Universal Lessons from Those Who Have Been There and Done That

Edward M. O’Brien
A common piece of advice from judges is for new lawyers to have and project an appropriate level of confidence.

A common piece of advice from judges is for new lawyers to have and project an appropriate level of confidence.

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Hold on a minute. You mean to tell me we spend years putting in the hard work to earn our JD and another miserable summer preparing for the hazing ritual that is the bar exam, and there are still things they didn’t teach us?

Interestingly enough, it was a law school professor who told me that everything can’t be learned in school. When I asked him what he thought were the most common mistakes made by new attorneys, he suggested I do some sleuthing to find out what others thought, including peers, bosses, and judges. One thing I have learned since law school is that from talking about common mistakes with others, some pretty interesting universal lessons emerge.

The Judicial Perspective

New attorneys almost universally fail to project confidence in themselves and their arguments. A certain level of nervousness is not only understandable; it’s healthy. One Louisville judge told me that being at least a little nervous in court is better than not being nervous at all. But appearing before a judge and acting as if you are somewhere you should not be will instantly set you back. The good judges take the nervousness factor into account in their interactions with counsel. But in psyching themselves out, new attorneys can trap themselves in a net of insecurity. A common piece of advice from judges is for new lawyers to have and project an appropriate level of confidence.

The Senior Management Perspective

Say what? For the young associate, especially the go-getters, the word “no” does not seem like a viable option, so this advice from a senior partner at a law firm may seem odd. No matter how overloaded or overworked you may be, you are probably conditioned to believe that it is unacceptable to seek a reprieve from work.

But here’s the thing: senior partners far removed from the experience of being a new attorney might forget about the learning curve and often pile project upon project on the desks of their associates. It would be wrong always to assume that this means the partner doesn’t care about your various other obligations or the fact that you may be struggling to keep your head above water. More often than not, that partner is so busy that he or she may not even recognize just how much they gave you to do. This is further complicated when you work for multiple partners who do not regularly communicate about the workload.

Do yourself a favor and speak up when the pressure gets to be too much. It is better to recognize and address problems early than to wait until your work's quality or physical and mental health suffer. If you find yourself in a position where you are uncomfortable doing this, perhaps that is a sign that you are in the wrong place.

The Peer Perspective

In the professional world, success depends upon more than just performing ably. There are real growing pains in the beginning, especially for a new attorney with limited professional experience. New attorneys are entering a new workplace and a new profession with a variety of coworkers that will have varying agendas. The transition is not always smooth; in fact, it should not be smooth.

For those unaccustomed to separating the personal and professional, the importance of doing so is a lesson that must be quickly learned. A workplace of diverse personalities yields many strengths, but it also presents the unavoidable challenge of working with or for those with whom, under different circumstances, you would not associate.

Law school was characterized by the camaraderie of shared experience. It was perhaps easy to pick and choose associations from a large student body, and fitting in might have felt easy. But “fitting in” at the workplace does not mean you have to be friends with everyone. Some people in the workplace are unfailingly friendly and accommodating; others are standoffish or, at times, openly contemptuous; still, others are meeting-room nodders and backroom plotters. Every office has its mix, and learning to accept and navigate this diverse pool of people is key to overcoming growing pains and turning in a strong professional performance. Be mindful of these personalities and the challenges and opportunities they present, and take it all in stride.

The Client Perspective

I got this question from clients a few times in my first year of practice. Clients ask this at different times and in different forms. My favorite (the rarest) is when I have turned in a solid performance, and the client seems surprised someone so new could perform so well. Far more often, the question is asked with skepticism—more along the lines of “are you sure you can handle this?”

Doubts about a new attorney’s capabilities are normal and should not be taken as a slight. But everyone was a young or new attorney once, and everyone has to gain the trust and confidence of clients along the way. Experience is important, and you must acknowledge to yourself and, where appropriate, your client, the limitations of your experience. The key is also to develop an effective plan to overcome any limitations. Most often, the simplest solution is hard work. Plenty of attorneys with a wealth of experience have performed inadequately. Success is rarely achieved without diligent work, and the experienced have no monopoly on diligence.

One client told me that experience is a double-edged sword: sometimes the most experienced legal minds can become stuck in a rut, while creative legal solutions are quite often conceived by the youngest legal minds. New attorneys should not view lack of experience as an impediment; skill, judgment, and diligence determine successful legal performance.

The Self Perspective

I work in a large firm in Kentucky’s largest city. Much of my work takes me to small towns far away from Louisville. On multiple occasions in court, I have been “hometowned.” “Your honor,” opposing counsel will say in what absolutely has to be an exaggerated country twang, “Mr. O’Brien drove down here all the way from Louisville. We certainly don’t want to keep him.” What might seem to the outside observer a nice gesture is, in fact, a fairly transparent attempt to seize the home-court advantage and win the game before the clock even starts running.

The first several times I came across this, I was visibly annoyed, and I let it trip me up. I felt the deck was stacked. I have come to recognize that good judges see this for what it is, and allowing it to affect my performance is far more damaging than anything opposing counsel might say. Remember: even as a young attorney answerable to others, you are in control of how you respond to the challenges thrown your way. New attorneys have enough to learn as it is. Don’t add needless psychological pressure to the already long list of obstacles to overcome.

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Edward M. O’Brien

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Edward M. O’Brien is an attorney with Wilson Elser’s Louisville office and the managing editor of the Kentucky Appellate Survey.