Your first day as a lawyer you learned that law school taught you everything about how to be a law school professor, and only about a quarter of what you needed to practice law. But now that you are practicing law you need to hit the ground running and get up to speed fast, except how do you do that without beating your head against the wall and chasing your tail?
The new task or new case should be an exciting learning opportunity for a beginning lawyer, but often it turns into a stress-filled nightmare of self-doubt for fear of screwing everything up. This feeling is not due to a lack of hard work or effort, but more often by a lack of knowledge of the tools and resources available. Never fear, each new task is an opportunity to grow and learn, and with the right tools and resources it can even be an enjoyable and rewarding experience.
We wrote this article to provide you with several tools and resources that have helped us over the years. They continue to help us learn and grow and become better attorneys.
The first stop is the courthouse. If you are asked to do something new like handle a probate matter try this: read the statutes, go to the courthouse, and pull a completed probate file handled by a reputable local lawyer. The courthouse gives you access to all non-confidential files on every possible subject.
This public archive allows you to learn every step from the beginning to the end of a case, and to develop a form bank that you can utilize throughout your career. The courthouse is also a great place to watch trials. Watching trials can teach you more than you can ever learn by reading a book. It’s nearly impossible when you are in trial yourself to relax and observe, but as a spectator, like a fly on the wall you can take the time to examine both lawyers and the judge at work.
Notice how the jury reacts to what they do. Learn what the judge likes and what the judge does not like. See witness examinations and objections in action and observe how the jury and judge react to them. Overall, it is an amazing process to watch when you personally are not under pressure. For a more involved perspective, volunteer to help another lawyer with voir dire. It changes your perspective and makes you involved when you know that your opinions and observations are going to help pick the jury. It’s like the difference between playing poker for pretend money and real money—only playing for real money prepares you for that experience.
Even with the right tools, being asked to file a lawsuit in a new and complicated area of the law can elicit feelings of uncertainty. It is nerve-racking to be filled with doubt about whether you have all the elements needed to make your case. However, a few tools can make this process much easier and give you confidence that you have done the job right. Pattern jury instructions are an amazing resource for this task. They often contain all the elements and will provide a road map of everything you need to prove your case along with the supporting case law for each element. Pattern jury instructions are available at a low cost from the Wyoming State Bar.
Form books on pleadings are another important resource when pleading a new area of law. They are available at the local law library and they contain proven pleadings for almost any matter that you can imagine. Develop a habit of double checking the forms against the jury instructions to ensure they work for your jurisdiction. Once your case has begun, look to form books on discovery for pattern discovery questions and requests for production of documents for almost any situation. Remember, you still want to put in the time and work to ask the specific questions and requests for your case, but the discovery forms will give you the basics and ensure you don’t forget something you should be asking for in the case.
In addition, the annotated statutes and rules of procedure are almost magical instruments in the world of not screwing up as a lawyer. They contain not only the statutes and rules of procedure, but also the leading case law that answers specific questions and assists with interpretations of the gray areas of the statutes and rules. The statute by itself tells you almost everything you need to know about a specific problem or issue. Then, the annotations give you the case law that, ninety-five percent of the time, will give you the remaining answers you need. In the five percent of the cases where this epiphany does not occur as it’s an issue of first impression, you will need to look up cases from other jurisdictions and hope your judge likes the cases from the ones that agree with your position, and not the cases from the ones that disagree with it.
The annotated rules of procedure inform you of what you need to do for every stage of your case from filing the lawsuit to picking the jury. The annotations help bridge the gaps in the rules and give you confidence in what you are doing, even if it is not specifically addressed in the rule. It doesn’t hurt to supplement your knowledge by reading your judge’s bench book and asking other knowledgeable lawyers about how a particular judge does things. There will still be times when you make mistakes, but using the rules and statutes may help you avoid the big mistakes that can hurt your clients.
We specialize in trial law. A trial lawyer will likely encounter several hundred depositions in their career. There are no law school classes (at least not when we were in school) on how to conduct or defend a deposition. However, there are several good books, in addition to all of those books that you purchased for law school, that will teach some of the techniques you don’t learn in law school. One book that is particularly helpful is The Effective Deposition written by David Malone.
There are also many practice specific books of note. For example, as a criminal defense or personal injury lawyer, one cannot overlook How to Argue and Win Every Time written by Wyoming’s own Gerry Spence. As you continue to grow your knowledge, always be on the lookout for new books to keep your skills current and at their best.
Never underestimate the value of a colleague; as other attorneys can be the ultimate resource. To have a mentor for each area of your practice is ideal, but often it is just not practical to maintain that many formal relationships for each specialty. However, it is very easy to cultivate relationships with other attorneys who practice in the same area of the law.
We all love to talk about our cases and the interesting issues we face, so just mention an issue you are dealing with to a more experienced practitioner and you are likely to get a great explanation. If you don’t get an answer volunteered, do not be afraid to just ask about it. These relationships may seem lopsided at first, but attorneys enjoy talking about their cases, and the relationships tend to balance out over time. As you gain experience, you become the asset by giving back and sharing what you have learned with others, so don’t feel worried about asking for help with the issues you are dealing with now.
Lastly, be bold! Self-initiative is the final tool to assist any new lawyer; and believe it or not, you already possess it. Sure, it’s scary to take on a case in an area you know little about, but don’t be afraid to take on new tasks. You will never learn anything by maintaining the status quo. The best way to learn is to do it yourself. Even when you do your best and use all available resources you still will make mistakes, but learn from the mistakes, self-reflect, and move on by doing and learning. Consider the famous words of Nelson Mandela, who said: “I never lose. I either win or I learn.” There’s a reason they call it the practice of law, and we hope these lessons will benefit you as you pursue it.