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  • David Redding

DRINKING FROM THE FIREHOSE: The Litigator's First Five Years of Practice

Updated: Apr 28, 2021

It's the practice of law, not law school, that transforms a person into a litigator

Unless you came from a family of lawyers or had happened to work in a law firm before you went to law school, all you would know of litigation when you graduated would have come from law school professors because they would be the only lawyers you would have known.

That’s the way it was for me. The only lawyers I knew when I graduated from law school were law school professors. I would come to find out that the view of litigation they provided me was not very accurate because they were teachers rather than litigators. Teaching is a fine profession but one quite different from litigating.

The reason that law school professors are teachers rather than litigators is because almost none of them have ever practiced law for any appreciable amount of time, and it is the practice of litigation (not the teaching of it) that changes a person from what they are into something different, the thing we call a Litigator[1].

Most law school graduates don't practice very long

I have looked (but not very hard) for statistics on the percentage of law school graduates who actually go on to practice law for any significant period, say five years. Although I couldn’t find anything definitive (again, not looking that hard) it appeared to me that the number is very low. A lot of people may go to law school but not many people practice law for very long after they graduate.

That conforms to my anecdotal experience. Although I practice in a city that is only ninety miles from my law school, I rarely see anybody practicing who went to school with me. I also know a lot of people who went to law school somewhere else who didn’t practice very long before they realized this gig was not for them and found a more reasonable way to make a living.

One of the reasons I haven’t spent much time looking for definitive statistics on this point is that most of the analysis seems to be aimed at law school satisfaction rather than the continued practice of law. Actually, dissatisfaction would be more accurate, because the degree of satisfaction that law school graduates express is very low. As a group (that in fairness has incurred six-figures of student loan debt) law school graduates seem to be incredibly unhappy with the quality of what they have purchased.

Law school only do so much to prepare a person to be a Litigator

I don’t blame them for feeling this way, although I do not feel that way myself. Personally, I think my law school did as good a job as possible to prepare me for something as crazy, chaotic and unpredictable as the practice of law. For me, it’s like clown school. Clown school professors can teach a young clown-in-training to put on the makeup and cram himself into the tiny car, but it’s not really possible to fully prepare him for all the insanity that goes on under the big top. How could they?

During a case I tried recently a lawyer who represented another party pulled out a book called North Carolina Trial Practice that was written by one of my old professors. It was the text she had used in the trial practice class I took from her during law school twenty-five years ago. I was pretty amazed that this attorney (who was in his sixties) was using it during a trial. It was like an old pilot flying a 747 with a book called How To Fly A Plane open in his lap. But that incident did lead me to reflect upon how that class had provided me the nuts and bolts I needed to begin my career as a Litigator.

And I have to admit that my view has mellowed over the last twenty years. If you had asked me during my first five years of practice I would have been less charitable about law school because during those five years I was drinking from the Firehose. It was only during the second five years that I felt like anything but a complete incompetent.

Law schools could probably improve their standing with their students by better preparing them for the Firehose of their first five years of practice, like a pilot warning his passengers about the turbulence he’s pretty sure they’re going to hit. It doesn’t make the flight any less bumpy, but it makes it more palatable.

It also gives you hope that eventually thing will get smoother.

_______________________________ [1] A Litigator is a highly skilled advocate whose primary objective is to resolve legal disputes as quickly and efficiently as possible.

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