frustration out on poor, unassuming servers.
Like the legal world, working at a restaurant is sometimes surreal. The days and nights are long, the people are anxious and the operation never stops. A recent encounter with a young law student, who happens to be waiting tables to pay for school, reminded me of those early days. There were many nights, he said, when he’d come home tired, irritated and temped to quit, suggesting that it was not helping him get where he wanted to go with respect to the law.
But there are benefits of enduring late night harangues and doing the so-called grunt work that you won’t learn anywhere else. I’m convinced that the principles of the restaurant world have made me a better, more humble lawyer. The lessons that I learned while working at a restaurant have been equally if not more valuable to the approach I take with regard to my practice.
For any discouraged law students or pre-law students working the late shift at the local diner, steakhouse or fast-food joint, I share with you the practical and translatable lessons of the serving experience that can help you achieve your goals as a future attorney.
Be patient and stay organized
I didn’t start off as a waiter. I was a small gear in a big machine. I was cleaning dishes well before I was given an opportunity to join the wait staff. Even then, I had to suppress my urge to leap frog the system, and it came in the form of a not-so-subtle jab at my work ethic by a bartender who decided to call me out for my over anxiousness and lack of organization.
After that, I remember spending many nights and weekends as a young law clerk training myself to sweat the small stuff. Many times, I volunteered to do tasks typically assigned to interns, which would only help when it came time for case prep. I often wonder if I hadn’t received such a stern wake-up call from my bartending friend, it would have caught up with me at the firm. And that would have been disastrous.
Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize
There are lots of competing interests in a kitchen, much like at a law firm. A chef wants customers to receive their food on a hot plate; a server needs timely clearing and bussing to keep traffic flowing at a steady pace; the bartender needs a fully stocked shelf to keep customers entertained while they’re waiting for their tables. Everyone’s got their priorities. You learn quickly that some are more important than others.
When you’re in the process of overseeing a case, you’ll find that the interests of counsel, co-counsel, opposing counsel, clients, judges and even juries are all different and demanding. Keeping pace is an art that you can and should use to your advantage. It’s a big part of what separates a bad attorney from a great one. In a process with so many variables, it’s impossible to give everything equal attention. Defining what can and can’t happen on a daily, or even hourly basis will help steady the balance of your workflow and show your colleagues that your ready for the Big League.
Be judicious and pick your battles
Remember the disgruntled customer I was talking about? He wasn’t my first and he wasn’t my last. The old adage rings true: the customer is always right. I’ve withstood my share of emotional beatings as a waiter, always with a smile. Some complaints are legitimate others are downright silly. Sometimes you have to stand up for yourself and other times it’s best to keep your feelings to yourself. I’m certainly not saying you need to get pushed around, just that there’s a time and a place for everything.
As part of your legal career, a judge will rule against you. You may be disappointed. You may even put up a fight, knowing the result isn’t going to swing in your favor. The key is sensing when to put down the sword. Odds are you’ll see the same judge more than once in your career. That’s not to say we won’t argue. In fact, that’s what attorneys are paid to do. But knowing how to pick your battles will keep your reputation in good order when it comes time for round two.
Speaking of reputation, focus on that and not the rewards
Temptation is a fact of life. A customer asks for your opinion when they’re deciding between two entrees. One is more expensive than the other, but less tasty. The second dish is cheaper and better quality. The expensive plate is guaranteed to get you a better tip. What do you do? Well, if you value repeat customers, giving them the cheaper option is likely going to benefit you in the long-run and earn you merit points with your customers.
Staying true to what you believe, as cliché as it sounds, is one of the most important tools in your arsenal as an attorney. Clients depend on your feedback, and the foundation for that feedback is a sense of trust. It’s possible you’ll find yourself in a position that allows you to take advantage of consultation fees, or maybe you risk losing a client if you don’t tell them what they want to hear. Venturing down a path in which the rewards may be significant but the path is unclear is a recipe for disaster. Taking stock of your ethical standards will preserve your integrity, and ultimately, the reputation of your practice.
Picking up the slack
You’ll likely never find a job in which you won’t ever need help. Same goes for your colleagues. This is an essential reality of the teamwork necessary to keep a good business functioning at a high level. Sometimes a busser needs help clearing tables, or a chef needs a hand with the dishes. It may not be your job, but picking up the slack pays off. I was given many opportunities to make extra cash on the weekends, thanks to a tip from a fellow server, whose shift I covered while he dealt with a family issue. By the same logic, you never know when going the extra mile will inspire other lawyers to generously refer cases to your door.