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4L: My experience as a first-year attorney

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I should preface this article with the following disclaimer: I work at The Witmeyer Law Firm, owned by Carl J. Witmeyer II, my father. That being said, I believe that I have endured the same struggle that all first-year attorneys have had to endure following graduation from law school and passing the bar.

In some ways my experience has been easier and in some ways, it has been more difficult. Yes, I did not have to apply and interview with various firms. Conversely, I was thrown into the pool
and told to sink or swim when I was given different types of cases without much direction and training. Any lawyer reading this should know, though perhaps won’t want to admit it, that law school does not necessarily prepare you to be a lawyer.

I do not want to discuss the shortcomings of The Appalachian School of Law, as it allowed me to attend law school in Virginia and served the purpose for which I needed it (a law degree and
therefore the opportunity to sit for the Virginia Bar Exam). However, as with most law schools, in my opinion, I was taught more about legal theory and less about legal practice. Yes, I was able to
take an elective class, trial advocacy, taught by my favorite part-time professor and full-time powerhouse litigator in Southwest Virginia, Tom Scott; but even that experience did not fully simulate trying a case in front of a judge in a court room despite his best efforts to do so. It’s
impossible to fully simulate trying a case in front of a judge in a court room.

My school also offered a two-week  summer course that focused on running  a law office, but I was unable to take it.  Such a class should be a required course  at any law school, as should trial advocacy  because regardless of the path you  take in your legal career, understanding  what it’s like to try a case or own a law  office is vital to anyone with a law degree  as it is more likely  than not that you  will do one or both  of those things at  some point during  your career. I call  for law schools to do  two things: teach to  the bar exam and offer more practice-based classes. I cannot say, with certainty, that there are not schools that  do that already; but rather, I believe that all schools should do that. This article’s purpose is to discuss my experience as a first-year attorney with the hope that it gives insight to other young lawyers, or those readers still in law school wondering what to expect in their first year of practice. As I have stated, I work with my father at his firm. We are a small firm with three attorneys, two paralegals, a secretary and a part-time book keeper. We practice predominantly family law, including custody, visitation, child and spousal support, fault and no-fault divorces. We also do criminal defense, traffic law, civil litigation, personal injury law and wills. We pride ourselves on being general trial practitioners and I personally have come to appreciate the time I am able to be in court trying cases.

I found out (via text message, one of the many shortcomings associated with my generation) that I passed the Virginia State Bar on Thursday, Oct. 9, 2014. I was in the Caroline County Juvenile and
Domestic District Court trying a case a week later. I was thrown into the pool and told to sink or swim. I had to be individually sworn in by each judge that I practiced in front of until I was officially
sworn in by the Supreme Court of Virginia on Dec. 2, 2014. I understand that a lot of young lawyers, especially those without full-time law jobs, are thinking that I am ungrateful for having been given
cases to try before I was even officially sworn in. I assure you, my situation was both a blessing and a curse.

I am lucky to work with my father who refers cases to me that I would not get on my own. However, without any experience, I was put into a situation where I had to try cases that, given my lack of any courtroom experience, I was not ready to try; but, like other times in my life, I had to figure it out. As I write this article, I am in my second year of being an attorney and despite having practiced law for a year, I still have to prepare for every case as if it’s the most important case of my career; because it is. I have learned more about being a trial lawyer in my first year as an attorney then I did
in my three years in law school. Again, that’s not a slight at law schools, it’s just reality. And yet I am still learning and anticipate that I will always be learning.

I will end with five things that will hopefully assist others in their first year of being a trial lawyer:

Learn to lose. The most important advice I can give anyone who practices law is to remember that it’s called the practice of law for a reason. Even the best lawyers lose trials sometimes and you cannot allow a loss to negatively affect your performance on another case. Often times, losing a case will be outside your control. I have had many cases where I prepared as much as possible, performed near perfectly in the court room and still lost. Maybe the facts were against you, maybe your client wasn’t honest with you and despite a thorough investigation into the facts, you were blindsided by case-changing, admissible evidence. Or, my least favorite way to lose a case,
maybe the judge ignores the law and decided to rules against your client based on their feeling. Whatever causes the loss is irrelevant; it’s how you respond. A lifetime of playing sports has instilled in me the mentality that you must move on from a loss and focus on the next game. Similarly, do not dwell on a loss or a poor performance in court. Learn from the experience and move on to the next case.

Work smarter; not longer. Put your ego aside and learn how to be a lawyer. I don’t care if you were law review, if you had a 180 LSAT score, if you went to a tier 1 law school or if you were an intern with a major firm, all first-year trial lawyers start out at the bottom knowing less than the older, more experienced attorneys who we face in court. The best way to become a successful trial attorney is to continue learning the law and to prepare for every case. I won’t pretend that I work
80 hours a week and spend my weekends at the office (the young lawyers who say they do this are either lying or wasting time sitting in their office, not working). Admittedly, I could probably work more hours than I currently do. However, my advice is not to work longer, it’s to work smarter. When asked what I can do to become a better lawyer, my father responds by saying “read the code!” Wow! So simple. Just read the Virginia Code, but there is more to it than that. What he means is read the statutes in the Virginia Code, read the Rules of the Virginia Supreme Court and research case law that is applicable to the cases you have. But I just spent three years reading…a lot. Now
you’re telling me to spend my time studying? Yes. When you have free time (even if you don’t think you have free time; you do) you should be studying the law. The law is so expansive that no matter how smart you are (or think you are, for some lawyers), you will never be able to remember every aspect of every area of law that you practice. By study, I don’t mean it in the sense that you should create an outline (or download one) as if you are going to have to IRAC an essay question. I mean that you should examine the law as it relates to the cases you currently have. The most dreaded question a judge can ask you is, “what authority do I have to do that?” and the best feeling in the world is when you can respond with the statute, rule or case which outlines their authority to do that. As boring or difficult as it may seem, learn to work smarter.

Try different areas of law. The best way to gain experience as a young trial lawyer is to try as many different types of cases as possible. I’m not encouraging you to take on a complicated case for
which you have no way of preparing, but you should not limit your growth as a trial lawyer by focusing on one or two areas of law fresh from passing the bar. Rather, you should be willing to take on various types of cases and not be afraid to try cases in the General District Court, the Juvenile Court and the Circuit Court. I try different types of cases in all three courts which forces me to learn various areas of law and sharpens my abilities as a trial lawyer. There is a big difference between taking an evidence course and trying a case where you have to make and argue for objections regarding testimony. Do not be afraid to try different areas of law in different courts. It’s all about relationships. My father reminds daily that the practice of law is all about relationships, and he’s right. You have to take the extra five minutes following court to converse with the bailiffs, clerks, judges, commonwealth’s attorneys and other lawyers. Attend bar functions (especially the ones that take place at bars) and get to know other lawyers. Take the time to get to know your clients. This can also help you with their case, especially with custody and visitation. Your reputation directly correlates to your success as an attorney and building relationships with those involved in the practice of law will result in having  a good reputation. Building relationships with people will also get you business. Our firm often gets referrals from deputy clerks, judges, deputy sheriffs (all
from other jurisdictions, of course), other lawyers and former clients. Getting a referral from someone as a young attorney is a rewarding feeling because it means that someone believes that you are capable of taking on a case. Take the time to build relationships and it will greatly impact your practice of law.

Being an attorney is what you do, not who you are. Probably the most important advice I can leave you with is do not allow your job to control your life. The stress of being a trial attorney can be, at times, unbearable. You have to find ways to manage that stress. I initially struggled
with this, but have more recently been able to find ways to manage the stress of being a young inexperienced lawyer. I play in an adult ice hockey league, I enjoy live music, going to sporting events and I try to go out and be social as often as possible to get away from work and be around my friends and family. Find activities that allow you to relax and forget about the stress that is associated with being an attorney.

I will leave you with this: When it comes to the practice of law, don’t sweat the small stuff and it is all small stuff.

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