Bar News - December 14, 2012
New Lawyer Committee Column: Watch and Learn
We’ve all heard the criticism that law school teaches students to think like lawyers, but not to be lawyers. It’s a cliché, but one that has resonance for many new attorneys struggling to navigate through daily practice.
One effective strategy for new attorneys dealing with this problem is to watch other, more experienced, lawyers. You can learn a tremendous amount by simply paying attention to how seasoned lawyers interact with each other, handle clients, address the court, and problem solve.
Some great places to watch and learn from more experienced lawyers include:
You often learn a lot about a case during a deposition. But if you are not doing the questioning, depositions are also a fantastic place for newer lawyers to observe other lawyers. Pay attention to things like the questioner’s cadence and tone, whether he asks asking leading or non-leading questions, and how he treats sensitive subjects or emotional deponents. Watch what the questioner does if the deponent refuses to answer a question or becomes combative. Listen closely to any objections and off-the-record discussions.
It is easy to bond with nice clients who have straightforward and solvable problems, but many clients have complex or serious issues that cannot be easily resolved. Clients may be difficult or demanding. As a new lawyer, it can be a challenge to figure out how to strike the right balance when dealing with clients – particularly when it comes to delivering bad news. Watching a more experienced lawyer take a challenging phone call, or explain to a client the difficulties of her case, can be a great way to pick up strategies for your own practice.
The New Hampshire Bar has a reputation for being a friendly bar – and that is largely true. Nevertheless, as a newer lawyer, it can be intimidating to be surrounded by more experienced people, particularly when they are on the other side of a case. There are myriad issues that come up among counsel during litigation, and it can be a real challenge for newer lawyers to figure out how far they should push a discovery dispute, or how accommodating they should be on extensions, or how much information they should share in informal discussions. While you should never blindly follow an outside lawyer’s lead when making strategic decisions about your case, you can certainly learn a lot about good strategies for dealing with common litigation issues by watching opposing counsel, or counsel for a co-party.
Of course, watching more experienced lawyers try a case or argue a motion is a great way to learn tips for effective advocacy. But watching more experienced lawyers at court is also the best way for newer lawyers to learn about proper decorum – including how to navigate the courtroom and interact with the judge, the clerk, the clients and other lawyers. Sometimes, this can be as simple as figuring out at which table your side should be sitting. But you can also learn a lot about more complex issues, like how to build rapport with the clerk.
These are just a few examples of places where newer lawyers can take advantage of the experience around them. Of course, a more experienced lawyer does not necessarily equal a good lawyer, so you don’t want to adopt every strategy you see. Nevertheless, for newer lawyers, paying close attention to more experienced lawyers is a fantastic way to learn practical skills.
Clara E. Lyons, a member of the NHBA New Lawyers Committee, practices in Manchester at the law firm of Getman, Schulthess & Steere, PA. She was admitted to the NH Bar in 2010.