Transition in the practice of law

In April, I’ll be presenting at the NALP annual conference along with 3 colleagues.  Our topic is titled, “Facilitating a Successful Transition from Student to Lawyer.”  Our proposal identified a number of issues that confront new lawyers, and we’ve also identified ways that law schools and law firms (our primary audience) can support those going through this transition.

My transition to practice occurred in 1993 or 1995, depending on whether a clerkship should count as practice for these purposes.  However, I had a second transition when I moved from Georgia to Florida, complete with another bar exam and needing to learn a completely new set of local customs and local rules.  Frankly, I think the state-to-state transition was more traumatic than the school-to-practice transition, simply because after practicing law for 10 years, I’d learned how to do the things that constituted a part of my practice and I was comfortable with those.  I knew what I knew, and I also knew what I didn’t know, so I’d moved past the stage of needing to look up every procedural step to be sure I was doing it correctly.  Ah, but that was no longer applicable!  I suddenly learned that local custom (not rule, which is written, but custom) required service of original discovery, something that was simply unthinkable in my home jurisdiction.  That, and seemingly hundreds of other differences, tripped me up on a regular basis after I moved to Florida, making me feel like a newbie all over again.

We’ll discuss at NALP what schools and firms can do to assist in lawyer transitions, but today, I’d like to consider what lawyers can do to facilitate their own transitions.

1.  Be prepared to learn new habits.  This seems to elementary, and in some ways it is, but I’d submit that it’s tough to change basic habits without a significant effort.  Taking my discovery example, I had to stop each time I was going to serve requests or answers and think about what I needed to ask my secretary to do.  My habits couldn’t stand.  And, frankly, I resented having to remember to check the rules I’d learned so long ago!  But after a few months — notably, after I was willing to relinquish my resentment — the new habit took over.

2.  Find a mentor or colleague you can ask for help.  Whether you’re a new lawyer or just new to your current jurisdiction, you need resources.  Someone who’s been in practice for a few years can be an invaluable ally to help you learn everything from the quirks of particular judges to which lunch spot will guarantee you a stomach ache.  Ideally, you’ll have more than one person to ask, but do yourself the favor of locating at least one friendly and knowledgeable colleague.

3.  Accept that you’re going to feel clueless for a while.  Especially if you’re going to a new jurisdiction, you’re likely to feel that everything you’ve known is suspect, if only because you’re going to have to keep checking the local rules or the new (new to you) state law.  This period is called Conscious Incompetence — you know what you don’t know.  Know that it passes.

4.  Spend extra time getting to know your new city, firm and/or jurisdiction.  This is the time for you to find and read past issues of the local business journal, legal newspaper, firm newsletter, and so on.  You can’t substitute for the knowledge that comes with being in a place over time, but you can begin to create your own database of knowledge.  It takes time, and that time will be well-spent.

5.  Declare your expectations for yourself.  This is specific way of saying, set goals.  Sometimes getting acclimated to a new environment is the top priority; sometimes you’ll be thrown right into a big project and showing your mettle is even moe important than learning your way around.  Super heroes may be able to do everything, but the rest of us have limited time and energy.  You’ll make the most of yours if you make conscious decisions about what you want and need to do as you transition into your new practice.

What’s your best tip for transitioning?

3 replies
  1. Stephen Seckler
    Stephen Seckler says:

    Get out of the office and meet other professionals. Don’t rely entirely on internal mentors to get the lay of the land. Participate in bar related activities and meet other lawyers who share your interests. As time goes by, get involved in an industry group that enables you to meet business people who may some day become referral sources for business. Learn about the industries you serve from the people who work in those industries.

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