Some Advice to the New, or Soon to be Lawyer
Your first year as a lawyer will be one of the most stressful you will ever face.6 min read
Your first year as a lawyer will be one of the most stressful you will ever face.
No, that's not quite right. Your first year as a lawyer will be the most stressful you will ever face. Even your first year in law school won't quite compare, because there, at least, you were your own taskmaster. You could in some small way control the day-to-day goings-on in your frantic rush to master those Byzantine rules of law swirling about. In real law, you'll have no such luxuries.
Well, that's not quite right, either. You will have fairly broad minute-by-minute control over your workday, but at a steep price: the pressure on you to rack up the hours and finish the rapid procession of projects will make each of those minutes seem like ungrateful brats zooming past. As young professionals in every discipline soon learn, your life is not your own.
Physicians are expected to attend to their patients based upon the exigencies of medicine and chronic understaffing, not a clock. Editors are captives to the tempo of similar clocks, while accountants count to the rhythm of snootier brethren, calendars, to meet periodic deadlines, which only serve to focus the energies of workaholic executives, who take their frustrations out on overworked, underappreciated, and unrealistically deadlined engineers. Few are spared. And you. You will be expected to serve the needs of your clients.
This is both better--and worse--than it sounds. Better because being King's counsel has its privileges. Worse because the King can be--and often is--both demanding and unforgiving. In this legal feast, surviving the peril of Damocles is tricky, at best.
I want to tell you what you will face because, in part, no one ever told me. My first year as a junior associate was miserable, not only because of the stress inherent to the experience, which I truly didn't mind, but also because of the uncertainty that came with a nearly complete lack of guidance, which I did.
I had been a Texas Law Review editor, which did little to ease my initiation to law practice. In some ways, it made things worse. Thus, one justification for this book is that ever-familiar concept of notice. (Our profession is one of the worst violators of this doctrine, which we happily foist on others.)
Despite--or perhaps because of--my many missteps, this book should prove helpful to you, the eager new law graduate, who, with your compatriots, will populate law offices of all varieties from sea to shining sea. Whether in big firms, small firms, courts, agencies, corporate suites, or the military, the principles in this book apply to all.
In all immodesty, these principles apply as well to the initiation process that is the hallmark (if not the watermark) of the rites of passage in each young professional's life, whatever the chosen discipline.
For convenience, and as a slave to the law of averages, you'll read about firms, firms, firms. The archetypal big law firm is the model here and in life. Most places are less formal, thankfully. As will be your responsibility in life, however, you must adapt to meet your environment as it meets you. (If you don't, you'll be astounded at the jungle's quenchless capacity to overtake any attempt to contain it.) Thus, a worst-case legal scenario for the most hearty pessimist.
So look to The Firm, if only because it, as an only partially cloaked money-grubbing service business, tends to exacerbate the stresses inherent in the transition from law school graduate to lawyer. Still, you ADAs and PDs and O-2s and GSP-11-1s out there are, or will be, in a world of enigmatic wonder as you struggle to get your law legs.
Even if you do discover a legal paradise, where you're treated with smiles and kindness every day, take your motto from the Boy Scouts: Be prepared. (If you are off on a divergent--and often vastly more interesting--path, just picture a law firm facade describing your gallant efforts.)
You're not a lawyer when you graduate from law school. You're not even a lawyer after you pass the bar exam and're admitted to the bar. When you can face a client or an opponent--or a judge--without an overwhelming urge to throw up... then you're a lawyer.
The assumption among most partners (reinforced by their existence) is that, if you are worthy, you'll divine what is right (if, indeed, you don't already magically possess it). That's bullshit. Damned few young JDs have what it takes from the word GO, and those few who do may be more--not less--prone to trouble by their precociousness. A fairer demand by partners would be a smooth and speedy transition from legal idiot to dependable (and profitable) junior partner. In this rarely smooth (and always sluggish) transition, most suffer in silence.
Although no maturation process can be cleansed to painlessness, the one in law is especially caustic. Feedback, when (...or if) it comes, is often too late, too demeaning, and too spiteful. Or, perhaps worse, too shyly given; we lawyers can be a dense lot.
Sometimes, it's negligently overlooked. Yet new associates who are told they took a wrong turn aren't even given a map to know where the turn was.
Here's a map. Part of a winning strategy is being lucky and wise enough to find and cultivate a mentor--a legal patron saint--to assist you in this transition. Part of your job is to reduce the importance of luck in that strategy. Although luck may be a large part of every success, many bones are tossed in each career. It's up to you to recognize them as they arc past, snatch them from the air, and bury them in your own secret little part of the legal backyard. That's what'll separate the prized greyhounds from the unwanted mutts.
You can take the easy road, or the hard one. This is the easy one; life is hard. Trust me. No, don't trust me. Instead, think back to your own hard-learned lessons in life. Though you may not have listened, chances are someone who could see from a better vantage was warning you of the shoals. Don't let 'em sink you before you've even been out to sea.
In the beginning, all are ignorant. Relax. There's a first time for everyone. Sure, you need to learn, and learn well. Just don't let your anxieties run you aground before you've mastered the currents.
This book may, at times, seem a little pedantic. Perhaps the best plea is nolo contendere. OK, OK... Guilty. In making you into a proper young partner omelette (sans fromage if you prefer), I might break (or at least crack) the occasional legal egg or two. Indulge me.
One more note. I will generally use the masculine pronoun he-not he or she, s/he, or he and she alternating like nervous contrarians. I'll also take advantage of handy, if sexist, references to the law and her many features. I like to think I'm not a sexist pig. But literary egalitarianism is anathema to concise writing (... not that I'm guilty of concision), historically not quite as objectionable as our modern ear hears, and a bore. Before the fifty or so percent of you out there sharpen your knives, I'm a testosterone-modified feminist, so don't slice, dice, or lecture.
Oh. I also, sometimes, play a little fast and loose with grammar. Lighten up. Rules must be known, if only to have a reference with which to play. As you may read between the lines, such playfulness is both an allegory to the world of law (you must learn the Rules before bending them)... and a heresy to be soundly suppressed during your first years as an attorney.
Excerpted from The Young Lawyer's Jungle Book, by Thane Josef Messinger, a graduate of the U. of Texas Law School, where he was an editor of the Texas Law Review.
Copyright 1996, The Fine Print Press
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