GPSolo Magazine - July/August 2004

What A Young Lawyer Needs From A Law Firm

Yes, it is true. The most uncomfortable, invasive part of law school is being intellectually reprogrammed. The process can be identity shaking. Just ask anyone who knew a lawyer both before and after law school. We change. The reality is that, however brilliant, new associates enter the workforce in a stage of law-school-imposed-infancy. Our new, law-school-calibrated eyes distort the outside world, and what was once familiar may no longer be so. Our first employers have the unique opportunity to look at the world through our eyes, help us to hone our new tools so that what we see is clearly in focus, and enable us to maximize our potential as attorneys. We ask a great deal of these teachers and role models.

The rub? Attorneys are not known to be an empathic lot. In addition, supervising attorneys are submerged in their own practices. Guiding new lawyers necessarily takes a back seat to serving their own clients. And, when they do find time and energy to assist us, we, at times, frustrate them, try their patience, and cause them to wonder why they ever made the decision to take us on. But if they are tenacious, knowledgeable about our needs, and committed to their own mentoring obligations, we will reward them in immeasurable ways.

The Stages of Identity Development for New Attorneys. With my apologies to my learned and intellectual fellow new associates (and to Erik Erikson, a psychosocial development theorist who identified stages through which humans pass as they mature from birth to adulthood), I suggest that our early needs from our legal employers are closely akin to our early needs from our parents. It’s a scary world. Here is what we need from you, Supervisor, to establish our identity as Attorneys at Law.

Year One: Trust vs. Mistrust. Consistency and dependability are our most basic needs. Answer our questions no matter how basic. Understand that there is a reason we are asking basic questions, and it is not lack of intelligence. In addition to our lack of confidence in our abilities, we are testing your availability and the compatibility of our communication skills. Be there. The investment will be worth it. Understand that we have separation fears that go hand in hand with accomplishment and success. Do not abandon us when we do good work. We are not ready.

Year Two: Autonomy vs. Doubt. We are now in our “terrible twos.” We have what Erikson calls “an emerging autonomous will.” Know what limits to set without inhibiting our sense of autonomy. Oversetting limits will lead to a restrained, uncomfortable new Associate. Help us to understand that your rules and boundaries protect our behavior as much as they limit it. Our disobedience of the rules and our resultant “failure” will cause pervasive doubt in our abilities. Explain. Be patient. Remain calm. Accept our complaints as normal reactions to your exerting necessary controls.

Year Three: Initiative vs. Guilt. We have the ability and confidence to imagine, initiate, and explore new projects and endeavors. Support our involvements outside the basic practice. Allow us to network and otherwise begin to establish a name. We are becoming confident. If we can imagine something, we are sure we can do it. Be warned that we may overreach. Our conflict: We fear the new power and lack of impulse control we are experiencing. We are at times plagued by guilt because we are “pretending” to know what we are not sure we know. Validate what we know. Continue to teach us what we don’t know.

Year Four: Industry vs. Inferiority. We are mastering the learning of the basic skills of the culture. We comfortably define ourselves as attorneys and, we dare say, good ones. Self-satisfaction is felt through our accomplishments. Failure here results in a sense of inferiority. Provide us with the cultural norms. Accept us as members. But be ready to catch us when we suffer setbacks. Encourage our growth.

Year Five: Identity vs. Role Confusion. Erikson defines identity as the ability to see oneself as having “continuity and sameness.” We now trust our lawyer-selves to consistently think and act as we expect to think and act. Distancing ourselves from authority figures is necessary for continued development. Let us go. We are ready.

Kirsten A. Keegan is early in her third year of practice as an associate at Loeb & Herman, S.C., in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where she practices family law exclusively. She can be reached at Ms. Keegan wishes to take this opportunity to thank attorneys Gregg M. Herman and Leonard L. Loeb (posthumously) for their knowledge, patience, constructive criticism, boundary setting, and unconditional support.



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