Monday, August 13, 2007

Lawyer Life Lessons #1 -- Don't Panic

It has been suggested to me that my blog is rather themeless and so I have decided to introduce not a theme but what I hope will be an ongoing strand of some use to law students, articling students and new associates. I am at that convenient point in my career where the joys and miseries of getting started are still fresh but I have moved far enough along to have some experience and perspective that can be of use.

For those of you who remember The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy you will recall in that the storied guide had written in large letters on the cover the words, "DON't PANIC". This is probably the most important phrase that you can learn and live by to get you through starting in law. Indeed, the further I go in law the more I think it remains the most important guiding principle -- the unexpected and unplanned for will always come and what will separate success from failure in most cases is the refusal to panic.

In my first few years articling and as associate I constantly faced one critical realization at each turn in the road -- I have no clue what to do next and people who should know better are paying me to tell them what to do. There were numerous times that I heard phrases like 'the rule against perpetuities', 'dominant and servient tenament' and 'the rule in Brown v. Dunne' where it was clear that I supposed to immediately know what the lawyer was talking about and frankly they could have been speaking hungarian for all I knew. Looking back on it I now know that the lawyers knew that, largely because except for -- and this is important -- a way of thinking law students essentially learn nothing much more than the ABC's of law in law school. Generally speaking I had two choices at the point where the English words stopped and the Hungarian began: (1) ask or (2) spend 20 hours at the library trying to translate. The right answer was almost always (1).

There is very little in law that cannot be fixed. There are a few mistakes (missed that limitation period did you?) which may be fatal, but those are very rare and if there is one thing that lawyers are good at it is finding loopholes to fix mistakes like those (and there is always insurance for the fatal errors). Usually though it is a lot easier for someone who has been around the block to figure the problem out than for the person who made the mistake to figure it out on their own without help (that is why people hire lawyers after all). Generally, they lack the experience to know the solution and, more seriously, their judgment is impaired by this impending sense of panic that sets as they contemplate all the dire personal consequences to follow.

So -- don't panic -- just ask. Ask the lawyer who assigned the problem or, particularly if they are the problem, ask another lawyer. Someone will have some advice and guidance and will likely have a solution.

The thing to remember is that at every level the law firm as a whole wants you to succeed. Obviously there is an interest in success on the particular file but more importantly there is a desire for you to succeed and stick around. There are crass reasons for this (succesful articling students and associates make mediocre partner's shine) and not so crass reasons (we actually usually like the people we hire).

So, lesson #1: DON'T PANIC.

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