For Young Lawyers: 8 Lessons from 40 Years of Law Practice 

By Leesa Bohler


Ask anyone who’s recently retired from the practice of law and he or she will have some stories to share. Lessons learned from years, even decades of practice. Typically, these lessons aren’t taught in law school but rather learned on the job.


I recently retired from the full-time practice of law to focus on alternative dispute resolution (ADR). I mediate personal injury and workers’ compensation claims and have been revisiting what I learned from my law career. With that in mind, I offer eight legal practice lessons for today’s new attorneys.


Build Bridges Instead of Burning Them 

The fact was that in the 1980s, when I started practicing, people were still getting used to the idea of female lawyers — a relatively new phenomenon — including older jurists. When a male colleague and I were sworn in by a judge in his 70s, he shook my colleague’s hand to congratulate him but embraced me in a bear hug! It was such a happy occasion and happened so fast that I could not protest.


Times have changed, and most young female lawyers don’t have to worry about being called “honey” or “sweetie” by older male attorneys. But when a male lawyer addressed me as “honey,” I would respond by addressing him as “sugar britches.” We usually ended up laughing, but I made my point. If someone says or does something you find offensive (and at some point, someone probably will!), respond to it thoughtfully. A kneejerk reaction is often the wrong play when a measured response may be more effective.


Treat Everyone You Work with Well 

Lawyers usually respect other lawyers. But what about everyone else you encounter in your practice? Treat the clerks, administrative assistants, court reporters, and other courthouse staff with the same respect. They are the gatekeepers of the justice system.


I recommend going the extra mile and expressing appreciation for all courthouse personnel, staff, and opposing counsel’s assistants and staff. A simple “thank you” goes a long way. Taking the time to learn an assistant’s name, looking him or her in the eye, and calling the person by name is a sign of respect. As Maya Angelou said, people may not remember what you said, but they will remember how you made them feel. These gatekeepers can make you or break you in the practice of law.


The same lesson applies to your firm coworkers, down to the cleaning people. Do it because it is the right thing to do. Also, a firm employee, including your legal assistant, can make your life easier or make it harder. It is human nature for people to be more inclined to help you when they don’t have to if they like you and you have been nice to them.


Build Relationships with Opposing Counsel — and Witnesses 

We Southerners have a saying: “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”  As a general rule, it is smart to get along with your opponents. It is professional to cooperate as much as possible, when possible, without affecting your client’s rights. I usually got more from witnesses on cross-exam if I developed a rapport with them, asked polite questions, and treated them respectfully than I did when I attacked or challenged them at the beginning of my questioning. Some witnesses may require impeachment, but for the most part, “playing nice” with opposing counsel and opponents goes a long way toward ultimately getting what you need or want.


Remember, “what goes around, comes around.” Treat opposing counsel the way you want to be treated. If you refuse to agree to opposing counsel’s request for continuance or additional time to respond when he or she has legitimate grounds for their request, you will most likely see that attorney again in that case or another when you have a similar request.


If You Make a Mistake, Address it Immediately

Other than missing a statute of limitations or another statutorily imposed deadline, most mistakes in the practice of law can be corrected if you jump through the right hoops. Ignoring or hiding the problem or hoping it will go away will not fix the issue and can make it worse. Report to your mentor, superior, or managing partner immediately if you miss a legal deadline or make some other mistake like “replying all” to an email meant for a client only.


Stay in Your Lane

Lawyers today specialize in certain areas of the law. There are no real “general practitioners” anymore because most attorneys realize their limitations and the inability to be an expert in all areas. When I was a workers’ compensation administrative law judge, I was amazed at the number of attorneys who would file a workers’ compensation claim and appear before me at a hearing without any prior work comp experience. If you don’t have experience in a particular niche, refer that case to a fellow member of the bar who handles these claims routinely.


Use Your Law Degree to Help the Less Fortunate

You probably went to law school because you wanted to make a good living as an attorney. I suggest that you also use your legal knowledge to give back. Take a pro bono case through Georgia Legal Services, serve as board counsel for a nonprofit, volunteer to coach a team or judge the local high school mock trial competition. The satisfaction of helping those who really need an attorney and would not have one if not for you is immeasurable and unparalleled. It takes time, but it is gratifying, and lets you network and build your business while you help make the world a better place.


Create Relationships with Your Peers 

Show up at your firm’s holiday party wearing the “ugly sweater.”  Join the local bar association and the young lawyers’ section and attend their monthly luncheons, happy hours, and other events. Get involved with the State Bar of Georgia practice sections or serve on a bar committee. Your fellow bar members know what you have been through and what are going through and “get you” more than anyone outside our profession has or ever will. You need someone to commiserate with professionally and to share good times as well as bad. You may find out you like your annoying opposing counsel!  Some of my best and lasting friendships have been forged through the Savannah Bar, the State Bar of Georgia, and the workers’ compensation section.


Consider ADR 

Finally, I encourage new attorneys to consider ADR as an option to traditional litigation. In addition to email and cell phones, mediation is probably the best thing that has happened to the practice of law in the past 40 years. That is why I now serve as a full-time mediator. The process is less stressful, less expensive, and healthier for the parties than full-blown litigation in most cases.


Mediation works in most cases because it lets all the involved parties sit down together and focus on the case at hand — without distractions or wait time. The mediator, an independent neutral, is there to help move the process toward resolution if the parties get bogged down.


While there will always be cases that need to go to trial, and there will always be a need in our system for judges and juries, in my experience, mediation is the best way to resolve a dispute for most cases. And it only took me almost 40 years to figure that out!



About Leesa Bohler

Leesa Bohler

Leesa Bohler practiced law for more than 22 years specializing in insurance defense litigation, including personal injury and workers’ compensation, with an additional 16 years as an Administrative Law Judge for the Georgia State Board of Workers’ Compensation in Savannah. After an impressive career in the courts, Leesa was excited to retire from her law practice in December 2021 to become a full-time mediator for Miles Mediation in Savannah.