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March 16, 2004

Fowler: What I Didn't Learn In Law School

by Guest Contributor

Scheherazade Fowler is a third-year lawyer practicing in Portland, Maine. She writes about law (and life) at Stay of Execution.-Ed.

There's a lot I didn't learn in law school. I didn't learn much about property or anything at all about domestic relations or trusts or land transactions. Nor anything about international law or trial practice. Administrative law, nope, jurisprudence, nope, antitrust, environmental law, not those either, nor any number of potentially useful subjects. But most of that stuff I never particularly wanted to know, and although I may have an occasional curiosity now and then I don't really stay up late cursing my law professors for the knowledge they failed to shove down my uninterested throat when I was a student.

But, you know, when I started out at my law firm, all newly-admitted and shiny-smart with my summa cum laude diploma, I don't think I realized how very stupid I would feel, daily, for the next three years (and counting). Because, at least for me, the hard part isn't the book learning identification: issue-rule-analogous cases-analysis-conclusion. Or the writing or the research. The hard part is the miscellaneous administrivia that I came out of law school totally unaware I needed to manage, and the daily people and time management skills I needed to develop to get things done. I'm working on it but boy oh boy, it's not anything my success in school gave me any particular insight into, and if there was a Gilbert’s or a Nutshell on “Acting Like You Have Your Act Together Like Real Lawyers Do” I missed it in the library.

Like, when I got to my law firm I got my desk and my stapler and computer and all my passwords and then was introduced to my assistant. Assistant. Right. What the heck does my assistant do? Everyone expects you to sort of know this stuff. Worse, your assistant expects you to know this stuff and to know answers to questions like, "How do you like your litigation files handled?" or "How do you like to do your billing slips?" or even "When do you like to look at your mail?" And, if you're me, you are still trying to pretend that you are smart and prepared to do this job they've hired you to do and you don't want to say, "I don't understand a word you are saying to me right now." And you fumble through that situation and feel like a fraud and then you know your assistant is on to you as a fraud (or, potentially worse, is NOT on to you and will continue to ask you mysterious questions like these and expect you to answer sensibly), and you've got to figure out how to make her your ally without completely losing any respect and authority you think you might be entitled to. Which is, well, you're not sure how much authority or respect you are really to be accorded. Like, can you ask your assistant to send a fax for you or will she bite your head off if you do? Who's the person who puts toner in the printer if you print something and you're in a hurry and it's out of toner and you can't figure the damn thing out and should you be billing the client for the time you're spending poking at the damn printer and looking desperately around the hallway wondering whose job this is anyway and if you can't bill the client for this time (and how can you, in good faith?) will you look like a chump and a slacker for this .4 of an hour of unbilled time or however long it is taking you to deal with this thing that isn't really your job, or is it? Geez. This is hard. Even if you graduated summa cum laude. Especially if you're trying to impress people and act all suave about this whole practicing law gig and not show just how completely clueless you really are. Can't someone just put me in the law library and ask me complicated hypotheticals like they did on the exams?

And there will inevitably come a day when you've prepared something, some brilliant legal argument or at least competently prepared routine pleading, and you've checked it six times and it's been edited to death by all the mucky-mucks above you on the totem pole and you are all set with it and your assistant walks into your office and says, "Aren't you going to file a certificate of service?" or something equally unintelligible, that everyone knows gets prepared as a matter of course with this thing you just did, it's so obvious nobody bothered to tell you, and you think how the heck are you ever going to learn all this stuff?

Feel free send me the Nutshell if you’ve got it.

March 16, 2004 12:00 AM | TrackBack

I just started clerking part time at a small firm, and your post nails exactly how I feel. Complicated research? No problem. Figuring out how to answer the phone, put people on hold, and connect to various office extensions? Still working on it.

Great post!

Posted by: Bekah at March 16, 2004 09:56 AM
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