Lessons For The Young Attorney – From An Old Attorney: Lesson No. 1

My intent is to take my time and really try to put some thought and effort into writing a series intended to focus on an “audience of just one” – on some young attorney out there who has practiced law for less than 5 years and who, even now, is wondering if he or she made the right career decision by choosing law school over, well, any other post-college career path.  And I’m driven to do this because, after now practicing law for almost 44 years, there have been so many times in my professional life where I have wondered if I made the right decision….and because the older one gets the more melancholy one becomes, I realize that my “professional clock” is winding down, and that the only “footprint” I can possibly leave is to share my wisdom (and there is very little wisdom) and my experience (but there is a great deal of experience, both good and bad) with the youngest of my colleagues.

I plan to include some anecdotal stories from my earliest days of practicing law up to the present time – but I promise to try and not bore you too much with these tales (and I certainly don’t intend on making this a “diary”, because then I would bore myself); and I will offer you only the ones which I hope will help you avoid the pitfalls and problems and agonies I experienced going through them (and maybe you would have even shared some of these exact same “experiences” with me).  And I will then give you a number of suggestions and lessons and “maxims” and ideas which I hope will keep you centered and moving forward in this most difficult of professions.

Let’s start.

I hated law school. I hated everything about it, starting with my very first “contracts” class where I was sitting inside the old, large lecture classroom at the old Petigru Law School with over 100 other “first years” and realizing that I was actually one of the younger ones inside that lecture room (it was 1970, and we had returning Vietnam War veterans and many others who had left their most current professions and who had wives and children but who had made a conscious decision to begin a brand new career in the legal profession).  You could literally “feel the competition” sitting inside that lecture room, and I had this extraordinary, almost overwhelming, sense that everyone there was so much brighter and smarter than I was.

I, on the other hand, had decided to go to law school “by default” – that is, I didn’t want to teach…nor sell insurance…nor do anything else but transition from drinking beer in college to drinking beer in my “5th” year of college.  Law school was going to be my “College 2.0”.  But I very quickly learned (like, within the first week) that this “experience” was going to be quite different from college life; and in fact, there was going to be no life but “law school life” if I was going to survive this experience.  My law school days were what we would presently refer to as “Groundhog Days” – they were all alike, all the same, day after day.  I would go to class, then go to the law library to read for a while, and then go home and study until around 9 PM every night, including most weekends…and after about 4 months of that “lifestyle”, I was fried…and at that point in my life, selling insurance didn’t look so bad to me.  Oh, almost forgot…in 1970, our first semester ended after the Christmas holidays and our exams were around the first weeks in January, 1971; which obviously meant that my “1970 Christmas holiday” consisted of my driving back to Anderson on December 24, and then returning to Columbia on the morning of December 26.  Bummer. Major Bummer.

I barely survived those 3 years…but survive I did, because when I looked on my wall just now I saw my law license hanging there, and (so far) I remain in “good standing” with the South Carolina Supreme Court and the South Carolina Bar, and (at least as I write this post), I’m still breathing.

And so to my young colleague, these are some of the “lessons” which slogging through law school taught me:  [1] the practice of law (and the “craft” of practicing law) – which for me meant taking the information provided you through law books and lectures and then “deconstructing” how to use and apply all of that information – was ALWAYS going to be a marathon and never a sprint, and that you would have to always push yourself forward over the ever-present next hurdle; [2] that sense of competition would NEVER leave you, and there would ALWAYS be brighter attorneys with whom you would both forever associate but more often try to prevail against throughout your legal career; [3] and if you weren’t the brightest attorney, then it would be essential for you, at least, to convince yourself that it was important to be prepared to work harder at your profession than every other attorney on the planet.

This may be a good stopping point with this first post; but let me at least leave you with some “maxims” (at least that’s what I call them), which I believe have served me pretty well over these years, and I’m hoping that some of them may be of use to you as well.

  1. “Whatever doesn’t make any difference doesn’t matter.” Lewis v. Lewis, 400 S.C. 354, 734 S.E.2d 322 (Ct.App.2012)
  2. “In the law the power of clear statement is everything.”  United States Supreme Court Associate Justice Joseph Story (1811-1845)
  3. “Make a decision as wisely as possible – and then forget about it, because the moment of absolute certainty never arrives.”  Author unknown
  4. “Because you can never give a guarantee to your client of a specific judicial outcome, you are ethically charged with giving your client “bad news 100% of the time”.  Anonymous.
  5. “In the practice of law, there is simply no such thing as being ‘overly-prepared’.” Anonymous
  6. “The very first time your client (prospective or current) begins telling you how to practice law (and they always do), immediately do the following: (1) ask that client to look around your office to find any law degree in the client’s name hanging on your office wall, and then (2) ask that client to leave your office and find another attorney….and by doing that, you will extend your “shelf-life” in this very difficult profession.”  Anonymous
  7. Never represent family or friends in any contested case.”  Anonymous
  8. “During your representation of any client, never become your client’s “friend” during that time of representation (the lines between your professional obligations toward your client and your “new-found friendship” will become immediately – and problematically – blurred).” Anonymous
  9. “It is important for attorneys to always understand that you never learn anything by asking questions…but rather, it is your insistence on getting answers to those questions by and through which you learn everything.” Anonymous

I’ll be back with you very soon, and I’ll have to hope you stay interested.

Good luck out there.