One of the most intelligent lawyers who I ever met tells a story about the early days of her marriage as she adapted to the daily routines of domestic life while balancing the pressures of law school. One of the chores which she attended to every week was defrosting her freezer and throwing out the meat that was past its best before date. Yes, from the freezer. Every week. Then, one day, she was chatting with her mother on the phone and lamented the time and money wasted doing this every week. Her mother’s response was one of incredulous laughter. As my friend tells the story, she simply did not know what she did not know.
We all have our mental blind spots and do dumb things from time to time. In my friend’s case, she had not received much in the way of training from her parents in what we used to call ‘home economics.’ (If I were not as politically correct as I am, I would have said ‘from her mother,’ and if I were more politically correct than I am (or a little less brave or foolhardy), I would not have included this comment at all.)
In any event, even the smartest of us has their not-so-smart moments. And in our personal lives, it often does not matter much. In our professional lives, our gaffes can have serious consequences. By the nature of our training, lawyers are more sensitive than most professionals to the possibility of legal liability for our mistakes, and we tend to stress about it, especially early in our careers. Over time, we develop knowledge and experience that helps us to avoid many of the easy mistakes. But early in our careers we tend not to know what we do not know, and that is how we get into trouble.
In a perfect world, we would learn about how to handle legal files in law school. In the real world, at least where I live in Ontario, Canada, law schools take the position that it is not their job to teach lawyers how to practice law. The Law Society of Ontario long ago abandoned any pretense of taking responsibility for ensuring that young lawyers are taught the basics of what they have to know to practice law. (They may deny that, but if they do, they have some real ‘splaining’ to do about why so many young lawyers do not in fact have the required knowledge.)
Then there are the law firms. Some law firms provide good training, supervision, and mentoring. Many do not.
So, who is left to ensure that young lawyers are competent before they are unleashed on the unsuspecting public? Strangely enough, it is the young lawyers themselves who must take responsibility for learning how to practice law. And what is even more strange, no one tells them that.
Young lawyers can be forgiven for thinking that having expended a great deal of time and money to graduate law school and complete the licensing process, the ‘system’ will have taught them what they need to know. Sure, the rest of us established lawyers know better, but who among us explains that to them?
The newbies can also be forgiven if they buy into the law firm hype about their continuing education, supervision, and mentoring programs. Some firms do a good job at that. Others do not. Within firms, some partners teach their junior lawyers what they need to know to develop into great professionals. Others only teach them what they need to know to produce billable hours.
And what about the countless newcomers to the profession who immediately launch solo careers? Who is there to provide them with the guidance which they need? Often, nobody.
Which takes us back to the issue of personal responsibility.
Each and every young lawyer has to understand that it is their responsibility to find the training, supervision and mentoring that they need to be competent. It may be somewhat easier for a young lawyer to do this if they join an established firm than if they open a solo practice, but even then, they have to be aware that there is tremendous inconsistency in the experience offered by different firms or even by partners within the same firm. For those who go solo early in their career, it is even more difficult. On the other hand, at least the sole practitioners are not going to be hoodwinked by firm propaganda into believing that they are getting something that they are not. False confidence is worse than no confidence, or even imposter syndrome.
Someone has to tell young lawyers that our system of professional education is not designed to make them competent to practice law. (It would be better if the system actually were designed to do this – it really should be – but that is a topic for another day.) It is only intended to give them the tools that they require to learn what they need to know. It is up to them to be sure that they take the next steps. Educate themselves. Associate with more experienced lawyers. Find mentors. Unfortunately, there is no roadmap.
Welcome to the profession!