In February 2021, I officially completed my first year of practicing law. When I started out, I was advised by another lawyer to keep track of my experiences as a new attorney. Initially, I thought the idea was silly. I do not journal, and the last time I had a journal was in middle school, but the idea seemed to stick. I decided to loosely keep track of my experience, whether it was a good moment, an embarrassing moment, or a moment of learning. In this last year, I learned about the challenges that new attorneys face every day. I learned about the importance of keeping track of progress. I learned that practicing law takes patience, and there is a learning curve to this profession.
I want to share the things that I learned with future and current law students so that they will know what to expect in their first year of practicing law. I want to share my experience with my fellow new attorneys because, although we practice in different areas, we come across similar challenges and experiences. Finally, I want experienced attorneys to reminisce about their days as newly licensed attorneys and how those days shaped the way they practice today. Below are some things I learned.
Mistakes Are Part of the Learning Process
Before law school, I hated making mistakes because I equated a mistake with incompetence. However, as I progressed through law school and studying for the bar exam, I learned the value of embracing mistakes. Making a mistake is never fun, but mistakes are a learning opportunity. If carefully examined, a mistake allows for a deeper understanding of a situation or subject area. Knowing this, I decided to embrace the mistakes during my first year practicing law.
The first step in embracing mistakes was knowing that I was going to make them. It was knowing that they are inevitable, especially in high-volume practice areas. I told myself that if I made a mistake, I would see it as a learning opportunity as opposed to a failure.
The second step was learning that mistakes are fixable, and the law provides for different opportunities to fix those mistakes. Among the different remedies, I became familiar with a motion for nunc pro tunc when I had to file my first one just three months into practicing after making a clerical error on an order. Because of the error, I learned how to draft and file a motion for nunc pro tunc and appeared before the court to ask to grant the motion. A simple error became an opportunity to learn how to fix common mistakes.
The third step in embracing mistakes was knowing that everyone makes them and being harsh on myself was not healthy. At the end of the day, attorneys are humans, and when humans are involved, there are always errors. Feeling incompetent or like a failure is not productive. Mistakes happen, and learning to embrace the lessons they provide is what makes us successful.
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Talk to Other New Attorneys About the Challenges
During my first week as a practicing attorney, I met another new attorney who worked on another team. We had lunch together, and that hour was the beginning of a new work friendship. We bonded over the pressure of answering questions and the deference that we received from legal staff. The truth is that when you are introduced as an attorney, the legal staff expect you to know everything. At first, it is intimidating to know that people are relying on your answers. You are the expert: Even if you have only been licensed for a few months, they are counting on a clear and concise answer.
Sharing experiences with new attorneys creates a bond. We all experience anxiety, fear, and pressure in the first year, and talking about it helps. My new friend made me feel like I was not alone, and throughout my first year, we kept in touch by texting each other every couple of weeks. We asked each other, “How are you doing?” but it meant, “How are you surviving this first year?” These small conversation check-ins reminded me that I was not alone in this experience.
We Are In the People Business
In this past year, I learned that attorneys are in the people business. It is easy to forget this because in law school, the goal is to focus on classes and grades. But in the practicing world, attorneys are constantly interacting with people, and because of this, mastering people skills is crucial.
Paulina Fernandez, Marquette 2019, is an assistant attorney general at the Office of the Attorney General-Child Support Division, located in San Antonio, Texas.
My first observation and challenge was to work on how I communicate with others. In my job, I negotiate with parties, which includes bringing up tough topics and asking tough questions. Because of the sensitive topics, I learned to be aware of the way I communicate with the parties. I learned that my questions, tone, sequence of questioning, and manner of formulating a statement could be the difference between moving forward smoothly or sitting there and digging myself out of a hole.
I had always heard the saying, “It’s not what you say, but how you say it,” and in this year, I learned that it is very true. However, I learned that it goes a step further. When we say something, we must consider the timing, whether the statement should be made, and the consequences that will arise from what is said. All of this makes a difference in how people will respond.
My second, and probably biggest, observation is that people openly share personal stories and problems with us because we are attorneys. When I hear these stories, I am honored to be in a position that allows me to listen to others. I am aware that this might be the first time someone has shared their story or that it is a story that brings out emotional responses. I feel responsible for treating the story with respect.
I learned that people want someone to listen to their story. Most of the time, listening is enough. Listening allows the other person the opportunity to share their story in a sincere manner. Being an attorney means that I will be listening to many stories, and learning to listen and appreciate the experience of hearing a story is fundamental to my success as an attorney.
My first year as a practicing attorney was a success. It was a success because I embraced the challenges that come with being a new attorney. In the law, as in other professions, it takes practice to gain confidence, and repetition and confidence to be able to execute. Patience is needed when things become difficult or stressful. Succeeding as a lawyer requires knowing that in comfort, we do not grow.
Learning how to be an attorney is a process. Success is not achieved overnight, and being a successful attorney takes time. While I am still in the new attorney phase, I am embracing all the challenges, taking note of my progress, and allowing my experience to shape the attorney I want to be.
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How did you find your way to your current position?
In law school, I never gave much thought to jobs that involved going to court. In fact, I always said that I did not want a job for which I would go to court because just the thought of going in front of judges made me very nervous.
In the summer of 2019, I studied and took the Texas bar exam. A few months later, I found out I passed, and I became licensed in Texas. After that experience, I felt like I could do anything, and my self-imposed job-search limitations were lifted. I started to consider jobs in a variety of practice areas. The only requirement I had was that the job would allow me to interact and directly work with people.
As a Texas assistant attorney general in the Child Support Division, I spend my days going to court and working with people, and I love it! I enjoy working with our clients because I like to see the direct effects the law has in their lives. Also, I enjoy working in a fast-paced environment. As for my fear of going to court, I got over that after a few hearings.
Paulina Fernandez, Office of the Attorney General-Child Support Division, San Antonio, Texas.
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» Cite this article: 94 Wis. Law. 45-46 (March 2021).