Lessons For The Young Attorney – From An Old Attorney: Lesson No. 2 (Is This Really How You’re Supposed To Practice Law?)

To my young colleague: thank you for dropping back in for “Lesson No. 2″….hop in and take a ride with me, and I’ll tell you this brief story, and all you have to do is just listen quietly.

After graduating from law school I knew that I wanted to return to my hometown (Anderson) to begin practicing law because after 7 straight years of living there, Columbia was too hot for me in the summer, too cold in the winter, and already overcrowded with attorneys, and I knew that I could be a great “fit” for the larger, mainline law firms in Anderson.  I was wrong about that.

I first interviewed with the largest law firm in Anderson at the time (all of them were excellent attorneys, and brilliant, who universally enjoyed great area, even statewide, reputations).  All the partners gathered around their conference room table to interview me, and the most senior partner began by asking me two questions: what areas of the law practice were the most interesting to me, and what was my graduating grade point average from law school?  WHAT!!!!  And so with that, after I answered I believed I could be a “pretty good” TRIAL attorney and gave them my GPA (I’ll never reveal it here, so let’s just say it was high enough to let me graduate from law school), the interview was over!  Record time. They thanked me for meeting with them, and they were gracious enough to let one of the partners “show me around” their law library and walk me to my car.

Four months, 2 more “live” interviews, and around 8 “cold calls” to Anderson attorneys later, in December, 1973, I was hired as an associate by a two-man partnership at an annual salary of $9,000.  Both attorneys were excellent (the “senior partner” was the Circuit Solicitor at the time, and the “junior partner” was also a terrific trial attorney, but they had completely different and compelling personalities and work ethic.  And in the time I was with them, they each became my mentors and my tor-mentors.  But to their everlasting credit, they instilled in me the early awakenings of what would become my love for the practice of law…and here’s why:

In between my “checking real estate titles” at our courthouse, the partners were constantly giving me their clients’ files and virtually pushing me into the courtroom to try the clients’ cases.  The “good news” is that “Mr. Self-Proclaimed Trial Attorney” was trying cases…the “bad news” (at least for the client) is that I had a client to represent (to this day I have never understood why an attorney learns so much more by losing a case – and getting battered inside a courtroom by the trial judge and the opposing attorney – than in winning one).

So, within the first months of actually trying to put into use whatever I had learned from the torture of law school, I was forced to realize that an actual “live person” was sitting in my office and sharing with me the difficulties, even miseries, they were experiencing in their lives (divorce, injuries suffered at work, a job loss, etc.) which required my legal expertise…and they were paying their hard-earned money to the law firm in the expectation that I would ultimately make their lives better, or certainly more tolerable.

[To my young colleagues, to get a sense of the immense professional responsibilities we bear, please read the following opening comment from Rule 1.3 [1] of the Rules of Professional Conduct:


A lawyer shall act with reasonable diligence and promptness in representing a client.


[1] A lawyer should pursue a matter on behalf of a client despite opposition, obstruction or personal inconvenience to the lawyer, and take whatever lawful and ethical measures are required to vindicate a client’s cause or endeavor. A lawyer must also act with commitment and dedication to the interests of the client and with zeal in advocacy upon the client’s behalf. A lawyer is not bound, however, to press for every advantage that might be realized for a client. For example, a lawyer may have authority to exercise professional discretion in determining the means by which a matter should be pursued. See Rule 1.2. The lawyer’s duty to act with reasonable diligence does not require the use of offensive tactics or preclude the treating of all persons involved in the legal process with courtesy and respect.”]

Re-read and absorb the words “….to vindicate a client’s cause”, and “…act with commitment and dedication to the interests of the client…”.

I’ve suffered many, many “legal losses” over the years – regardless of the effort I put into the cause – and I realized that I had no control over the trial judge, and virtually no control over the emotions of my clients, and absolutely no control over the opposing attorney and his/her client; and that mistakes would be made by me (and I made memorable mistakes), but I can’t remember ever making the same memorable mistake twice.

Looking back, I believe I was fortunate to have learned the lesson early in my legal career that, although I would be destined to suffer professional losses in my trying to “take words from a page”, mixed into the experience we learn from actually participating in the practice of law, and then struggling to translate all of that into a meaningful result for a client, the “mysteries of the practice of law” – those “roads not taken” – would always be in front of me and never behind me.  Try, my young colleague, to always remember that your professional “past” provides you only with experience (there are rarely any “do-overs”) to get better, more knowledgeable, more proficient, and, ultimately, more successful in practicing this craft we’ve chosen.

I’ll hope to visit with you again soon…and good luck out there.