By Keisha Stanford • January 17, 2011•Writers in Residence
Nearly two months after starting at the firm – at the time less than a week after I had been sworn in as an attorney – I participated in my first trial. Though lead counsel was a partner at the firm, it was just the two of us. It was definitely not the long table of attorneys that you often see on television. Despite the fact that the trial made me finally appreciate the phrase “hit the ground running,” it proved to be an extremely rewarding experience and one that many lawyers are unable to get early on in their law firm careers. However, to be honest, I almost allowed the fear of never having examined an expert witness (or any other type of witness for that matter) prevent me from taking advantage of this opportunity.
Being a new associate is filled with many firsts. Maybe it’s the first time you’ve written a brief, or dealt directly with a client without someone more senior in the room. Or the first time you’ve had to speak to a judge in open court. Or maybe it’s the first time filed a motion. The early days (or months) of being a young associate are filled with many doubts and insecurities, which are the natural result of never having done something before. For a lot of us, there will be days when you are handed an assignment and simply have no idea where to start. Hopefully, you figure it out in time for your deadline. Here are just a few tips that I’ve gotten over the past several months that have at least help me avoid going down an unproductive rabbit hole.
1. Ask questions of the assigning attorney. More likely than not, the person giving you the assignment knows more about the subject matter than you do. Yes, we all took civil procedure. However, if you’ve been asked to research some highly technical aspect of waiver with respect to challenges to attorneys’ fees in insurance coverage litigation, a general Westlaw search may not be the best place to start. By asking the assigning attorney if he/she has any suggestions on where you might start, you may save yourself a lot of time and unproductive effort.
2. Get to know your research librarian. Though you might have been able to get through three years of law school without ever having to rely on your research librarian, I wouldn’t advise continuing that practice as a young lawyer. If you happen to work in an office or firm with a research librarian, he/she may be your new best friend. Research librarians generally have a mastery of what’s out there in general and, more specifically, what’s in your library and what’s not. They can also point you to sources of which you simply aren’t aware. Who knew there was an entire treatise on insurance practice or patent litigation? I can almost guarantee that your research librarian does.
3. Don’t recreate the wheel when you don’t have to. With lots of my assignments, I find that someone else in the office has done something similar in the past. When I was preparing for trial, a general search of our firm database revealed that I was definitely not the first person to examine a toxicology expert. I found a host of expert witness outlines that I could use as templates. NOTE: This doesn’t mean that you just copy and paste everything from the old document into your new document. For me, it meant that there were exemplars at which I could look to get an idea of topics generally covered, various options for covering topics during the direct examination, and different formats for creating a direct examination outline. In the end, I had to generate the outline for my case, but at least I had a few ideas about where to start.
4. Know what resources are available to you. Though many young associates get some form of generalized training when they begin at the firm, no one can tell you everything you’ll need to know to do your job well. At my firm, I was assigned an associate mentor, who has become an amazing resource. Though I can’t go to him for every single question (he’s just as busy as anyone else at the firm), if I am really stuck, he can suggest various options. Often times, he can point me to someone who works regularly with the assigning partner for whom I’m working. That person can usually answer questions about the partner’s format or style preferences or about their generally working style. Though you could ask the partner these questions, sometimes it’s more comfortable (and more realistic) to go to another associate. In the end, you do have to find a working style that works for you, but there is no need to prepare an entire formal memo if the partner for whom you are working really wants an email summary. Knowing who you can go to with simple questions will help avoid wasted time, and it’s a great way to get to know some of the other attorneys in your office.
5. Don’t automatically say no. There will be times when you are simply too swamped to take on new work. However, don’t confuse being a little busy with being afraid to take on something new. At the time I was assigned to work on the case that was going to trial, I was definitely working on other things. When the assignment partner asked me how I felt about working on a case that would be going to trial in less than a month, my heart skipped a beat. I could feel my pulse quicken at the thought of standing up in open court and asking questions of an expert witness. Yet, with all the “no’s” running through my head, I somehow forced a “yes” out of my mouth. Saying that I was too busy to take on the assignment would have simply been an excuse for getting out of doing something that I’d never done before.
6. Don’t freak out. Sometimes, you won’t have the option of saying no. In those instances, don’t freak out. Freaking out doesn’t change the fact that you have to get the job done and only gets in the way of being able to see productive solutions. I can honestly say that I am glad that I took the assignment. My direct examination went much better than I had expected. It definitely wasn’t perfect, but after watching an entire trial, I’m not sure examining a witness ever is. We all managed to survive three years of law school. But at the start, most of us felt as lost and unsure of what was expected of us. Most of us had never seen a Bluebook before, nor knew what it was. With time, we learned to cite cases, and we learned Civil Procedure, Contracts and Real Property. With some time and effort, brief writing will become second nature and research assignments will be completed with greater ease. Just remember that everyone was a first year at some point in his or her career.