Newness is a mainstay in the life of a young lawyer. In fact, novelty is a reality that permeates throughout an entire legal career. Encountering new situations and new places can be daunting even for the most seasoned practitioner, but they are especially sweaty-palm inducing, panic instituting and deer-in-headlights look creating events for a young associate. I often enjoy spans of practice, often short, yet nonetheless sweet, where everything seems so familiar. It is an extremely rewarding feeling to get an assignment, arrive at a courtroom, present a motion or talk to a partner and feel a global sense of comfort; that sort of feeling that suggests “it’s all in a day’s work” and I have been here before. Familiarity, however, often transforms into boredom and monotony fairly quickly. For every few days that I function and feel like an all-knowing veteran, somewhat fortunately, I spend the next few weeks running around like the rookie I truly am.
Last month, I was thrust into full greenhorn mode via the perfect storm of legal novelties: a new partner, who assigned me a new and unfamiliar motion, which included an accompanying argument in a new court. My initial outward response was a confident, “Sure, of course I will handle it immediately,” but my inwardly induced chaos was definitively bellowing, “What am I going to do?” Ultimately, I successfully weathered the jurisprudential hurricane, but the process of reaching that point was one of the most important learning experiences of my young career.
The New Partner: “Partner X”
On the instant occasion, I was summoned by Partner X via a ringing telephone call that broke the silent and comfortable world of legal research that I was previously occupying. I recognized the name on the caller identification line from the firm website and from word of mouth, but the voice on the other end was distinctly foreign. After a brief telephone introduction, Partner X asked if I could swing by his office for a “quick assignment.” I quickly obliged and, following the directional assistance that Partner X provided over the telephone, snaked through the maze of hallways and stairways at my firm and arrived at the scene. Although at this point in my tenure I have met most of the attorneys and staff at my office personally, there is still the occasional individual who has eluded my greeting.
Before I stepped foot in the proverbial lion’s den (or in the case of lawyers, maybe the analogy should be the shark’s territory), I took a deep breath to collect myself. Meeting new people in any capacity, life or career alike, can be an awkward and anxiety-provoking experience, especially when the individual on the other end of the encounter could have a substantial impact on your career path.
After entering the office and exchanging pleasantries, I quickly realized that my previous anxiety was unwarranted. From a distance, especially from the standpoint of a young associate, some partners may seem to be untouchable pillars of the legal community. Observation of these individuals in their natural habitats (i.e. the courtroom or negotiating table), can often further solidify this perception. In reality, however, the vast majority of senior-level lawyers who I have encountered reside far from the impenetrable ivory tower. Instead, many veterans pride themselves on teaching their art to younger practitioners.
My first stressor was conquered via the imposition of an easy formula: a deep breath, a level head and an acknowledgement that the more senior partners are generally there to help young associates, not to intimidate or otherwise negatively impact them. I was instantaneously able to broaden my partner network and discover a blueprint for subsequent interactions with new members of my firm and the legal community abroad.
The New Motion
Before I knew it, I walked out of Partner X’s office with the new assignment in hand, but my latest task was accompanied by a different reason to be nervous: Partner X assigned me a motion I had never heard of before, let alone one that I had any idea where to start with. The purpose, suggested format and even the title of the motion were noticeably foreign to me. For a normal motion, I am generally able to ask around my hallway or search the firm’s shared document repositories for a sample. The newly assigned motion, on the other hand, was more of a “we want to ask the court to do this, but don’t really know how” type of motion, as opposed to a more well-defined request.
After overcoming the initial period of shock, I fell back on a familiar strategy. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, cleared my mind and prepared to do “my thing.” Even in my short career, I have written enough motions to know that, while there might not always be a precise form or a list of magic words, a rational written argument to the court clearly delineating exactly what you are seeking is the desired path. I manufactured a rough draft, added in some revisions and forwarded my final work product to Partner X for his experienced review. Partner X’s retort was quick and to the point; his email reply simply stated “perfect.” His response was merely one word and spanned only seven letters, but the approval resonated as a tremendously sweet ending to a conversely tumultuous beginning.
Stressor number two was overcome with the same basic blueprint as my original antagonist. Again, sanity, thoughtfulness and confidence triumphed.
The New Court
As if my simple and small world was not already shaking severely off-axis, Partner X’s new motion was scheduled to be argued in a new court (at least to me) and I was dubbed the litigator for the job. Going to law school and later practicing law in Allegheny County, I was spoiled by the familiarity. I knew all of the buildings, recognized many of the staff members and often had a class or two with many of the judicial law clerks for the more active judges. Familiarity is a valuable resource when dealing with the local courts and can often help you bypass some of the potential conspiracies of secrecy and other impediments to finding answers that are often erected in the local court buildings. With other and unfamiliar courts, however, such a home-field advantage disappears.
Prior to presentation of my motion, I took all necessary precautions: I woke up exceedingly early for the scheduled 10 a.m. motion, left my house with plenty of time to spare, knew the motion and accompanying facts and arguments by heart and had specific driving directions (with potential alternative routes, if needed) in hand. I arrived at the courthouse without a glitch, but my experience once inside the building was another story entirely. The courthouse was a maze of corridors, hidden stairwells, unreliable elevators and a global lack of directional assistance.
My mind started to race and I could not help but thinking that, if I was in Allegheny County, I would just ask someone for help. Then, suddenly and triumphantly, a light bulb went off: I could just ask someone here too. The remedy was so simple, but in my panic, new surroundings and overall state of confusion, I had lost sight of my go-to solutions. Luckily, I located a friendly gentleman who was more than willing to help solve my locational debacle and, as it turned out, he was familiar with the judge hearing my motion. I received some valuable and unsolicited insight regarding the judge’s preferences and ending up winning my motion, at least in part, because of the priceless information I obtained.
The experience in the new court helped me realize that there is no reason to be completely thrown outside of a comfort zone merely because of a new situation. Plenty of techniques that work in a familiar arena, even though often lost in the shuffle of a novel situation, translate well under various circumstances. Now, when I enter a new courthouse or even a new courtroom in town, I attempt to locate a law clerk or other staff member and introduce myself. The introduction not only helps me become more comfortable with my surroundings, but often yields important tips that might be lost otherwise.
Finally, the perfect storm of legal novelty had passed and I remained mainly unscathed by the entire, often terrifying experience. In each of the above-explained novel situations, an oft forgotten aid to sound decision-making returned to save me from my anxiety-ridden and stress-filled world: common sense. Little changes in the status quo can mask themselves as insurmountable challenges when faced with a clouded frame of mind, especially when small battles are simultaneously waged.
My father always lectured that you can rarely control the circumstances that confront you, but you can always control your reaction to the circumstances. New situations will always occur, big and small, but none need to become overwhelming. As long as a young lawyer can learn how to control reactions and become proactive to avoid stressors, the confrontations will remain manageable and newness will become a conquerable foe. •
Michael J. Joyce is a first-year associate of the commercial law and litigation practice group in the Pittsburgh office of Dickie, McCamey & Chilcote, focusing his practice on commercial disputes and products liability matters. He can be reached by telephone at 412-281-7272 or by email at email@example.com.