What I Wish Someone Had Told Me Before I Started My First Law Job

Heidi K. Brown
The first few years of practice are your training ground.

The first few years of practice are your training ground.

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Want more content from Heidi Brown? Check out her webinar replay entitled "Starting Your First Law Job: Untangling Fears." Brown discusses post-law-school fears and how you can move past them in the healthiest way possible. In a field saturated with mental health challenges, let’s eliminate the unnecessary drivers of fear. 

This Is Just the Beginning

Think of your legal career as a multi-decade arc. The first few years of practice are your training ground. You are not going to know how to do a lot of things. You are going to make mistakes, even though you are going to try really hard to do excellent work. It’s okay. This is just the beginning of a long trajectory of successes that will help put periodic missteps into context. No lawyer is perfect. 

Ponder What It Means to Be a “Whole Lawyer”

You’re going to dive right into the substantive and intellectual aspects of your job, using your brain. But also, be sure to take care of your mind and your body. We deal with emotionally taxing issues in law practice. Working long hours at a desk is hard on our physical bodies. Great lawyers—like great athletes—set up frameworks for healthy brains, minds, and bodies. (The ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs put together these worksheets focusing on well-being issues.)

Create a Workspace Conducive to Your Productivity

Are you an introvert who thrives working in solitude and quietude—perhaps with your door temporarily closed to edit a document? Are you an extrovert who gains energy by absorbing multiple stimuli: music, lights, movement? Understand your personality type and make your workspace conducive to your productivity. Do you need a decluttered desk? Dimmer lighting? A plant to remind you of nature? Inspirational travel photos? (Visit The Introverted Lawyer for more on how to thrive as an introvert.)

You Are Not Going to Know How to Do Things

Many practical tasks required in the first year of practice are not taught in law school. It’s also impossible to start off knowing all the substantive law relevant to your clients’ issues. It’s important not to beat yourself up for not knowing the immediate answer to a legal question, or how to undertake a complicated procedural maneuver. You do know how to research. Treatises, bar journals, continuing legal education (CLE) courses, and “blawgs” explain lawyering tasks in manageable steps. Even though you might initially worry that you’ll look “weak” asking for guidance, you absolutely won’t. Find an approachable mentor in your law office or reach out to your law school alumni office or local bar association; many senior lawyers are eager to mentor junior lawyers.

You’re Not Going to Be Perfect at This Right Away

As much as we strive to avoid them, missteps happen in the practice of law—to everyone. The best lawyers build character and fortitude by talking openly about mistakes, collaborating on how to remedy them ethically, and endeavoring to prevent them from happening again. (Check out  Untangling Fear in Lawyering for more on the relationship between fear and mistake-making.)

Feel Free to Reject Advice About Embracing Fear

Lawyering can be scary sometimes. Messages about how easy it is to “just face your fears,” or how fear is “the world’s greatest motivator,” or “fake it till you make it,” are completely unhelpful when we are in fight/flight/freeze mode. It’s okay to reject cliché slogans and instead untangle our fears authentically by:

  • Highlighting areas in our lives in which we already are fiercely courageous. Discern the differences between those scenarios and others in which we feel fear. Why are we not afraid of taking a boxing lesson, for example, but we are afraid to take our first deposition?
  • Noticing what mental messages we tell ourselves about our abilities that are untrue or inaccurate. Can we delete and overwrite those outdated or flawed messages with accurate truths about our performance abilities? (“I’m prepared for this. I did the research. I’ve worked hard for this. I have a good strategic plan.”)
  • Identifying what unhelpful physical responses our bodies launch in the face of fear. Do we automatically hunch our shoulders, make ourselves small, cave inward, thereby blocking energy, blood, and oxygen flow? Instead, let’s open our frames, stand in an athlete’s balanced stance (two feet on the floor, shoulders back, arms open), breathe, and remember that we can retake control. (Watch this great TED Talk on “power poses.”)

You Are Not the “Difficult People Whisperer”

You inevitably will encounter strong personalities in the legal arena. Some of us who struggle with insecurity or anxiety might—out of habit or past patterns—erroneously take on responsibility for pleasing hot-tempered or unpredictable individuals. You are only responsible for doing the best substantive job you can to solve your clients’ problems. You are not responsible for managing others’ volatile emotions. If you encounter a challenging interpersonal dynamic:

  •  stop, take a moment, breathe, and remember you are only responsible for your behavior;
  • remind yourself of the work you have invested in doing the best job you know how;
  • recalibrate your physical stance and stand tall (see the athlete’s balanced stance above);
  • consider making an affirmative assertion, such as “Respectfully, raising your voice at me is the opposite of motivation.” Or “Demeaning me is not conducive to moving this case forward.”

Attend to Your Financial Health

Consult a financial advisor and map out short-term and long-term debt elimination and savings plans. Debt reduction will afford you employment flexibility as your interests evolve. Your first law job likely will not be your only law job. Financial maneuverability creates options.

Be Kind to Support Staff

Paralegals, administrative staff, couriers, court reporters, and court personnel make our legal system function. Be kind and respectful to all these players. Your reputation goes a long way.

Be Screen-Healthy

The number of times a day we reach for our cell phones and bombard our brains with multi-media takes a toll on our psyches. Try leaving your phone in another room when you sleep, muting non-essential alerts and notifications, and setting up a reasonable schedule for checking email and other modes of communication. We can be responsive and healthy communicators.

Be a Change-Maker for Good

Our profession and our world need you. 

Heidi K. Brown

Heidi K. Brown is a law professor at Brooklyn Law School and a former litigator in the construction industry. She is the author of The Introverted Lawyer: A Seven-Step Journey Toward Authentically Empowered Advocacy (ABA 2017) and Untangling Fear in Lawyering: A Four-Step Journey Toward Powerful Advocacy (ABA 2019).