Advice for the Recent Law Graduate
And, just like that, this email on the subject came into me yesterday with a relatively simply query:
If you find any time at all, I would love to hear any and all advice you would give to a recent law graduate in my situation with my goals.
My first bit of advice, of course, is to stay away from tasseled loafers. But while I’ve given advice on how to dress in the past, I don’t think that’s why my correspondent corresponded with me.
Since the type of situation/goals that the writer described in his email is my field of law I could probably write a few thousand words. Which most of you won’t read and which wouldn’t appeal at all to the non-PI lawyer readers.
So I’ll give the broader answer, for all recent grads, assuming that they have actually found a position in a significantly difficult job environment for lawyers.
And here is the nutshell version: Find a good mentor.
I write from experience. When I had my first job — after taking the bar in the summer of 1985, and finding out my results had been lost — I went to work for Fuchsberg & Fuchsberg, a large personal injury firm. Large, in a field known for solo and small practices, means about 30 lawyers or so.
I was told, when I started to work, that my secretary made more than I did. She was, after all, a hell of a lot more valuable to the firm than a know-nothing first year associate who had yet to be sworn in.
And my first supervising attorney had this to say when I started:
“For the first year, there are no stupid questions.”
And that statement was, I think, one of the best things that ever happened to me in my training. I was told, quite bluntly, to ask and re-ask and learn. Telling me that there was no such thing as a stupid question inoculated me, psychologically, from the fear of asking what I thought were really stupid questions, the answers to which everyone must know. Even if they just pretended to know.
Sure, you can read a book and get tips on taking depositions. You can take a class on trial tactics. There are form books to work from in drafting complaints and bills of particulars.
But the practice of law is a million other little things to go with it. Trying to figure out which clerks to go to to present an order to show cause, for instance, and in which order to see them, is a different kettle of fish. (Clerk one approves paper, clerk two takes money, back to clerk one to file papers, return at another time to get order, bring copy to conform your copy to original, etc. Of course, if there is no existing proceeding, you may need a completely different process. Etc., again.)
Learning how the machinery of the courthouse works, and the constant changes amid jurisdictions and how they interrelate (or not) to the actual substance of what you are lawyering about, is a never-ending process. At many firms, lawyers never learn this stuff as it is relegated to clerks, which is to say, they don’t always know how things are getting done, which is usually important if the statutory clock is ticking on a matter.
There will be a gazillion questions to ask, and the focus of the young lawyer should be to find the mentor who is open to hearing all manner of questions, foolish or not, and lets you ask those question without looking down at you.
In fact, for those who are in a supervisory position, it’s the best thing you can do for the newbie lawyer; keeping the door open to all manner of questions, no matter how trite they may seem. If there is a fear of asking questions — because the young lawyer is afraid of looking ignorant — then the mentoring process has completely failed. Big time.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that the supervisor has to give THE answer, but at least direct the young lawyer as to how to find the answer. Directing someone toward a small book on differing municipal statutes of limitations and where service can be made, or to an authoritative text on obstetrics and gynecology, can open whole new doors of learning. That which is routine for the old-timer can be bewildering for the newcomer.
And that is the best advice I can give to the new grad. And the supervising attorney. Get a good mentor. Or be a good mentor. And forget the tassels.