The seed of the idea for this post came from my own reflections about the early days of my legal career. November 1 holds significance for me because it’s about the time that I started “getting it” as a first year lawyer. After reflecting upon my own experience, my thoughts drifted to the many first years toiling away for the last two months at law firms across the country. I hope they are starting to get it, too.
The fortunate few are able to hit the ground running in their legal careers. Often these are people with prior work experience, who are a bit older, more mature, and who previously learned how to navigate a corporate bureaucracy. For the rest of us, though, the first few months of practicing law is a harrowing time, fraught with stress and anxiety.
The are many reasons for this. Most new lawyers have never held a “real” job. They’re getting bombarded with emails, phone calls and work assignments for the first time. They’re trying to learn the work culture. They’re starting to deal with adversaries. Everything they are doing is new, and they’re fearful of the consequences of screwing up. They’re steeped in a cauldron of uncertainty.
It’s been well documented, and almost universally accepted, that law schools do not do a good job of preparing young lawyers for the rigors of the profession. I don’t think this should be seen as an indictment of law schools, however. I don’t think the challenges of the work environment can be taught, and certainly not replicated, in an academic environment. It’s incumbent, therefore, on law firms and more senior lawyers to train young lawyers on what they should expect, and what is expected of them. And, yes, young lawyers must seek out mentors who can help them find their way.
A Lesson Learned the Hard Way
I was in a tough spot during the first two months of my career. I was overworked, overwhelmed and questioning my capacity to perform my job and, frankly, my decision to become a lawyer in the first place. I was making mistakes I shouldn’t have, and exercising poor judgment.
Ironically, it was after exercising poor judgment that I was taught one of the most valuable lessons that I learned during my first year. And the lesson came from a wholly unexpected source: a more senior attorney who was an adversary on a matter I was working on.
I started my career at a large law firm in Chicago in its Corporate Restructuring group. My first day was Monday, September 17, six days after the September 11 terrorist attacks. Needless to say, the group was very busy, and a lot was thrown at us because of the uncertainty surrounding the economy. There was too much work to go around, and so the first years were, necessarily, put into positions where we had to quickly grow up and step up.
For me, this meant that I was assigned responsibility for dealing with a bunch of large dollar amount objections related to a nine figure sale of assets and various contracts to be assigned to the buyer. I didn’t understand the subject matter very well, nor the processes, and I had no experience dealing with opposing counsel. Because of my lack of experience and confidence, I was extremely cautious – to the point of avoidance – in having direct, definitive conversations with lawyers on the other side of these matters. I’d let most calls go to voicemail for fear of saying something misguided in a conversation. When I did speak to someone, I’d almost always waffle with a “I’ll get back to you” response.
One adversary was a senior, experienced New York lawyer who was always polite, but very persistent. His client had missed a deadline (not his fault – he was brought in after-the-fact) and he believed there was a service of process of issue, and he wanted my consent to late-file a claim.
After receiving several voicemails from him, I sent him a short, terse email at around 11 p.m. a couple of days before the relevant hearing informing him that we would not be consenting to the relief he was requesting.
The next day I came into the office to find an email from him waiting in my inbox. It was characteristically polite, and he explained that while he disagreed with my position, he appreciated me getting back to him. But he also did something unexpected. He taught me a lesson that I’ll never forget.
He had looked at my bio and saw that I was a first year lawyer. He told me that he remembered being a first year himself, and how overwhelming it felt. He related how he feared making mistakes, and how that fear led him to make some mistakes, and at times exercise poor judgment.
He told me that, before long, I would likely look back at how I handled this situation and wish that I had dealt with it differently. He explained that his client would likely have its motion granted (he was right – there was a service issue) and that this whole matter could have easily been resolved without the time, expense and acrimony that would be required.
And he explained that, when he was struggling as a first year, a senior attorney in his firm pulled him aside and gave him great advice that helped turn things around for him. He was told that, whenever possible, before making a decision, filing a pleading, or embarking on a course of action, he should stop and take a deep breath. He urged me to do the same. Instead of acting reflexively or emotionally out of fear or due to stress, he encouraged me to take a moment, to get up from my desk to clear my head, and to talk to someone if necessary. It would help, he said.
At first I took this the wrong way – as a condescending lecture. That’s the frame of mind I had at the time. But with the benefit of a bit of hindsight I started to appreciate the wisdom in his words.
I began to put his suggestion into practice. It helped me make good decisions and, perhaps more importantly, avoid bad ones. In many instances I realized that what seemed like a good idea one moment, seemed like a very poor one 30 minutes later after contemplating it over lunch.
The Benefits of the “Thoughtful Pause”
To this day, the “Thoughtful Pause” has been a bedrock habit of my decision making process.
I believe that lawyers of all levels of experience, but particularly young lawyers who may not have honed their judgment, can benefit from the Thoughtful Pause.
This might mean reflecting before firing off that angry email response to a difficult adversary; or “sleeping on” that memo and rereading it in the morning before handing it to the assigning partner; or thinking twice before taking on that client in order to listen to your gut when it is giving you signals that something’s not quite right.
The point is that, as lawyers, the consequences of our decisions often reverberate in ways that we don’t anticipate. But if we give ourselves a bit of space and time to think, consider, and analyze, then we can better understand the implications of our choices. We’re humans, prone to acting based on emotion. By pausing, thoughtfully, we can make better decisions, and avoid the stress brought on by bad ones.