Have You Helped a Lawyer Today?

As president of the TBA, I have had numerous conversations about how to help recent law school graduates transition into being competent lawyers. Even with the great job our law schools do in teaching analysis and writing skills, and providing some limited hands-on experience, their goals are tied to graduation and passing the bar exam.

I graduated from the University of Tennessee College of Law one December at the ripe old age of 24. I became a Doctor of Jurisprudence, but the elation of graduation was short-lived. You lawyers have been there. It quickly hit me that I was just weeks away from taking the scariest test of my life, the bar exam. Fail it and years of work might be for naught. Pass it and you’re in the club. Lawyer. On top of the world.

Boy, was that young woman naïve. My concerns were spot on about the exam and how much I didn’t know. I was totally unrealistic in thinking that passing a big test and getting a license meant I knew how to be a lawyer. I did pass, certainly another cause for celebration, but it only meant that I had potential. I didn’t even have a job. I quickly learned, though, that making mistakes and having mentors are two of the best ways to become competent.

My first employment was simply a contract gig. John Lockridge, a prominent Knoxville lawyer, had an appellate brief due in two weeks and hired me to write it. The brief turned out pretty well. Soon after I filed it, I asked him what happened next. He said “Oral argument. You did request oral argument, didn’t you?” Momentarily, the room went black. “If I did that,” I blurted out, “how did I do it?” A client arrived at that point, and John told me we would deal with this later.

Meanwhile, I was in a complete panic. How can this be fixed? I re-read the rules and learned what I should have done. I called the appellate court clerk in Knoxville, a very kind gentleman, and explained my dilemma, undoubtedly in a quasi-hysterical tone of voice.  “Come to my office right now and bring a red pen,” he instructed. I rushed the two blocks to his office, red pen firmly in hand. With the whole office staff looking on, he had a little fun at my expense, having me hand write “ORAL ARGUMENT REQUESTED” on the original and all copies of the brief with my red pen.

I expected to be fired that day for making the biggest mistake in my four-week long career. Instead, I was told “Listen, kid (and I was a kid), other than letting the statute of limitations run, there are very few mistakes you can make that I can’t fix.” I don’t know, but strongly suspect, that he had already called the clerk before I did, knowing that I was desperate to correct my error. I do know that, on that day, I had an older, wiser lawyer who had my back. That was the first, but not nearly the last, time he either fixed my mistake or helped me to avoid one. He took me under his wing, dragged me to court all over East Tennessee, and let me watch and learn. How to try a case; negotiate a settlement;  deal with unreasonable opposing counsel or a client with unrealistic expectations. And most importantly, how to deal with, and read the body language of, a trial judge.

Another mentor was Don Paine, who, ironically, I got to know when we were adversaries in a shareholders’ derivative action. He encouraged me to become involved in bar work, taught me the importance of professionalism, that adversaries need not be adversarial outside the courtroom, and that research can be fun. He helped a shy young lawyer learn to speak to and teach a room full of several hundred people.

So what’s the point here?  We all need mentors. We should all be mentors. Other lawyers watch us do what we do. And if you or I ever reach the point that we think we know it all, send us home, because we don’t. The newly admitted lawyer, no matter how bright or talented, has so much to learn, partly because he hasn’t had the opportunity to make the mistakes that most of us have. And the more seasoned among us, while we can and must be mentors to others to make this profession stronger, well, we still don’t know it all. And even if we did, the law is ever evolving.

Local bars and the TBA have mentoring programs, and the TBA’s is being re-evaluated. We all have a professional obligation to “pay it forward” with or without a formal program. But that obligation does not stop when your favorite young associate gets her sea legs. Or wins his first jury trial. I most recently helped a lawyer with an issue last week, and he had 25 years of experience. And another lawyer helped me yesterday, and the information I learned will serve my client well. I’m told the great Tennessee statesman, Howard Baker, was fond of saying that “Public life, in every aspect, is a collaborative enterprise.” So, my friends, is the practice of law. Have you helped a lawyer today? Please do. It makes our profession stronger.

SARAH Y. SHEPPEARD  is a shareholder in the Knoxville office of Lewis Thomason and a Rule 31 Listed Mediator. You can reach her at SSheppeard@LewisThomason.com.

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