It's hard out there for a new lawyer. It takes approximately one day to realize that, while law school taught you to pass the Bar Exam, you know nothing about how to actually practice law, how to work with a secretary, how to dress for Court, how to interact with clients, how to…. Nope, let's not go down the rabbit hole. We all know what I'm talking about.
Although my experience in the legal field is limited, I feel comfortable making the following observation: this profession is hard. The learning process is continuous, and, as the old adage goes, "there's a reason they call it 'practice.'" And the thing about the law is that, at some point, everyone was a novice, even if they won't admit it. Being at the bottom of the totem pole is intimidating, and at the forefront of our minds is to not create too much trouble, get our jobs done as efficiently as possible, and stay out of the way.
The number one piece of advice that is passed around to us new lawyers is to get a good mentor. This word "mentor" is constantly mentioned, but rarely defined or expanded upon. Finding a good mentor can be difficult when you have no idea what you should be looking for in a legal guru. Personally, I have an entire army of mentors helping me along. And they work hard. It truly does take a village.
In my experience, the key to a good mentorship is ensuring a level of comfort. In order to gracefully navigate the transition into an effective attorney, we need to be comfortable asking candid questions. Creating this level of comfort takes time and availability, and requires assurances that the relationship is valued rather than burdensome. Ultimately, when two people connect as human beings, they can connect as mentor-mentee.
After graduating law school, the career possibilities are endless. With the exception of select large firms, virtually no employers offer a formal mentorship program to help new lawyers acclimate to the practice of law. Finding and courting a good mentor is the responsibility of new lawyers, and it is impossible to overstate the importance of finding one. In order to be the well-rounded, competent attorney that we all intend to Third Quarter 2016 Across the Bar Page 9 become, at least three mentors should be recruited.
The first kind of mentor that every new lawyer is the obvious: find a partner or senior associate at your firm to mentor you. If you are a young solo practitioner, find an experienced attorney in your same practice area that you can call with the nuts-and-bolts questions. These folks know the way the practice of law works and the way your office works. Each firm has its own way of doing things, its own procedures, and its own politics. Having in close proximity a mentor who can help with office culture and with assistance on case strategy and assignments will bring a level of comfort to new lawyers. Plus, a mentor in your own office has a strong interest in seeing you succeed.
Second, I have found an incredible advantage in having my secretary mentor me. So many new lawyers start their careers with huge insecurities and end up overcompensating for it. Very few of us have ever had assistants or secretaries, and there can be a tendency to establish authority through puffery and self-importance. Do not alienate your secretary or support staff. Remember, your secretary likely has more experience than you, and you will be relying on him or her to meet deadlines and keep things organized. Motions don't file themselves. A good secretary knows things most lawyers don't about the administrative side of practicing law, and knowing these things only serves to make a better lawyer. If you do not have a secretary, or have one who is inexperienced, find a paralegal or legal secretary you are comfortable with and ask them to be your mentor.
Very few of us have ever had assistants or secretaries, and there can be a tendency to establish authority through puffery and self-importance. Do not alienate your secretary or support staff. A good secretary knows things most lawyers don't about the administrative side of practicing law, and knowing these things only serves to make a better lawyer.
My assistant has been invaluable to my development as a lawyer over the last two years. She is the person who taught me why lawyers use blue ink when I tried to sign a letter with a black pen my first week. To this day, at least twice a week, she teaches me a better way to do things to be more efficient in my work and to make both of our lives easier. I do what I can to keep her happy, because I know I'm high maintenance. All new lawyers are high maintenance.
Finally, you should find a judge that will act in a mentorship role. This can be tricky due to the ethical restrictions on judges. The judges in San Joaquin County are the friendliest judges I have experienced, and are always happy to engage with the County's newest attorneys. Court is a formidable place for young attorneys, and candid advice from a judicial officer on court etiquette and custom is a game changer. Of course, you have to be careful not to have any improper contact with a judge, but in my experience, our local judges are more than happy to offer general advice and guidance. In an abundance of caution to ensure you do not overstep, you may want to approach a judge that you do not appear in front of. Obviously, judicial assignments can change at any time, so this is by no means infallible, but a civil practitioner may get more hands-on guidance from a criminal or family court judge.
Court is a formidable place for young attorneys, and candid advice from a judicial officer on court etiquette and custom is a game changer.
Not to be forgotten among this discussion is the importance of mentoring yourself. While this is especially true for the young solo practitioner, it should not be overlooked by the new associate. Getting involved in local bar sections and Inns of Court will allow for networking with legal professionals outside your firm and give young lawyers a sense of community, which in turn expands the pool of mentors to approach with questions or concerns. Read up on the civility guidelines, subscribe to legal publications, and learn from other attorneys' war stories. Most importantly, remember that there is opportunity to be a mentor yourself; law students are always eager for the advice and counsel of young lawyers just barely on the other side of the Bar Exam. Mentoring others is a great way to learn and grow as a new attorney.
We have the benefit of practicing in a county that has a relatively small legal community. The legal profession in San Joaquin County is tight knit and cordial, which most certainly cannot be said of many counties. Experienced attorneys and judges want to see new lawyers succeed, and in my experience, are available to assist when needed. Put yourself out there, network, and find the mentorship you need to become a great lawyer. No one is going to do it for you.