Reflections of a New Litigator
Ten Lessons from My First Year
By Sonia J. Buck
Sonia J. Buck is an associate at the Auburn, Maine, law firm of Linnell, Choate, & Webber, LLP, where she practices employment law and commercial litigation.
After surviving three intense years of law school and the bar exam, you may still feel somewhat unprepared when thrown into the real-world practice of law. Here are some lessons I learned from my first year of practice that weren’t in the
law books.
1. Recognize You Didn’t Learn Enough in Law School
I’ve learned a lot since a year ago, but I still have much more to learn, and not only about the law. There’s so much law and it’s always changing; that’s why we have computerized research. The learning I’m talking about can come only from experience. Keep doing and keep learning!
2. Observe, Observe, Observe
Watch for opportunities to observe experienced trial lawyers in action. You’ll see different styles, what seems effective, what’s unattractive. If you work in a firm with several lawyers, see if your schedule permits you to go and watch hearings and trials; or sit in on depositions, mediations, judicial conferences, even client interviews. Most law firm partners will agree that learning by observing is a good use of your nonbillable time. If you’re on your own, check with the clerk’s office for upcoming trials to watch and, of course, network!
3. Overpreparing Is a Good Investment of Time
Like most new lawyers, you’ll be getting your feet wet in district court, handling matters like disclosure hearings to enforce money judgments, eviction proceedings, preliminary family law matters, arraignments and other criminal matters, protection from abuse/harassment hearings, and motion hearings. When you’re inexperienced, you may overprepare, and you should. For client billing, consider not charging some of your prep time and chalking it up to learning experience.
4. Be Prepared to Be Prepared for Nothing
You’re up late the night before your hearing thinking of ways to make your client look like St. Peter on direct and dreaming up a cross that will make your opponent squirm. Two cups of coffee and you’re raring to go! But in court, the judge decides the matter without a hearing, or your client suddenly wants to settle and go home. You’ll get to do the trial lawyer bit another day but your prep time wasn’t wasted time—it’s better to be prepared for nothing than unprepared for something.
5. The Devil Is Not Opposing Counsel
Neither is her client. They just disagree with you and your client, and, for some reason, seem to oppose you at every turn. Disputes with opposing counsel are the nature of the beast, but your opponent isn’t the Devil. Keep it cordial and don’t take personally pleadings, letters, oppositions, and objections, no matter how personal they may seem.
6. You Can’t Always Control Your Client
Sometimes your client calls the shots—making decisions about whether he takes the stand, or even whether he will show up for your scheduled appointment. Clients can make bad decisions and do stupid things you can’t prevent. This loss of control can be tough for an eager new trial lawyer. Just be the voice of logic and reason and hope for your client’s best behavior.
7. Don’t Assume Your Client’s Story Is the Gospel
Explain to your client how crucial it is that he tells you the truth, but you don’t have to believe every word he says. Do your own fact-finding to verify your client’s story. Talk to witnesses early in the case; use discovery to screen what your client tells you. You’re on your client’s side 100%, but you don’t have to trust him 100%.
8. Awaiting Court Decisions
If you were one of those law school students who spent most of Christmas break anxiously awaiting grades, you won’t have time to feel that same sense of anxiety as you wait for court decisions. After a hearing or after submitting a brief, motion, or opposition, focus on your many other pressing matters. Let the judge worry about the results.
9. Embrace Feedback
Law firm partners, other associates, opposing counsel, judges, mediators, clients, witnesses, court reporters, clerks, and staff are excellent evaluators of your performance as you attempt to get the hang of things. Their comments may be harsh sometimes, but seek and use their comments. And remember, all feedback is good feedback, even if it’s bad.
10. Don’t “Should” All Over Yourself
You will make mistakes, particularly during your first year of practice. Later, you will think about your mistakes and agonize about what you should have said or what you should not have done. Should have should have should have! Learn from your mistakes, but don’t “should” all over yourself.
Finishing law school and passing the bar exam means that you are qualified, capable, and ready to represent clients. As you begin to apply your knowledge to your practice, you will soon be able to enjoy the challenges and rewards of the legal profession. You’ve earned it.
ready Resources
• The Trial Lawyer: What It Takes to Win (Paperback). 2006. PC #531-0357. Section of Litigation.
• The Commercial Litigator’s Job: A Survival Guide. 2005. PC #515-0412. General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Division.
Section and Division members receive a discounted price. To order online, visit