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Top 5 things I learned in my first year of practice that I didn’t learn in law school

Top 5 things I learned in my first year of practice that I didn’t learn in law school

It is a bit hard (for me, at least) to believe that I’ve already been out of law school six years and counting. I feel fortunate to have gone to a law school that emphasized legal research, writing, and advocacy skills and that did, in fact, teach me a lot of skills that I routinely use in the “real world.”

But, looking back, there are many things that my first year in private practice taught me that I didn’t learn in law school. Perhaps some lessons really do just have to be learned the hard way. But, in hopes that someone else can learn them a little more quickly, here are my top five lessons learned in my first year of practice.

What Lawyers Do

You would think I would have figured this one out sooner. Law school exposed me to a lot of things lawyers do – I spent summers as a legislative and policy intern and a law firm summer associate, I had an externship with the U.S. Immigration Court, and I had the opportunity to connect with alumni who were everything from criminal defense attorneys to corporate counsel to judges. Then, I spent a year as a judicial law clerk, observing lots of lawyers from varied backgrounds.

But soon enough I found myself in my first interview for a private practice job, and the senior partner asked me what a lawyer’s job was. To be honest, I don’t recall my exact answer. Probably something about chasing down every lead and zealous advocacy.

But I will never forget what he told me: “Lawyers are problem solvers.” Plain and simple. Every client that walks through the door has some problem or issue, and we are the problem solvers. It’s been five years since that interview – I have never forgotten those words and each passing year further demonstrates their truth.

The Steepness of the Learning Curve

You would definitely think I learned this one in law school. The 1L learning curve was one of the steepest I’ve ever encountered. I entered law school feeling pretty confident in my academic skills – reading, writing, reasoning, and yes, test taking – but it wasn’t long before I realized that “short” reading assignments required hours with Black’s Law Dictionary, and my early papers would come back looking like an army of red pens had bled on them.

Looking back, it was all part of the learning curve. My grades improved each semester, and I had the opportunities I sought to participate in law review, compete for firm jobs, and finish strong. But apparently I forgot all those lessons when I entered my first year of private practice!

So much of those early months felt like “catch up” – trying to learn enough to feel up-to-speed on our cases and the laws of our jurisdiction. I spent late nights and weekends at my desk pouring over documents, editing and re-editing my own work, convinced that at any moment my employers would figure out that I had no idea what I was doing. In retrospect, the first year of private practice was the steepest learning curve I have ever encountered. It may well be that the only way to get over this hurdle is to do your job, do it well, and build confidence as you start to receive positive feedback. But know that you will get over the hurdle.

Every client that walks through the door has some problem or issue, and we are the problem solvers.

How Hard – and Valuable – It Is to Say “No”

I recall sitting in my office one evening, dutifully working on one thing from the long checklist on my white board. The senior partner (yep, same one from the interview) popped his head into my office to ask if I could complete a research task for him. And I can only imagine that the look in my eyes was something akin to “exhausted deer in headlights,” because his next words were, “you know you can say no, right?”

And I guess in theory I did know that, but it was an invaluable lesson to learn from someone in his position. As a first year attorney trying to make a name for myself, I often felt like I couldn’t – or perhaps more accurately just didn’t want to – say no to projects. I felt compelled to try to help everyone, please everyone, and of course, bill as many hours as I could. It was a moment of both relief and learning for a partner to take the time to tell me that I should not overburden myself and should only take on as much as I was able to while devoting my very best efforts to each assignment.

Some days I still struggle to not stretch myself too thin, but I have learned to say “no,” knowing that better work will result from not doing too much.

How to Conquer “Impostor Syndrome”

I can still recall that feeling before I submitted my first brief, argued my first motion, took my first deposition, that any minute now, all the cards were going to fall, and it was going to become apparent that I wasn’t ready to be a “real lawyer.” For me, the way to conquer this was to just do it. Whatever the daunting task was, just do it. Certainly, don’t go it alone. Take advantage of the opportunity to observe more senior lawyers and to seek the advice of your colleagues.

But at the end of the day, it is when you face your fears, own your nerves, and accomplish the task in front of you that you realize that not only are you ready to be a real lawyer – you are one. While I do remember that anticipatory nervousness, I more clearly remember the feeling after I accomplished each of those “firsts” and looked forward to all of the “nexts.”

The Value of Finding the Right “Fit”

I had long heard that a large part of one’s happiness and success in a job would be finding the right people to work with – the right “fit” at a place of employment. But I could not have known how true that was until I found it.

I remember walking out of the interview for my first job in private practice and calling my husband on the way home.

“How was the interview?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I said, “but I had a great time.”

There had been few questions about my previous employment or my grades – my interviewers already knew me on paper. But there were a lot of questions about my interests, my passions, about me. There were many great conversations that I genuinely enjoyed, and I left feeling like I met some fantastic people but with no idea whether I had landed a job offer!

It turns out that I had, and I am thankful that having already passed the screening of my credentials, so much of my interview focused on whether the “fit” would be right.

I encourage any interviewee – for any sort of job – to spend time thinking about the questions you want to ask as well to ensure that you “fit” in that job. Beyond simply having the right people to create a pleasant work environment (which is really important if you’re going to spend anywhere from 40 to 90 hours a week with those people), my firm proved to be exactly the environment I needed to grow both professionally and personally.

In addition to my many other roles in life, I am a military spouse attorney, which brings its own sets of challenges – among others, balancing work and home life while your spouse is deployed, readjusting that balance when your spouse returns, and trying to maintain your career while moving every two to three years, on average.

In addition to the support of other military spouse attorneys through the Military Spouse JD Network, I would not have thought it all possible without the support of my first employer after I married into the military and entered private practice (all within a six-month span that also saw my new husband deploy). While I ultimately made a difficult decision to leave my firm to accompany my husband on his next tour, that job and those early years in private practice taught me what to look for in any job going forward.

For that, and for the other lessons I had to learn the hard way, I am a better lawyer and forever grateful.

Thea Pitzen Thea Pitzen is a lawyer, a military spouse, and a mother of one. She is admitted to practice in Virginia, Florida, Georgia (currently inactive), and the District of Columbia and has previously worked as a judicial law clerk to a U.S. District Court Judge, as an adjunct lecturer, and in private practice. Prior to law school, she was a teacher through Teach For America. Thea is currently an associate at the law firm of Goodman Allen Donnelly in Norfolk, Virginia, where she focuses her practice on the defense of hospitals, physicians, dentists, nurses, nursing homes and other health care providers. She is also an active member and previously served on the board of directors of the Military Spouse JD Network.