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  • March 17, 2022

    What We Wish We Knew Then: 11 Tips for New Public Interest Attorneys

    The first year of legal practice can be overwhelming, particularly for public interest attorneys working for small organizations with few mentoring resources. Elizabeth Stinebaugh offers tips and tricks from seasoned attorneys on what they “wish they knew” in their first year of practice.

    Elizabeth Stinebaugh


    Being a new attorney can be tough for anyone. Law school prepares you to read, research, and analyze the law, but it does not necessarily prepare you for the day-to-day practice of the legal profession.

    Inexperienced attorneys can feel completely overwhelmed by their first year(s) of practice, particularly public interest attorneys who may work for small, underfunded organizations that do not have the time, energy, or resources to grow and mentor their new hires.

    Fortunately, many law schools are beginning to include a focus on clinical programs and include a clinical practice requirement for graduation, which gives new attorneys a chance at actual practice experience before graduating.

    Elizabeth Stinebaugh, District of Columbia 2013, is a staff attorney in the Racine office of Legal Action of Wisconsin, and is the firm’s Employment Priority Committee coordinator.

    Upon graduation, there are other established organization and programs, such as the Public Interest Law Section’s mentorship program or the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Ready. Set. Practice mentoring program.

    11 Tips for New Attorneys

    Forthose new attorneys unable to take advantage of these resources, here are a few quick tips from seasoned attorneys, ranging from the serious to the practical to the light-hearted, about what they wish they knew during their first years practicing public interest law.

    1. “Make friends with the court clerks, judges’ clerks, and judicial assistants. They hold the key to the kingdom. Literally.” Amanda A., practicing 7 years.

    2. “Check with your colleagues about the judge you’re appearing in front of for any tips, tricks, quirks, or pet peeves.” Francisca L., practicing 14 years.

    3. “Be creative with your mentors – they don’t always have to be the most seasoned or experienced person in your firm, organization, or community. Even someone with a few years of experience can be a great resource.” Barbi L., practicing 5 years.

    4. “Don’t be afraid to lose a case – you’re going to lose (possibly a lot). Make your argument for your client.” Robert H., practicing 8 years.

    5. “Always volunteer to draft the proposed order – that way you control the language.” Amanda A., practicing 7 years.

    6. “Join your local bar association. Networking events are a great way to meet your possible future opposing counsel and make a good impression on local judges. Also, as a new attorney, the membership fee will likely be reduced, and they are also a great resource for CLEs.” Francisca L., practicing 14 years.

    7. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions about an assignment or during a hearing, etc. – you’ll end up with a better work product.” Barbi L., practicing 5 years.

    8. “Join a State Bar of Wisconsin practice section. You’ll have access to resources in your practice area and a sounding board of other attorneys for troubleshooting and discussion.” Shannon B., practicing 6 years.

    9. “Go old school and carry a paper calendar in addition to your electronic one (this may even be a requirement of your organization’s funding). If you get a new date in a hearing, do not assume that you will remember to add it to your electronic calendar when you get back to the office or rely on the notice of hearing from the court. Put it in your paper calendar immediately, and always double check both at the beginning of the week. Also, check your calendar on CCAP regularly, just as a backup.” – Amanda A., practicing 7 years.

    10. “Know your local court rules and check them for updates often.” Robert H., practicing 8 years.

    11. “Plan time for mental health – whether that is taking off one Friday per month or making sure you leave your desk for lunch. It’s easy to get burned out, particularly as a public interest attorney.” Barbi L, practicing 5 years.

    Want a Mentor? Here Are Some Programs to Check Out

    It isn’t always easy to find a mentor, but the State Bar has resources to help. Check out:

    This article was originally published on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Public Interest Law Section Blog. Visit the State Bar sections or the Public Interest Law Section web pages to learn more about the benefits of section membership.

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    Public Interest Law Section Blog is published by the State Bar of Wisconsin; blog posts are written by section members. To contribute to this blog, contact Jacob Haller and review Author Submission Guidelines. Learn more about the Public Interest Law Section or become a member.

    Disclaimer: Views presented in blog posts are those of the blog post authors, not necessarily those of the Section or the State Bar of Wisconsin. Due to the rapidly changing nature of law and our reliance on information provided by outside sources, the State Bar of Wisconsin makes no warranty or guarantee concerning the accuracy or completeness of this content.

    © 2024 State Bar of Wisconsin, P.O. Box 7158, Madison, WI 53707-7158.

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