Lessons For The Young Attorney – From An Old Attorney: Lesson No. 3 (Learning The Craft Of Practicing Law – From The Sledgehammer To The Scalpel)

Welcome back, my young colleague, and first answer this: when you stood inside the South Carolina Supreme Court on the day you were sworn in as an attorney, and when you then signed the formal “enrollment of attorneys” and received your certificate formally admitting you into the profession, did you read the certificate while still inside the Supreme Court building?  Have you ever read it?

Here’s how mine begins: “IT APPEARING unto us, That Barry Wayne Knobel has complied with the requirements of the Law of this State in respect to the admission of persons to practice as Attorneys in the Courts of this State, and is duly qualified to act as such….”

That was on November 3, 1973.  My certificate of admission was signed by the Chief Justice and the associate justices (all of whom have long since passed away); and I vividly remember that on that day I was wearing a black, pin-striped suit, white shirt and black tie with white polka-dots…and spit-shined shoes.  On that auspicious (at least for me) day I absolutely looked the part….but on that same day, and for very, very many days which followed that day, I most certainly did NOT have a clue as to where my legal “roads not taken” would eventually take me; and I didn’t know then whether my choice to become an attorney would become my lifelong “profession”, or my “career”, or my “craft”….or simply the way in which to make enough money to pay my monthly bills, including repaying my law school loans.

And on November 3, 1973, how could the Justices of the South Carolina Supreme Court, along with any of the other thousands of members of the South Carolina Bar Association possibly know that I was “duly qualified” to practice law along side them or in front of them, when I wasn’t at all sure that I was duly qualified (if truth be told – and as I write this – I’m still not so sure)?

Consequently, as we all did then and as brand new attorneys do now, I began practicing law with a sledgehammer.  Just slamming my way forward and throwing everything at the “most immediate problem at hand”.  I stretched out the Socratic Method like a huge rubber band – arguing my “legal points” based on what little tidbits I could glean from law books while blending those tidbits into my clients’ “versions of the truth”, all the while trying to sound and act like I knew what I was talking about…but while facing much more seasoned and polished attorneys who were constantly “schooling me” on the finer (and most often the correct) points of law and facts involved in the case.  And I had my share of those “seasoned attorneys’ tire tracks” running up and down my black pin-striped suit.

Would you please indulge me this one time while I share just one of these “tire track experiences” with you?  This is an absolutely true story, but I’ll give you the Readers’ Digest version:

The partnership in which I was an associate was the town attorney for the Town of Honea Path (a small town in Anderson County), and the partners had designated me to prosecute the Town’s traffic court cases.  My first trial there involved a man who had, in broad daylight, run through at least 2 red lights in the middle of town while being chased by not one, but two police cruisers.  He was arrested and charged with those violations, and his defense attorney was none other than G. Ross Anderson, Jr. (yes, THAT G. Ross Anderson, Jr., who was then one of the finest trial attorneys in South Carolina and also well known around the country, later to become a federal district court judge – and I’ll respectfully refer to him as Judge Anderson here). Well, it appears that Judge Anderson personally came to Honea Path the week before the scheduled trial to represent his client in selecting the 6-person jury, while I simply let the arresting officers represent the Town in that jury selection process (why would I need to attend that part of the trial? – I had an open-and-shut, air-tight case).  When I arrived to try the case against Judge Anderson, we “discovered” that only 4 jurors had shown up, not 6…and the municipal judge then proceeded to ask both attorneys if we would agree to try the case with less than the required 6-member panel, otherwise the judge would simply have to reschedule the case.  I wanted to save me the trouble of having to drive back to Honea Path for another trial date – and I certainly didn’t want to inconvenience my police officers – and I said “The prosecution agrees to do that”, and Judge Anderson said, “I’ll reluctantly agree, Your Honor”.  And so with that I then put up my two “arresting officers” who each testified in detail as to how Judge Anderson’s client had blown through the middle of town, running not one, but both of the traffic lights.  And with both of my officers, Judge Anderson asked each of them only one question: “Officer, is it possible that the setting sun could have been in your eyes while you were chasing my client?”  Each officer said “I guess it’s possible”.  “No further questions, your Honor”.  I’m thinking to myself, “this is ridiculous – this is his entire cross-examination?!”  Our 4-person jury “deliberated” for 15 minutes before coming back with a “not guilty” verdict!!!! When I drove back to Anderson – still stunned by the verdict – and walked in the front door of our office, I heard the senior partner laughing while talking on the phone….and he called out to me to come into his office.  He was laughing on the phone with Judge Anderson…and the partner asked me if I had just returned from trying a case against the Judge, and I said “yes, sir”…and the partner then said to me – “did you know that 2 of the jury members on that jury are Ross’s current clients and that the other 2 members are personal friends of his?!”  Oh, wow….memorable lesson learned.

You know, it truly would be very easy to practice law if you never had to worry about clients or judges or juries or triers-of-the-facts….worrisome things like that.  If I could only have practiced law using only my sledgehammer and made a living while doing that, my professional life would have been OK – although it would never have been challenging or (on occasion) rewarding or impactful on other people’s lives; and I most probably would never have fallen in love with the craft of this amazingly complex profession.

I never would have known how and when to put down the sledgehammer and pick up the scalpel.

It has taken me years to try and develop (and constantly improve upon) many of our profession’s “nuances” – the craft of practicing law – which you, my young colleague, will develop over time and (like me) at great emotional, mental and physical cost.  For example:

the ways in which attorneys train themselves to sharpen their skills so as to use not only what the law expressly states, but what it fails to state – what it leaves out, so that the attorney can then “fill in the blanks”;

or the ways in which attorneys train themselves not only to hear what is said to them, but also to sharpen their sense of “hearing what is not said” to them (which is often far more important);

or the ways in which attorneys train themselves to watch a person’s mannerisms, and, intuitively, to sharpen the ways in which they “listen” to the ebb-and-flow of the human voice;

or the ways in which attorneys train themselves to remain outwardly stoic at all times in the face of a “losing cause” (training yourself to remain “professionally stoic” is entirely different from “bluffing”);

or the ways in which trial attorneys train themselves to “read the judge” so as to almost intuitively know, at all times, what the judge is most probably thinking;

or the ways in which attorneys train themselves to be exceptionally creative in “how” and “when” and “by what method” the attorney will “communicate” with opposing attorneys or clients or – if invited or requested to do so – with the court;

or the ways in which attorneys work exhaustively to create a real sense among your colleagues that you can never be “over-worked” nor “out-worked” nor “under-prepared.

From the sledgehammer to the scalpel, my young colleague…you must never stop trying to improve your craft.

And good luck out there.