My wife told me I looked fine as I debated whether to knot my tie using a half-windsor or a four-in-hand. It was my first day at my first job as a lawyer and I wanted to make a good impression. I eventually left home thinking that I was ready to be a lawyer. But I wasn’t. After a round of introductions, I met with a senior partner and a junior partner who described a case they were working on. They told me they planned on filing a motion to address some procedural irregularities, and asked me to prepare a draft. I returned to my desk and read over my notes. I felt overwhelmed and clueless.
I read the case file, but I still had no idea how to draft the motion. I became worried that the partners would think they made a mistake by hiring me. So I consulted a paralegal. He gave me some analogous motions, and I researched law addressing the relevant procedural rule. I cobbled together a draft and sent it to the partners. I knew I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I had to make the partners think I did.
Battling Impostor Syndrome
After a few days I hadn’t heard from the partners—I figured they were trying to decide how to tell me I just wasn’t cut out to be a lawyer. I determined I had to be proactive to save my job—I timidly walked into the junior partner’s office, and I told her I was sorry that my work was not as good as it should be. I explained that I felt that I didn’t know what I was doing, and assured her that I would do a better job next time. She told me, “I’ve been practicing for eight years, and I’m still trying to figure out how to be a lawyer. That’s what this job is all about.”
A day later, I met with the senior partner and we went over the draft. He asked me questions, scribbled some notes, and asked me to give the draft to his secretary so she could make a few changes. He wasn’t upset, and although he revised my draft, he seemed pleased. Somehow I had convinced him that I could do my job. That motion would not be the only time I had to figure out how to do something new. That year was filled with improvisational efforts, and I continually assumed the role of an attorney even though I wasn’t always sure what that role really entailed.
Providing Competent Representation
Even though I often felt like I was feigning legal skill, the partners for whom I worked made sure that I provided competent representation. The ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct require no less. Under Rule 5.1(a), a partner in a law firm and lawyers who otherwise possess comparable managerial authority in a law firm “shall make reasonable efforts to ensure that the firm has in effect measures giving reasonable assurance that all lawyers in the firm conform to the Rules of Professional Conduct.” Similarly, under Rule 5.1(b), “A lawyer having direct supervisory authority over another lawyer shall make reasonable efforts to ensure that the other lawyer conforms to the Rules of Professional Conduct.” Under Rule 5.1(c)(2), a lawyer with supervisory authority can be responsible for another lawyer’s violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct if she knows of the conduct at a time when its consequences can be avoided or mitigated but fails to take reasonable action.
Inexperience can put a young lawyer at risk for violating Model Rule 1.1, which requires that a lawyer provide competent representation to a client. In many settings, a supervising attorney can take steps to make sure that inexperienced lawyers meet their professional duties by reviewing work product.
Providing Competent Representation as a Solo Practitioner
Solo practitioners, however, do not have supervising attorneys to make sure they provide competent representation. Accordingly, solo practitioners may consider their compliance with Model Rule 1.1 differently from other attorneys. Comment 1 to Model Rule 1.1 lists multiple factors to determine whether a lawyer is competent to handle a matter. These factors include the relative complexity and specialized nature of the matter, the lawyer’s general experience, the lawyer’s training and experience in the field, the preparation and study the lawyer is able to give the matter, and whether it is feasible to refer the matter to (or associate or consult with) a competent lawyer. Comment 4 to Rule 1.1 states, however, that a lawyer can accept representation where the requisite level of competence can be achieved by reasonable preparation.
Building Your Skills Over Time
Few lawyers claim they learned the necessary skills to be a lawyer in law school. Most skills come through experience and willingness to experiment in the face of potential embarrassment or adverse outcomes. Acquiring skills may be difficult because lawyers must provide competent representation to clients, but lawyers can accept representation if they can become competent. For most attorneys, this means that while they can’t entirely feign skill, they can continually take steps to become competent.