New Kid in the Well

About to embark on another summer season of law students and fresh-faced lawyers starting internships, summer associateships and new jobs, Ori Herstein at  PrawfsBlawg and Orin Kerr at Volokh Conspiracy have offered some sage advice on how to conduct oneself.

Since most law student and new lawyer readers here are neither headed to Biglaw or chambers, there are some things that don’t apply as well, such as eating the fish at Big Fancy Dinners, but others that you ought to consider.  With that in mind, my two cents for those whose summer will be spent working in criminal law.

1.  Use Three Senses Rather Than Five

Most of us have five senses. Some think they have six.  If you put yourself in the latter category, there’s no helping you. Stop reading.  If the former, you need to focus on sight and hearing.  Just pay attention and listen to everything around you, even when it’s all happening at once.  You can learn an enormous amount, both right and wrong, by watching and listening. You learn nothing by speaking. 

You think your thoughts are better, deeper, smarter than others?  Then speak, but be quite certain you have something useful to add.  Criminal lawyers love nothing better than to tell war stories.  It’s one of our worst characteristics, but at least lawyers who have been through the mill a few times have some stories to tell. You don’t.  No matter how fascinating you think your tales of law school experiences are, they aren’t. Don’t be tempted. You have nothing to contribute.

The third, and most important sense, is touch.  You may have little to offer on strategy, tactics or grasp of circumstances, but your grasp of a heavy bag will be sincerely appreciated.  Or grasp of a coffee cup. You’re young, strong and perky. Use it to your advantage and put your energies toward something where you can contribute. It will be appreciated, especially if no one has to ask. 

2.  Everything They Told You in Law School was a Lie

The lawprofs mean well, and they were no doubt sincere when they praised Scalia/Douglas and explained why he was right and the others were, well, wrong.  At the ground floor, there are no 37 pages opinions running through the course of legal precedent from the beginning of time to that very day.  There is no parsing of the latest Supreme Court decision, noting that one point is mere obiter dictum and another is the limited/expansive holding of the modest/activist judge.

The words you tend to hear most are granted or denied, coupled with “move on.”  Don’t cry.  Don’t get angry and upset, and explain why how unfair it all is.  We know.  Dwelling on it is unproductive, as there is always another battle to fight around the corner.  When one fight is done, win, lose or draw, we move on to the next.  Wallowing is time wasted that is better spent preparing.

You will begin to wonder, very quickly, why you bothered going to law school at all.  Real judges don’t seem anything at all like the ones the lawprofs talked about, day after day, or the guys who wrote the decisions you were forced to read and regurgitate.  This is because there isn’t a whole lot of law in the trenches, and they manufacture a sanitized version on appeal so that it doesn’t look so foolish to people reading later.

Do not spend your time getting caught up in this, explaining to others your shock and disappointment, crying in your beer, getting all emo and disillusioned.  A lot of law students and young lawyers are lost quickly when they learn this point.  If you realize it going in, you’re a lot less likely to grow tedious and annoying in your epiphany, and a lot more useful in help to deal with ugly battles.

3.  Nurse Your Beer

Everybody has their flaws.  Some more than others,  There is a time honored tradition within criminal law of drinking heavily after court.  Not all lawyers do this.  Some use drugs.  Some just aren’t into altered states of consciousness, but enough do to make this worth mentioning.  As a law student, your drinking chops are likely in pretty good shape, but you are now dealing with pros.

What distinguishes a pro is the ability to imbibe heavily while keeping their wits about them.  You may be good on the “heavily” side, but not so good at remaining neatly groomed as time goes on.  In law school, drooling was considered relatively normal.  Among professionals, it’s frowned upon.

The person standing next to you at the polished oak bar doesn’t want your drool on them.  You don’t recognize that person to be your boss, so you don’t really care, especially at that moment and under those circumstances.  Unfortunately, that person is a judge.  Just because they don’t wear their robe 24/7 doesn’t mean they aren’t a judge.  She will remember that you drooled on her.  She may hold it again you. She may hold it against your boss for not keeping you under control.  She may hold it against your boss’ client because she’s that type of judge.  Don’t drool, meaning keep yourself under control.

4.  Be Polite At All Times

Eventually, you will become a trusted and respected member of the bar. You will get to know folks, and they will get to know you.  At that point, you can pick and choose who you deem worthy of your respect.  At the moment, you have done nothing to make yourself worthy of their respect.  Yes, all human being are worthy of respect, blah, blah, blah, and you will find that most lawyers will treat you quite nicely. That’s because we’re just nice people.  Not because you’ve done anything special.

Remember that you are not their peers.  Do the unthinkable, and use a level of formality until invited to do otherwise.  Call them Mister of Mizzzzz until they’ve told you to use their first name. They will, but it’s their choice.  And judges are called judge or your honor all the time, even in the bar.

The lawyers you work with will likely treat you as one of the gang. This does not mean they’re your BFF.  Criminal lawyers tend to be a far less formal bunch than, say, Biglaw or judges.  We’re not particularly official or officious, but that doesn’t mean we’re teeny boppers either.  Feel the camaraderie, but respect the experience.  You are sucking up their time and attention, and this is a gift they give to you.  Appreciate it.

No doubt there are other things to consider, and many of the admonitions that Ori and Orin offer apply as well.  This is an opportunity to find out what you just bought for your quarter mil, so enjoy it in the sense of gaining an appreciation of the life you chose. 

2 comments on “New Kid in the Well

  1. Keith Lee

    Good advice. Along those lines, growing up, whenever I would attend some sort of adult event with my parents my father would remind me that “children were meant to be seen and not heard.” Following his advice has served me in new environments and situations far beyond childhood – though I don’t always manage it.


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