When Does a ‘New’ Lawyer Stop Being ‘New’?

When exactly does a new lawyer quit being a ‘new’ lawyer?

One of the biggest fears most of us have about hanging a shingle right out of law school is that we are too new, too untested. We’re going to screw it up. Better get a ‘safe’ BigLaw job and get some experience and mentoring before you commit malpractice.

Putting aside for the moment the fact that there just aren’t enough BigLaw jobs for all the grads coming out of law school and the myth that you actually get either mentoring or better experience at BigLaw, what I want to know is when exactly does the new wear off enough to feel like a lawyer, without the ‘new’ part?

One of the transactional attorneys I worked with at BigLaw told me that she only started to feel like she kind of, sort of, maybe started to feel like she understood what she was doing after six years practicing at BigLaw. My former business partner, on the other hand, felt that she learned pretty much everything she needed to know after a year working in the Public Defender’s office. Some feel like they know it all upon passing the bar exam. Still others feel like they are flying by the seat of their pants after ten years. Your mileage may vary.

For me, three years at BigLaw was enough to convince me that I did not belong there, but when I went solo I still felt very much like a newbie. I learned a lot in different practice areas at BigLaw, but I had developed breadth at the expense of depth and I had learned nothing about practicing law.

Fast forward four years and… I still feel like a newbie much of the time. I still am learning every single day. I learn new practice areas and dust off old ones. I learn better and better ways to manage my practice. I still make mistakes and therefore I am constantly learning.

But now there are things I know without having to research every single point of law. Things I do very efficiently because I’ve been doing them a certain way for long enough. I have these moments where I realize that I am at least as brilliant as I am stupid, and that I am no longer as new as I once was.

While I know I have a long way to go and a long career ahead of me, I have at least come into my own. I am an independent and capable attorney, trusted and respected by my clients and my peers. I am comfortable enough in my abilities that I mentor other lawyers and entrepreneurs. I feel confident enough in my practice that I have taken two whole weeks of vacation this year – the kind of vacations where you turn your phone off and ignore email.

Don’t get me wrong. I still have FGEs and I and my law practice are far from perfect. I’ve got a long way to go. I am a lot more comfortable in my skin these days, though.

So how exactly do you know when you’ve come of age as a lawyer?

Maybe it’s when you know your practice area so well that your Westlaw subscription gets a day or two off now and then. Or maybe it’s when you try a certain number of cases. Or when you have done the same kind of transaction so often that you can do it in your sleep. Or maybe it’s when you can take a vacation without worrying that you won’t have a practice to come home to.

It could be any of those things or none of those things when it happens to you. Whatever it is, I can tell you this: you’ll know it when you feel it.

All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.

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