By Cameron Rhudy • June 05, 2014•Writers in Residence
While sitting at the piano the other day, my nervous fingers fumbled over the keys awkwardly as I tried to practice my scales and correct bad habits learned long ago. My Mom would be happy to know that she was right when she said that I would regret it if I stopped taking piano lessons when I was a kid. She warned me, just like so many other mothers and fathers have warned their children, that if I didn’t stick out the discomfort of learning to play the piano despite the pull of sunny afternoons after school or the glow of the television, that I would regret it. And now, twenty-odd years later, as I am starting to take piano lessons again as an adult and trying to remember even the basics, I do feel that twinge of regret. So there you go Mom, you were right.
To be honest, I feel embarrassed to even practice when I know the neighbors in my apartment complex are home; I imagine them cringing when they hear each misplayed note through the old lath and plaster walls. And it feels downright daunting to think of how much I will need to practice before I can correctly play some of the songs I used to be able to play as a kid, let alone learn to play something new.
It Can Be Challenging Being a Newbie
These feelings of discouragement are similar to how it feels, at times, to be a newer attorney. Of course, discouragement is just part of the human experience. But for some, it weighs most heavy when confronted while pursuing our careers. In this regard, an attorney newer than myself came into my office recently asking for assistance; the attorney’s look of overwhelm was so apparent that I could not help but sympathize. While some of us would like to think we came out of the womb wearing a suit, carrying a briefcase, and reciting precedent, most of us, after passing the bar exam and starting our first job as a licensed attorney, quickly learn that we know very little about how to actually practice law.
The first few years of practicing law are therefore incredibility challenging and stressful. Looking at my colleague’s expression that day, I could recall numerous times over my short 4 ½ years of practicing law when I felt the same way. There have been countless days that I have felt overwhelmed by the tasks at hand and the timeframes provided to accomplish those tasks, and have felt overwhelmed by what felt like large gaps in my practice area expertise.
Sure, our work is called the “practice” of law, but for newer attorneys, it often feels like there is little room for the application of the maxim “practice makes perfect.” When I met up with Sara E. Coppin a couple months ago, she summarized it best when she said that lawyers are trained to believe that they have to be the smartest person in the room. This training, however, only sets newer attorneys up for failure. I can shrug off the discouragement of hitting the wrong keys while practicing piano just for fun, but making mistakes while practicing law can be scary. At times this is for good reason, and we can’t ignore that we are held to a higher standard by the rules of professional conduct, but . . .
Recognizing the Practice in Practicing Law
So, for the sake of the long haul, meaning for the sake of creating a long, successful career, during which you are able to keep your sanity and avoid burn out, I think it helps to view practicing law a little more like practicing piano or any other skill you practice recreationally. Which is to say, perhaps we should encourage each other to be a little more forgiving of ourselves and to encourage each other to look at practicing law as a skill that takes practice. As a newer attorney, I am not going to be the smartest person in the room, but perhaps one day, with practice, I will be.
After all, practicing law really is like honing any other craft or skill; the skills of an attorney are forged by hard work and repetition, and practice area expertise is built over time. Each day I practice my craft by showing up and doing the work day after day, and like with any skill, there is always room for improvement. Each day I get a little better at asking the right questions, improving my research and writing skills, and gaining subject area expertise. On some days it takes enduring the discomfort of tripping up along the way, and on other days it takes great strength just to focus despite the many distractions that surround me. Sure, at times I still feel the pull of sunny afternoons and the glow of the television, but I have learned my lesson.
Perhaps practice will never make perfect, but I can see the progress I have made over the years when I help colleagues more recently admitted to the bar tackle the same hurdles I had to overcome not too long ago. And I can also see the work ahead of me when I work with other colleagues of mine who have much more experience. I suppose that if I am lucky, some day I will feel like I have reached a level of satisfaction with my abilities as an attorney. Until then, I will keep practicing.