This question was posed by the State Bar of Wisconsin on its social media today, and because I am on deadline and should be writing about [things that are my actual work] and instead I am procrastinating, I responded with a small treatise.
But it’s a topic I think is worthy of more exploration, particularly as new graduates get sworn in (thank you diploma privilege) and start working. There will be growing pains. I am 14 years in and although there are no moments where I don’t feel like a lawyer (perhaps to my family’s chagrin), I still occasionally struggle with imposter syndrome (as I think many of us do) and wonder just how I got here.
Here’s what I wrote on the State Bar Facebook page:
On my second day of licensed practice my then-boss had me cover a status conference for a circuit court review of a municipal court decision. The other party was a no-show, and the judge asked if I wanted to default or reset the conference. “Counsel, do you have a preference?” I paused and had to fumble through “counsel…who is he talking to? Oh that’s me!” I understood that I was the babiest of baby lawyers and I had a long way to go.
Several months in, I felt like I had become a lawyer when that boss told me I was “the future of the firm.” I got to help a disabled veteran keep his wheelchair that the medical supply company was going to repossess, and I didn’t let a particularly nasty in-house counsel intimidate me in an employment discrimination case. That felt pretty lawyerly.
But a few months after that, when that same boss told me I was “brilliant, but you lack business development skills, maybe you can go back to teaching school?” (I was 8 months pregnant at the time.) I did not feel much like a lawyer. Another boss telling me that “I thought you were smart, maybe something is wrong with you, I thought you were too young to have memory loss, maybe I thought wrong” (when I made normal, human mistakes that every single lawyer has made) did not help me feel like I had become a lawyer.
It’s fits and starts, two steps forward, one step back. There was no “aha” moment. Nothing I can really look back on and say, yes, this is when really I became a lawyer. It’s a collection, even 14 years in. Sitting at counsel’s table when the judge tells everyone that this is the kind of case that made him want to be a judge. Calling up a client and telling them that, as of that moment, they’re a newly registered nurse (when 24 hours earlier that had been in doubt). Getting to state my appearance on the record for the president-elect’s campaign.
Getting yelled at by a judge for (slightly) losing it and responding inappropriately to an objection? Having to sit stone-faced when a brutal jury verdict or decision on a motion is read? Walking out of the courtroom, looking at opposing counsel, and asking, “what the hell just happened?” and they respond with a confused shrug? Yep. Those things too.
I think I’m at a point in my career when I can be candid about these things—the good, the bad, the slightly losing it. But few things in life progress the way we expect or want them to—I did everything in the so-called “success sequence” (graduation, full-time job, marriage, and only then having kids) and still ended up pregnant, unemployed, and on BadgerCare. (I’ve landed better.) Life isn’t linear—why would law practice be?
New grads, it’ll fall into place for you. But it may not be soon, and it may not be in the order you expect, and you may take a few steps forward, a few steps back. It’s okay—and important–to acknowledge when things don’t go the way you want them to. That’s part of the job too.