I Don’t Know What I’m Doing

As I said in a previous post, law school doesn’t teach you how to practice law.  So how do you actually learn?

The obvious answer is CLE, or Continuing Legal Education.  Most bars require a certain number of CLE credit hours each year to renew your license.  I find that CLEs are usually not helpful with the “talk to me like I’m five years old” approach to teaching.  They are aimed at lawyers who know at least something about practicing.  When I first started my practice, I knew nothing about practicing.  I hadn’t worked in the legal profession, I didn’t really know any lawyers, and I was terrified.  Like dive-under-my-desk-when-the-phone-rang terrified.  There wasn’t one thing I could think of that I could handle with any modicum of confidence.

I did sign up for as much local CLE as possible, but as a new lawyer with a new practice on a shoestring budget, it got expensive quickly.  Through Solosez, I discovered West LegalEd CLE.  For something like $60/month (at the time), I got unlimited access to online CLE.  The classes covered every topic under the sun, in every jurisdiction that exists, for every level of experience.  In those early days when the phone wasn’t ringing much, I spent most of my days on that site, downloading webinars and teleconferences and lectures about corporate law.  It was the best value for the money I could possibly have spent.  I learned so much and many of the lawyers who taught the classes offered their contact information and, much to my surprise, actually replied to questions I sent.

In addition to CLE, I joined Solosez, which is an e-mail listserv hosted by the ABA.  There are upwards of 3,500 solo and small firm practitioners on that list, all of whom are astonishingly willing to help with forms, advice, and support.  Not one of my “dumb new kid” questions went unanswered and most of the time I was inundated with forms and offers to help.  I highly recommend joining the listserv with a Gmail account or other e-mail account that sorts messages into conversations.  Solosez is like drinking water through a firehose.  So many messages come through every day you need an efficient way of sorting through them.  Be sure to introduce yourself with your practice areas, jurisdictions, favorite drinks, and pets.  They’re like a family and the annual GP|Solo National Solo and Small Firm Conference is a must once you can afford it.

In addition to CLE and Solosez, I started making friends with local lawyers.  It’s amazing how much information they’re willing to share if you spring for lunch.  I really thought lawyers would be more competitive and selfish about their information.  Surprisingly, not one local lawyer I’ve asked for advice has turned me down.

So if you are shaking like a terrified Chihuahua at the prospect of actually handling a client matter, don’t despair.  You will suddenly and surprisingly channel some of the information you learned in law school and learn how to deal with clients.  When a client asks a question, to say “I’m not sure, I’ll have to research that and get back to you” is not only okay, but bolsters the client’s confidence in you. Clients tend to get nervous when a lawyer knows all the answers off the top of his or her head.

You will be nervous.  You will stumble.  You will make mistakes.  It’s okay as long as you learn from them.

And if you are really nervous like I was for a very long time, take comfort in this: we aren’t doctors.  If we screw something up, chances are no one will die.

Feel better?