Comment on Post on Becoming a Good Lawyer from Associate’s Mind

Associate’s Mind is a fine blog that is well worth adding to your RSS feed list.  Today’s post, Becoming a Good Lawyer Requires Failure, is an exceptional piece.  Do not be mislead by the headline, which I suspect was selected to grab attention (and it does.  Readers will be happy to see that  the piece makes it very clear that failure should not come at the expense of clients.

Keith Lee, the blog’s author, reminds us that blogging, social media campaigns, etc. do not make one a good lawyer.  What does?  Here is an excerpt of his post:

Becoming a good lawyer requires failure. It requires screwing up a motion and having to re-draft the entire thing. 3 hours of research down the hole only discover a new case that destroys your argument – then writing off that time from your billing and not charging the client because it’s your fault. It’s mis-communication between lawyer/client/opposing counsel/third-party counsel/doctor/court reporter throwing everyone’s schedule out of whack.

It requires 6 hours of round-trip travel in the car for a 20 minute hearing. Early mornings and late nights at the office. Hours away from your family and friends. Time away from your hobbies, projects, and past times.

It’s a 100 little errors and cracks and slip-ups that come through your work when you first start out as a lawyer. You’re learning the ropes. You can’t anticipate exactly how things are going to go. You fall on your face again and again…all at the expense of your client. Your mistakes become their loss.

Or not, if you are as fortunate to join a firm as I was. My failures never leave the office. They are purely internal. My work is reviewed, scrutinized, edited, and improved. I’m sent back and told to try again. I receive advice on how to handle matters. I have fellow associates with who I can commiserate and bounce ideas off of.  

Lee goes on to say that even if he wasn’t in a firm he would have a support network of other lawyers to draw on for guidance.  That is where he and I may disagree.

The problem with depending on  informal support networks as a young lawyer is that the young lawyer frequently  is not able to judge the value of the advice offered.  There are lots of lawyers who offer advice about lots of things – and all too many of those lawyers also don’t know what they don’t know..  You cannot judge the value of advice unless you know enough about the subject to test the advice.  If you begin with little knowledge of the subject you can easily be lead astray by a well-meaning but ill-informed advisor who has no direct stake in the advice given.  All too often, such advice is worth precisely what one pays for it.

I recall in a former life that there were several lawyers I routinely sought out for advice.  I came to realize that one of these lawyers had solid knowledge of the la but the lawyer’s judgment was just horrible.  I then took to asking this lawyer’s advice on matters requiring judgment calls only to reassure myself that doing the exact opposite thing he recommended was the most prudent course of conduct. 

Ideally, a young lawyer will land a job with a competent lawyer or law firm and seize the opportunity to learn in that environment.  Indeed, if I were King I would prohibit any lawyer from filing a lawsuit until he or she underwent a two-year (at least) residency program in such an environment – one that would provide a firm foundation for civil trial practice that our law schools haven’t got around to teaching.  

Until a formal residency program is created or every lawyer can land the right job, some percentage of new lawyers who cannot land a job  will continue to rely on informal support groups which, all too often, will mean that the willing, led by the unknowing, will do poor quality legal work for the unaware.  (With apologies to Mother Teresa.)  This is not only unfair to those clients, but also unfair to the new lawyer who is thrown out into the world with a formal education that prepares he or she to "think like a lawyer" but not necessarily be one.

Of course, a new lawyer on his or her own should develop a support network.  When you do so, be very, very careful and do what you can to test the advice you are given.

Those thoughts are not intended to take anything away from  Keith Lee’s fine post.  He obviously gets it, a credit both to him and his firm.