WHAT OLD LAWYERS SHOULD TEACH YOUNG LAWYERS
Updated: Apr 28
Litigation is more than just staying active in the file.
When I was a young associate my firm assigned me to work with a partner in his late fifties named “Bart”.
Bart was a low-key but effective lawyer who was pretty easy to work for, but not very passionate about what we were doing. After I had gotten to know him a little, I asked him about that in as roundabout a way as I could to avoid offending him. But he knew exactly what I was getting at and wasn’t offended at all.
“Look” Bart told me genially, “I just went to law school to avoid the draft. I never wanted to be a lawyer.”
“I guess it’s just a happy accident then?” I asked.
Bart laughed and said “well yeah, it was an accident. But I’m not sure how happy it was. In fact, knowing what I know now, I wish I had just gone to Vietnam and taken my chances.”
“Seriously?” I replied, surprised that a senior partner in a law firm would tell this to a young associate.
“Hell yes.” He answered. “I wouldn’t wish this life on anybody.”
“So you think I should find something else to do?” I asked him.
“I don’t know. That’s something you’re going to have to figure out for yourself I guess.”
And that was the last time we talked about it. Even though Bart had been a lawyer for thirty years and was my firm-assigned mentor, he never gave me much guidance on how to do my job or even whether I should do it all. As long as I stayed active in the files he had me working on and didn’t get him in trouble with the client or the court he was satisfied. The only times that he would explain anything to me in detail were when he really needed something done. Otherwise, he left me to figure things out for myself.
Over the years I have learned that the Barts of the lawyer-world are typical, particularly among litigators. They go to law school primarily to avoid doing something else and then find themselves trapped doing something they dislike because they feel like it is too late to do anything else. So they just troop on until they can retire. Along the way, because they view litigation as a job without a compelling purpose, they don’t have much to share with younger lawyers—why would they?
Litigation is difficult. So now that I am Bart’s age I understand why he felt the way he did, but I refuse to accept it for myself. Nor am I willing to let young lawyers try to figure it out for themselves (as I had to) without at least trying to help them see litigation as a missional calling rather than merely a job.
That is one of the reasons why I launched the Missional Litigator. It is what I wish Bart had done for me all those years ago instead of just telling me to stay active in the file.