Fontan: First-year attorneys can flatten the learning curve


By Taylor Fontan

Once I graduated from law school, I assumed I was done worrying about hitting the curve. As I entered practice, I had the optimistic idea that my adjustment to the “real world” would be relatively straightforward. While I knew I was unlikely to have developed the skills of a seasoned litigator in law school, I thought that somehow, completing my third year of law school and passing the bar exam made me into a far better lawyer than my 2L, law clerk self who knew nothing in comparison to practicing colleagues. Instead, I, like most new lawyers, took the plunge into reality: a reality that consisted of not only learning how to be a lawyer, but facing that challenge amid a global pandemic without the immediacy and kinship that the office setting provides.

I cannot pretend to completely understand all the challenges new Indiana lawyers will face given the uncertainty of COVID-19. Despite this unprecedented set of circumstances, however, there are many lessons that are applicable not only in times of videoconferencing and home offices, but in future years of practice.

Here are some of the tips I can offer to help any new lawyer flatten the legal practice learning curve:

Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. The first few years of legal practice consist of a lot of trial and error. That is why it is so important to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. You will encounter many situations that you are not comfortable with — dealing with a client you have never met, doing urgent research for a case that you know nothing about or drafting a document you didn’t know existed until starting practice. Do not shy away from these experiences.

I have the mantra to always say yes, unless taking on new work would be detrimental to the quality of my current workload. Having a “yes” mentality forces you into learning new areas of the law that you never would have considered and puts you in a position to take on projects you would not have sought out yourself. Be proactive in seeking out new work and do not shy away from a task because you have never done it before. It is cliche, but each mistake or error is an opportunity to grow and learn something new. Continue to say yes, even if you are afraid to fail.

Embrace law school academic and experiential habits. Most people say law school does not prepare you for practicing law. In some respects this may be true, but your legal education undoubtably prepared you for the practice of law. You probably will not remember everything you learned in each doctrinal class, but you developed good habits and had enriching experiences that will influence the way you enter practice. For example, in law school, I developed the ability to analyze and digest extreme amounts of information in a relatively short period of time. I implement that skill when I am approaching a new case and need to digest the facts quickly. I can also much more easily identify the work environments where I succeed. My participation in my law school’s experiential learning also built the groundwork for inter-firm interactions and client communications. Embrace the skills you learned in school and apply them to your practice now. On the flip side, if something did not work for you, this is a great opportunity to try something new.

Use your legal support system. Another habit that has helped me ease into the legal profession is surrounding myself with other young attorneys who are experiencing or have recently gone through similar triumphs and tribulations. Relationships with older associates are a great way to be more efficient and get a pulse on things going on within the firm. I recommend finding a trusted office colleague who can be a resource and is willing to answer the “dumb questions.”

Law school friends are also essential to flattening the legal practice learning curve. Your law school friends and colleagues are likely going through similar experiences as they begin their careers, so do not be afraid to share those experiences with a friend. It is nice to have a close community of young lawyers to exchange stories with over drinks (or Zoom happy hours) and laugh later about embarrassing mistakes. Take intentional time to build these relationships. Sometimes, it is just what you need to cope with the stressors of a long day.

Good work gets good work. Very early into practice, one of my supervising partners told me that “good work gets good work.” This phrase has stuck with me since. It is easy to get caught up in the ideas of building your business contacts, joining various organizations and extensive networking. Although all of these areas of the legal profession are important, the key to building a solid foundation to get more work is to simply become a reliable lawyer who produces good work. Take ownership of your assignments and act like your eyes are the last to see the document before it goes out the door. Mistakes will happen, but own up to them and correct them for the future. Good work is your best advertisement.

Celebrate every win. Practicing law is hard. It will be frustrating, confusing and wearisome. It is easy to get bogged down in all of the skills and tasks you don’t know how to do rather than focus on the things you’ve learned. It is important to celebrate all of your wins no matter how insignificant they may feel. These wins may be as small as billing your goal hours in a day or having a little less red on your draft motion than before. Although there are still so many aspects of the legal profession that you will not know, there is also so much that you will learn. Take a moment to celebrate that progress.

It is no secret that there is a steep learning curve in the practice of law. Luckily, practicing law is just that: a practice. Even as a new lawyer, I find it rewarding to look back a few months to acknowledge how much I have learned in such a short amount of time. Don’t get me wrong, there are still plenty of mistakes made, but with each mistake comes more experience and an opportunity to get it right next time.

Taylor Fontan is an associate at Lewis Wagner LLP. Opinions expressed are those of the author.

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