Aug. 5, 2015 – Being a brand-new attorney isn't easy. It's a bit like going from the kiddie pool to an Olympic diving competition; you're out of your depth. This is true for everyone, but it's especially true if you're like me and starting your own practice.
It seems common wisdom that new attorneys are barely competent (if that) and totally unprepared for the reality of everyday practice. Law school didn't teach you how to file a motion or how to talk to clients. But law school did teach you how to think for yourself and figure things out. So don't buy into it when others devalue your ability to serve the public.
The point those naysayers overstate, however, is a good one: if you aren't aware of your limitations, you can do more harm than good. Your primary task as a new lawyer is to build competence.
Thankfully, there are tons of resources for new lawyers in Wisconsin that will help you do just that.
Here's a list of the ones I've found useful:
1. Free Books Unbound Trial
This is amazing, but you'd be excused if you didn't know about it. Every new attorney gets free, full access to the entire Books Unbound™ online library of State Bar of Wisconsin PINNACLE practice guides for six months. You access it through your myStateBar account on wisbar.org.
Use it. The normal price for full Books Unbound access is $769 for a year, so you're getting a ton of value. The more you read, the more value you get.
The books are exactly what new attorneys need, too: basic overviews of practice areas and Wisconsin law, with practical advice for day-to-day lawyering. It's a lifesaver when you're curious about a new practice area or handling a new kind of case.
This is the No. 1 resource for new attorneys in my opinion. Nothing else will help you gain basic competence more quickly and easily.
2. Lawyer-to-Lawyer Directory
The Lawyer-to-Lawyer Directory is another resource you might not know about unless you've explored the State Bar’s website, WisBar.org. It's a directory of attorneys – organized by practice area – who volunteer to take calls from other attorneys with questions about their expertise.
Sometimes you have questions that only someone with experience can answer. If the office next to yours doesn't happen to have that someone, turn to the Lawyer-to-Lawyer Directory. In my experience, the lawyers listed are nice and very willing to help new attorneys.
There are a couple of limitations, though. The phone call needs to be kept short – 5 or 10 minutes. These are busy, practicing lawyers; you might have to try a few times before you get someone who's available. And it's expected that you'll have done what research you can before asking for another attorney's time.
This directory is really meant to help with those brief, specific questions you get when working in a new area of law for the first time. It's also a great way to check for blind spots – those pitfalls you don't know enough to know of yet.
3. State Bar Ethics Hotline
As a new attorney, you're going to have moments when you wonder, "Should I be worried about ethics rules here?" That's what the State Bar Ethics Hotline is for.
Of course, the first thing to do is look for yourself at the Supreme Court rules and comments on the Wisconsin Court System website. When that doesn't calm your fears, use the hotline. It's a great way to get guidance – way better than bothering a busy superior or relying on that guy that's always around the courthouse.
You can reach the hotline at (608) 229-2017 or (800) 254-9154.
4. State Bar Elists
Here's another way to gain the benefit of others' experience: the State Bar elists. There are quite a number of potential lists. The Solo & Small Firm list is a good choice for general advice.
Be prepared to sift through a number of conversations, as with any elist. Many will be too specific to concern you, but it never hurts to observe!
Elists can be particularly useful for requesting forms from other attorneys. Many are willing to share, so don't be afraid to ask.
Note that section-specific elists require membership, with dues ranging from $20 to $40 per year. For help getting started, call the State Bar at (800) 728-7788.
5. Public Defender Resources
No surprise here: public defender cases are often the first cases a new attorney handles. You can get certified to handle misdemeanors with a simple application. Even if you don't want to take appointments, these resources contain useful basic information about lawyering.
First, Wisconsin State Public Defender (SPD) has its own training division with courses you can take online. These count for the CLE required to get and maintain certification to take appointments. For instance, if you're worried about handling a basic case, you can take the "Handling a Misdemeanor Case from A to Z" course (I did). These CLE courses aren't free, but they are inexpensive compared to other programs, and they get you the information you need right away.
Second, SPD has some free resources. Once you have an account on the training site, you can access old CLE videos and materials under "Training Materials" (including the entire 2010 Misdemeanor A to Z course). You can also download the very useful Appellate Practice and Procedure handbook. And there are more free videos on SPD's Vimeo page.
Finally, if you are taking appointments, don't be afraid to call your local SPD office with questions! If you don't know anyone there, try to develop a relationship. The staff attorneys are the single best resource for criminal defense questions.
6. Wisconsin Court System Forms and Guides
Although you aren't going to find an answer to every question on the wicourts.gov website, you will find basic forms and a few guides. They're all aimed at the self-represented litigant, so they are simple and to the point. They might be just what you're looking for.
Of particular note are the guides to small claims and appellate procedure.
7. Wisconsin State Law Library
If you live within driving distance of Madison, the Wisconsin State Law Library is a tremendous resource. Once your Books Unbound trial runs out, it will be the only way to access those same books (in hard copy) for free. There are other useful secondary sources, too, such as jury instructions.
The library itself is never crowded, has good WiFi, and is generally a good place to get some work done. Individual private workrooms are available for free. A library card is free, and you can even get after-hours access with a key fob (for $80/year). The building contains all the legal information you'll ever need.
Of course, the library has its own WestlawNext subscription, which you can use at the building.
If you don't live near Madison, there's still plenty available through the library's website. If you have a library card, you can access HeinOnline (see the June 3, 2015, article in InsideTrack™ on how to use HeinOnline). The website itself contains a comprehensive index of legal topics, with links to everything relevant. It's where to go when you don't know where to start.
8. Local Bar Associations and Specialty Bars
Finally, don't forget about the bar association in your own backyard! Get involved in local bar associations and specialty bars, and you'll get to know the people you'll want to ask about that cantankerous judge later on.
Local associations also put on the occasional free or cheap CLE. Even if it's not exactly on point for you, it's often worth attending just so others know who you are.
Find the lists of local and specialty bar associations on WisBar.org.
This article first appeared in the July 2015 issue of Fresh Perspectives, the newsletter of the Young Lawyers Division, published by the State Bar of Wisconsin. Learn more about the Young Lawyers Division on WisBar.org.