Volume 19, Number 6
September 2002


A Lawyer's First Year

By William A. Pepper

For many law school students, everything in their life to this point has been done with one goal in mind: graduating from law school to become a trained lawyer. It has been a long journey, an often challenging, occasionally scary, path.

After three years of law school, with all its backbreaking work, impossible deadlines, and countless hoops to jump through, you would think you'd be ready for anything. But, frankly, you're not. You will learn very quickly exactly why they call what lawyers do "practice." Laws change. Clients change. Our duties and responsibilities to clients and the profession change. There is always something new to learn. New lawyers go through many stages and identity crises during the first year of practice.

When you first embark on the practice of law, not only do you not know where the courthouse is, you don't really know what to do once you get there. Much of the first year is spent learning the basics of the areas of law in which you practice-getting comfortable with how the laws work individually and collectively and advising clients or drafting memos to that mysterious unseen senior partner or judge you clerk for. There are also countless office procedures-working with technology, budgeting time and billing hours, interviewing clients-that have to be learned and mastered.

More time is eaten up by just trying to figure out how to draft a petition, how to answer one, when to file motions, and what to do if a motion is filed by the opposing party. To make things worse, an inordinate amount of time goes into figuring out how many people are supposed to get copies of whatever it is you're filing with the court.

All this, before you even enter the courtroom. There, you have to deal with striking the right tone with the judge, where to sit, when to stand, and when to be quiet. Even if you're not a trial lawyer but represent clients in administrative hearings with government agencies, you have to master each agency's different requirements.
By the end of law school, students are pretty good at reading judicial opinions and discerning different judges' styles and reasoning. They also know a lot of legal vocabulary to impress the family. But even passing the bar may not help in a practical sense. Studying for the bar exam teaches you to take broad legal principles and apply them to a fairly generic hypothetical. In practice, you will be trying to apply the law to a real person who does not easily fit into a generic hypothetical. You'll be building cases, drafting motions, making arguments, reading statutes, and applying them in hopes of furthering your clients' interests.

It's not just theory anymore. You're participating in playing out legal concepts for real, and real facts are rarely as much fun as hypotheticals. At some point, the grind will get to you. Phone calls, musty old law books, angry opposing counsel, angrier clients. You'll start to wonder why you ever wanted to practice law in the first place.

Just when you think you have made the biggest mistake of your life, the clouds will open. It could be anything-you suddenly understand a tricky interpretation that had eluded you, or a client thanks you and is genuinely grateful. Whatever it is, it makes you feel good. It makes you think, "Hey, maybe this law thing isn't so tough." Then pretty soon, you get something else right. You win a case. Your supervisor starts asking your opinion and doesn't seem to think you're a complete moron.

As your first year progresses, your confidence will grow, and the occasions for you to pat yourself on the back will increase. But so will the number of questions. The more you learn, the more you find you don't know very much. The key is that your questions will be more informed.

People study law for a lot of reasons. One major reason is the fact that the practice of law is dynamic. Sometimes, the workload can seem like a grind-but no day is ever exactly the same as the one before. I wouldn't trade an hour of my first year for anything.

William A. Pepper, a 1996 graduate of the University of Iowa College of Law, is a staff attorney with the Legal Services Corporation of Iowa in Ottumwa. This article is adapted from one previously printed in Student Lawyer.


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