Associate Advice, Books

Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks

Grover Cleveland is the author of Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: The Essential Guide to Thriving as a New Lawyer, an advice book for attorneys published earlier this year. As a partner at Foster Pepper PLC, one of the Northwest’s largest law firms, he helped many new attorneys learn how to practice law. While at Foster Pepper, he was named a Rising Star for three years in a row by Washington Law and Politics magazine.

Grover now holds an environmental policy position in Seattle. In this role, he has seen the world from the client’s perspective. This broad range of experience both as a supervising attorney and as a client gives him a unique perspective on the skills new lawyers need to succeed. (Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks also incorporates the wisdom of dozens of other lawyers that he interviewed in the course of his research.)

Earlier this week, we chatted with Grover about his book, advice he offers to young lawyers, and the state of the law firm economy, among other topics.

ATL: Your book offers career advice for young lawyers. Tell us about your own career path.

I went to college at Washington University in St. Louis. Then I was a reporter for a business newspaper, and I worked in public relations. Then I went to law school at St. Louis University. I was a summer associate at Foster Pepper in Seattle. I went to the firm after graduation, and I became a partner there. My practice was corporate, focusing primarily on large public infrastructure transactions, but also involved litigation, because there is usually some litigation over most large public projects. I left the firm about six years ago to work for King County in an environmental policy position –- and to work on my writing.

ATL: Why did you decide to write a book?

Well, it’s always been on my life list. When I started practicing law, I was surprised at how abrupt the transition was. I was surprised at how I had to go out, find my own work, and also hit my billable requirements.

I had actually started writing a book right after college, on the transition from college to the real world. Then I ended up going to law school, and that project ended up falling by the wayside. But this type of book was always in the back of my mind.

I started taking notes for the book fairly early on in my career. I think there’s material in there dating from my third day on the job!

ATL: Where did you come up with the idea for the book?

I felt that people could learn from my experiences. As I progressed in my practice, I began to mentor more associates. I saw that sometimes there’s a pattern of mistakes that associates make. I felt that I could really help associates avoid some of these pitfalls if I wrote about them.

ATL: How long did it take you? When did you find the time to write?

I got serious about actually writing the book about three years ago. I would try to do half an hour every day after work. Sometimes that worked; sometimes it didn’t. I also took a couple of trips to fun, faraway places, so I could have a big chunk of time to do writing. I actually got the title of my book while on one of these trips.

ATL: How did you come up with the title?

I was in Costa Rica, sitting outside, overlooking this gorgeous bluff. I was working on my laptop. Another guest came up to me and told me I shouldn’t be working on my vacation.

I explained to him that I was actually working on a career advice book for young lawyers. He said to me, “What are you going to call it? Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks?”

I paused for a moment , thought about it, then said: “I am now!”

ATL: What kind of feedback have you received so far?

The book was published at the end of January, and people have been very positive. When I was working on the book, I actually sent it around to a lot of different lawyers, and the comment from almost all of the younger ones was: “Wow, I wish I had had this before I started practicing.”

People have said that it’s an easy, enjoyable read –- and I took great pains to make it so. I wanted to make it lighthearted but also provide solid information.

ATL: A significant number of our readers are young lawyers. If you could give them a few tips, what would you say?

First, you have to take charge of your own career from the start, and realize that no one else is going to do it for you. There’s no one particular path to success. If there’s a kind of law that you want to practice, you need to make sure that you start practicing it. If you feel that you need to set boundaries, you need to do that yourself. You need to make sure that your career is working for you, from day 1.

The second most important thing is to do what you can to make yourself indispensable to more senior lawyers. In this economic climate, where some law firms are still looking to cut, you need to do what you can to make sure that there’s someone at the firm who will say about you in a meeting, “If so-and-so isn’t working for me, I can’t do my job.” That’s one sure way to make sure you stay employed. The way to do this is to anticipate other lawyers’ needs. Find a couple of areas where you are a superstar and will excel. It might be research. It might be technology, where younger lawyers have an advantage.

A third thing is to remember that what you do reflects on the firm. You need to be much more aware of what you put on your Facebook page, or what you might or might not put on Twitter, or put in email. For example, look at the recent controversy over the Harvard email.

ATL: You alluded to law firms making cuts, and how young lawyers need to look out for themselves in this environment. What’s your general take on the current state of the law firm world?

I was thinking about how the age of excess in the law firm world is over, and how it’s incumbent upon lawyers to make themselves shine. A former partner at Heller told me, before the firm imploded, “This is hubris, but we’re all going to the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, for a big firm-wide retreat.”

A few months later, the firm was gone. Those kinds of perks and that kind of ostentation are not the norm anymore. Associates are expected to work without complaint.

ATL: And what does the future of the law firm world look like?

With respect to training, firms are taking two different tracks, but there’s not mutually exclusive.

You’ve covered the approach that Howrey and other firms are taking, which is more of an apprenticeship model. There’s a move towards law firms providing more training because clients are increasingly unwilling to pay for training and to pay for first-year associates.

The other approach: if a young lawyer isn’t working out, cut the lawyer quickly. There are fewer second chances.

ATL: One last question. Is your name really Grover Cleveland?

My name is Grover Cleveland. I was named after my grandfather, who was named after the president. But there’s no blood relation.

Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks [official website]
Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: The Essential Guide to Thriving as a New Lawyer [Amazon]

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