Congratulations! You’ve started your first legal job working with children and families. Perhaps you work for an institutional provider of legal services for children or as a prosecutor of dependency cases, or perhaps you are defending such cases on behalf of parents and guardians. Or maybe you are in private practice, and this is your first pro bono experience working on a family, immigration, or juvenile court matter. Whatever your role, your job is the same: to represent your client and seek as favorable an outcome as possible.
But you are new, or new to this area of the law, and you don’t know the ropes or who the players are, you are unsure of what your papers should look like, and you are worried about your upcoming cross-examination, client interview, witness prep, or motion. You don’t want to make a mistake, you don’t want to embarrass yourself, and you definitely don’t want to imperil your client’s legal position. You may have had some orientation training, but putting the rubber to the road at this early stage in your career is still so daunting. So what is a new lawyer to do? These universal moments of new-lawyer doubt are part of your initiation to the profession. The doubt isn’t what defines new attorneys; what they do about it is, and that sets the course for the rest of their legal careers.
Your new law license would be so much easier to manage if it came with a user’s manual, wouldn’t it? Well, there is good news: It does! You just need to know where to look. There are ethical rules, state and federal bar practice standards, continuing legal education (CLE) courses, and other resources to help guide your decision-making and skills development, but these may be of little use when you are mid-objection in your trial and need the answer to a novel question immediately, or as you count down precious minutes to a midnight electronic court filing deadline, or while you sweat through a supervision meeting with the partner overseeing the case who wants to know yesterday what you plan to do with the witness tomorrow.
As a professor, I have had the privilege of introducing many years’ worth of law students to the thrill and responsibility of their first real lawyering jobs. I have also had the opportunity to observe the most common challenges faced by these soon-to-be new lawyers. By avoiding a few key common pitfalls and keeping eyes wide open for learning opportunities (your own personal user’s manual), new attorneys can set themselves up for a creative, proactive, and skilled practice in which ongoing learning and controlled risk-taking can form the centerpiece of a very rewarding career.
1. Write Like a Lawyer
First, one of the most common challenges new lawyers face is “writing like a lawyer.” What does that phrase mean to you? Many new lawyers believe that writing like a lawyer means rendering otherwise clear prose nearly incomprehensible by using unnecessary, but perceived legal-sounding run-on sentences filled with “heretofores” and “whereases,” that some words (especially names) must be RANDOMLY CAPITALIZED, and that number words should be immediately followed by their numerical counterparts (so that “fifty days” becomes “fifty (50) days”). The problem with jargon, run-on sentences, and legalese is that your readers become so distracted trying to decode your sentence that they miss the point you are trying to make. The result is a missed advocacy opportunity.
Much has been written on the subject of writing like a lawyer who wishes to be understood, and these texts are your user manuals for legal writing. Plain English for Lawyers (Richard Wydick), Just Writing (Anne Enquist), and Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English (Patricia T. O’Connor) are just three books recommended by the legal writing faculty at St. John’s; there are many others, and you can find the one that works for you.
New lawyers should keep in mind that legal writing should be plain, understandable English about legal matters, not writing in some foreign legal language. Before cutting and pasting the boilerplate language from your office’s last set of legalese-laden papers, why not first review that language for the opportunity to minimize jargon and simplify sentence structure? In the Child Advocacy Clinic at St. John’s University School of Law, we advise students that borrowing language from previously drafted papers, letters, and emails is good practice if it keeps you from reinventing the wheel but bad practice if it perpetuates the use of legal mumbo jumbo. Even worse is cribbing language you don’t understand because “it was there before, so I’d better leave it there now.” Lawyers should never use words or phrases (or statutes or cases) they don’t actually understand. Instead, decode the phrase, and, if it turns out to be surplus or simply isn’t doing any work for you, take it out. Think of the old story about the art student who wanted to learn how to carve an elephant: His teacher instructed him to carve away everything that didn’t look like an elephant. The same holds true for legal writing. You need to carve away all the words that aren’t doing any work for you. You are left with an argument (or letter, or email) boldly setting forth your idea, unencumbered by distractions.
Particular care should be taken when writing to clients. Especially because children’s law is often a poverty-law practice and there is an inverse correlation between poverty and level of education, lawyers who wish to be understood should draft letters that do not require knowledge of Latin as a second language, or a thesaurus, to understand.
It cannot be overemphasized that legal writing is intended to be understood. To ensure that your writing is understood, draft short, clear sentences in the active voice, and organize your writing in a simple and straightforward manner. “The argument proffered by respondent mother Ms. Jane Doe is, accordingly, and for the foregoing reasons, factually and legally incorrect” becomes “Ms. Doe’s argument is wrong because. . . .”
At the same time, try to be a little more formal than you otherwise might be when communicating electronically. Emails, texts, and WhatsApp messages are often drafted, as they should be, in a less formal voice than letters or motions. But care should be taken not to be too informal in such communications. Attorneys should consciously slow themselves down before replying to the texts and emails of their clients, opposing counsel, and witnesses. Our clinic represents children who often request that we communicate with them by text or WhatsApp. Attention must be paid not to appear too casual and familiar lest you inadvertently blur the lines of the attorney-client relationship or reflect a less-than-professional level of formality to, say, opposing counsel. But there are genuine benefits to communicating by text, including the ability to send a smiley face to convey good news to a nervous young person, or having counsel be able to text you immediately when the judge is back on the bench, for example.
2. Ask for Advice, but Not Too Much
New lawyers are, understandably, eager to learn how more seasoned attorneys do things—but relying too heavily on the advice of others may slow down an attorney’s ability to build up his or her own legal muscle. Your next user’s manual in this area, then, is not just the advice of others but your own experiences. As with physical exercise, the best way to develop independent legal muscle is to exercise it. Because supervising your own litigation is a learned skill, and because everyone has to start somewhere, the best way to begin developing your own good legal judgment is to start proposing possible courses of action during meetings with supervisors. There is a world of difference between the attorney who asks “What should I do now?” and the one who walks into a supervisor’s office (no matter how tentatively) armed with three possible suggestions about what to do next—even if every suggestion is ultimately shot down. Good supervision will generate a conversation about the pros and cons of each suggestion, leading to a better understanding of the factors that go into a wise course of action and the factors that result in an idea being sent back to the drawing board. It is this process of developing independent litigation supervision skills that will set self-motivated and creative thinkers apart from the crowd. Independent thinkers will not only develop skills more rapidly than their counterparts, but they will also quickly develop a reputation for being thoughtful and proactive attorneys.
Remember, too, that lawyers are “professional learners.” Not only must lawyers keep up with current developments in the law, they often learn entirely new substantive subject areas with each new case. Lawyers must learn not just how to get widgets into evidence but also what widgets are, what makes widgets tick, how widgets are built, common off-label widget uses, how the public (a judge or jury) feels about widgets, the main differences between a widget and a gizmo, common widget misconceptions and biases, policy implications of widget regulation, etc. Lawyers for children and families must also learn about the effect of widgets on adolescent development, widgets for siblings, safety concerns for children and widgets, and so on. Learning all of this information and much, much more is what lawyers do every day. Becoming a skillful and well-rounded lawyer, therefore, requires becoming a skillful and well-rounded learner.
Skillful independent learning requires reflection. Whether or not your reflective process thus far has been the product of deliberate and conscious effort, it is unlikely that you made it past the bar exam without some degree of reflection on what kinds of note taking, test preparation, or study-group practices work best for you. Until this point, you have probably also relied on grades to help you assess the success of your various learning techniques. But how does the practicing lawyer gauge the success of lawyering skills without a final exam as a guide? How does a new lawyer know whether a client interview, legal argument, cross-examination, or letter to opposing counsel was excellent or if it missed the mark?
Lawyers must learn to reflect on their experiences to learn from them. New lawyers can ask themselves, “What made that winning argument I just saw successful? What could that other attorney have done better, and how will I avoid a similar fate when it is my turn?” Free, live action “CLE” is unfolding before your very eyes every day: Take notes on the cases you observe. Was the effective attorney organized, speaking clearly, and prepared with case law? Was the less-effective attorney scattered, caught off-guard, and unsure of his or her position? Take similar notes on that cross-examination you are sitting through while waiting for your case to be called. Which kinds of questions are most effective? How did the attorney set a trap for the witness? During argument, how did the attorney maneuver out of a potentially difficult situation? Observe, too (but from a distance), attorneys speaking with their clients in waiting rooms. Do the clients appear interested, angry, despondent, terrified, or reassured? How is the attorney handling the client? Is it effective? Review your adversary’s papers. Are they well organized? Did your adversary use a particularly effective rhetorical device? Were there unprofessional aspects of the papers, argument, negotiation?
New lawyers might form a regular lunchtime meet-up to discuss what they observed that week. Or a lawyer might choose to journal privately about recent events. Regardless of the method used, making a regularly scheduled time each week to consciously reflect on the elements of excellence in lawyering will allow the new litigator to focus on the specific skills needed to improve his or her own performance.