Under Analysis: Dear graduates: tie on your track shoes, and pack a lunch

Spencer Farris, The Levison Group

I can tell that it’s summer in the Levison Towers because, once again, law clerks are everywhere. I certainly appreciate their enthusiasm and enjoy the energy they bring with them. It’s only June, yet Chris in human resources has already had several of the youngsters in her office to discuss what casual business attire means. I listened outside the door while she instructed Danny, the college athlete turned law student, that even though they came from Johnston and Murphy, flip-flops were not business attire. Casual or otherwise.

My youngest son graduated from high school this year. I enjoyed the speeches his classmates gave at graduation. I was “privileged” to attend several other graduations this year and the theme was always the same — this is a new beginning. I wanted to inform him and the others that graduation, whatever the level, is at best a new chapter and not a new book.

For law students entering the practice of law that especially holds true. I still remember my torts professor telling us that law school is nothing more than a 15 minute headstart into the legal research our careers would demand. The older I get, the shorter that headstart becomes.

Young lawyers who think that law school has prepared them to practice law will soon learn that it did not. Not even close. In short, the brochures lied. Nothing in law school prepared them for the business side of the practice — managing finances and resources. Developing new clients and being worthy of their trust takes years of study. Rather than being a 15 minute headstart, law school has dropped them at the train station with a freshly starched shirt and a ticket with no destination marked.

This should come as no surprise since they made their college and ultimately their career choices with even less information than law school has given them. It seems logical that if 17-year-olds could land on Normandy Beach for D-Day, they should certainly be able to choose a career path. While the dangers of the latter are not nearly as dire, a mistake can still be costly.

I tried to help my son make his college choice. My logical arguments fell on deaf ears. He knows what he wants to do and charted his course accordingly. His eye is on the goal rather than the journey.

Goal oriented education has become the hallmark of law school. In learning to “think like a lawyer” many young law graduates forget to act like a human. To some, the goal of winning is all that matters. Because of this, many lawyers believe that civility and professional courtesy are at an all-time low. The most successful lawyers I know temper their passion with humility and humanity.
The pressures of the business of law are partially to blame. Graduating with heavy debt loads can change a young lawyer’s focus from a long view of learning the profession to the shorter view of paying rent. I hope our new interns and other young lawyers realize that their 15 minute headstart has very little value in the marathon before them.

When you hear older lawyers speak about their careers, they discuss their successes. Occasionally an honest soul will mention his failures. Both of these shape who the lawyer is but the success stories are much more enjoyable, at least to tell. Thomas Edison said that he never failed, he merely discovered another way that wouldn’t work. Throughout our careers those lessons, while expensive, can be the most valuable.

For a new lawyer, beginning to practice brings with it a host of challenges never discussed in law school. Juggling projects in five classes is replaced with juggling 100 or more cases. There are still deadlines. The deadlines for a new lawyer are often carved in stone but there is a magical exception. A get out of jail free card. Your new magic amulet is called a “continuance.” Learn to consent to those generously or you will quickly become aware of another concept not taught in law school. Karma.

New graduates, congratulations are in order. You have made it to the next level. Those of you preparing for the bar exam have more studying left to do. Before you freak out about the test, rest assured that dumber folks than you have passed. One of them comes in to my office every day and sits at my desk.

They say that the race is not often to the swift or the battle to the strong. Maybe not, but that’s where the smart money bets. Smart money would lose betting that way on a law career. It is a marathon, not a sprint. You are not entering a whole new world. You’re simply a little further along in the race. Tighten up your sneakers and keep moving. But sneak on your flip-flops every now and then when no one’s looking.

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Under Analysis is a nationally syndicated column of the Levison Group. Spencer Farris is the founding partner of The S.E. Farris Law Firm in St. Louis, Missouri. Comments or criticisms about this column may be sent to this newspaper or directly to the Levison Group via e-mail at comments@levisongroup.com.
© 2013 Under Analysis L.L.C.

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