Getting Experience as a Young Lawyer

I keep thinking about an interesting article I recently read about a Federal Judge raising a question that has certainly been on the mind of many an associate, especially those working in big law firms:

How do you grow as a lawyer and take your career to the next level if you never get the practical experience required to develop your skills?

Working at a big law firm can provide many great experiences to junior lawyers. You spend your days (and often your nights) working on a number of large, complex matters. You deal with complicated questions of law and fact, and the sink-or-swim environment forces you to develop management and delegation skills, hone your attention to detail, and manage your time if you ever want to do anything other than work. Sure, you start at the bottom, reviewing documents or assisting with the most minor tasks relating to a filing, but even these basic tasks help you to understand how large cases come together, and help you to be a better senior associate when tasked with delegating those tasks to junior lawyers years down the road.

Of course, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. Your daily work life can be a bit of a slog. And to what end? The path to partnership is long and incredibly uncertain as firms seem to be offering fewer and fewer partnership spots these days.

How do you distinguish yourself as someone who’s ready for promotion? The reality is that as an associate, even if you find yourself moving up the food chain at a good clip, certain tasks are beyond your reach or years away. It can take several years before associates act as first chair for a deposition on a billable matter. And even longer before they argue a motion in Court.

Now, you can learn a lot watching arguments in Court (assuming you get to go – with clients cracking down on bills, associates often find themselves left in the office while the partner goes to court). But there is a huge difference between watching an argument and doing one, and between preparing for a moot court, and standing in front of a judge hammering you with questions on the record.

So back to that article I read, where the Court identified and voiced concerns about this particular conundrum. Judge Grewal acknowledged that associates who “contributed mightily” to the case deserve their chance to develop their skills:

“All of this raises a question: Who will try the technology cases of the future, when so few opportunities to develop courtroom skills appear?” he said. “It is difficult to imagine handing entire intellectual property trials to a generation that never had the chance to develop those skills in more limited settings. Senior lawyer and their clients may shoulder some of the blame, but surely courts and judges like this one must accept a large part of the responsibility.” (subscription required)

It will be interesting to see what happens in this particular trial, and in the future. Since Judge Grewal made his comments, I have heard of at least one other court asking counsel to present a plan for junior lawyers on the case to get more experience, which is a big step in the right direction. However, we all know that while many clients expect that junior associates will do a lot of the prep work to save on bills, at the end of the day, they hire the expensive partners for a reason, and they want the big guns arguing in the court room. So there’s a ways to go.

As a junior lawyer, what can you do? Well, there are a few options:

  • Pick a firm, office, or practice area where you’ll get these opportunities sooner.
  • Take on a pro bono matter where you act as lead counsel.
  • Ask to handle a deposition or argue a motion – you will be surprised how many times an associate gets to do something simply because they show initiative and ask. Sometimes partners just don’t think to offer you the opportunity, but if they know you want it, it’s yours.
  • If you are not given total control over a task, you should still ask to attend every hearing, deposition or key meeting you can. Observational experience isn’t as good as the real thing, but it counts for something.
  • Raise the issue within your firm. Do you have an associates committee? A mentor? You may not get very far, but if more firms hear about this from junior lawyers, maybe they’ll be spurred to make a change.

Pic Credit: Claire Anderson (via Unsplash)