Saturday, April 12, 2008

Getting Past the Fear

Here you are. A litigator tackling a large caseload, attending hearings, taking depositions and preparing for trials. You remember law school with some nostalgia now that you’re at a job where you’re called upon to make important decisions every day. Sometimes it’s challenging. Sometimes it’s overwhelming. Sometimes it’s downright frightening. And sometimes that fear can get the best of you. How do you tackle the fear and make it work for you? Consider the following suggestions.

Accept failure. You will make mistakes. Every associate does. It’s part of the job description. When you make them, learn from them and move on. Don’t dwell on them. Don’t let them color your perspective or define who you are. When you fail your life won’t end, you won’t lose your job and others won’t think you’re an idiot. Because they too have made mistakes. And you know what? They’re still making them.

Accept your limitations. Fear is often a byproduct of getting in over your head. Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s important to challenge yourself, to strive beyond what other attorneys at your level are doing. However, take it too far, and you’ll quickly find yourself in unfamiliar territory, making decisions without having a frame of reference to make them. Don’t stray far from the supervising attorney. Her direction will ensure you stay on the right track and the proximity will give you piece of mind.

Get ahead of the curve. In law school, you learned the law. Now you realize that knowing the law is not enough. You have to learn how to get things done. Not knowing how things work, how the process works, can be disabling. "Am I making the right decision?" "Am I doing the right thing?" "The right way?" The faster you can learn how things work, the faster you’ll overcome the uncertainty.

But how do you get ahead of the curve? A great way is to attend CLE seminars or listen to CLE tapes that address the mechanics of being a lawyer. In addition, you can find a lot of practice pieces in bar association newsletters, magazines and peer reviewed journals. Most everything you didn’t learn in law school has been reduced to writing by some attorney who doesn’t want you to make the mistakes he did.

Research the outcomes of your decision. Not knowing how things will turn out is unsettling. "What will happen if I choose option X?" If you’ve never chosen option X before, you’re not sure what the possible outcomes may be. However, others have been in your shoes. Ask other attorneys at your firm what they’ve done and why they did it.

Your decision may turn on what the law says. If that’s the case, you need to research what the law says. When you first get a case, you should research the elements and defenses of the case. That way, you know what plaintiff needs to prove and what the defendant needs to disprove. This information will provide you a roadmap to where the case should go, and knowing where to go will do a lot to alleviate the uncertainty.

Fear is natural. Being at a new job, dealing with new people, tackling new situations can be unnerving. Get ahead of the fear. Don’t settle with tackling problems as they come. Take the time to read, and study and learn how more experienced attorneys deal with the problems you will be dealing with, so when they come, you’ll be prepared. You’ll react with knowledge, not with fear.

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