Sunday, January 22, 2006

on being a new attorney: hidden insecurities

I'm afraid that I suck.

Law school has done very little to prepare me for the practice of law. I went to a very good law school, I can recite criminal procedure jurisprudence on command, I read Supreme Court cases for fun (even the non-criminal ones, just so I can 'stay fresh' on things like federal jurisdiction and civil procedure). And yet, none of those things did one lick of good to prepare me for what I do day to day. I'm not sure that it should, necessarily - I think the only way to figure out how to work in the court is to actually work in the court - but I spend so much of my time trying to figure out what is happening and trying not to fuck it up that I'm just spent. I can't even hide in my office anymore because people keep finding me.

One day, after a previous long hard tiring day at work, I had to cover a case I knew nothing about in a courtroom I knew nothing about (it was just a silly administrative matter, really) and the judge just made me feel like an ass. The outcome was what I needed, but nevertheless, I walked out the courthouse doors sniffling and just decided to take a walk and cry, cry, cry. The most privacy I'm able to get these days is on the sidewalk in front of court. How sad. I finally walked to some cracked fountain where homeless people drink out of paper bags (there were some bottles lying about) that overlooks a small teeny triangle of grass and the highway. I cried for about 30 minutes and it felt so good. I cried because I feel so incompetent, I feel like people must think I'm such an idiot, I have no idea what's going on half the time and it is so tiring to be fumbling around every minute of my day. Sometimes I miss being able to know what I need to know - being able to look it up in a book, or debate an issue 'in theory' without anyone having to serve more jail time or lose their kids or be deported for it. Things happen so quickly, snap judgments need to be made, and then I always wonder if there's something else I should have done.

I hate that law feels so, I don't know, alpha male. The guys just act like they don't need the help, that they don't want anyone else helping them figure things out, they'll do it as they go. It's been frustrating, because it makes me feel like my anxiety is a personal flaw - that if I can't do this without getting so worked up or getting 4 people's opinions on it, if I feel like such an ass all the time, then it must be because I'm not a good attorney.

Then, as I was saying farewell to a court interpreter with whom I had not worked before, I heard the words I needed to hear.
"Are you new or did you transfer from somewhere else?" she asked.
"Oh no, I'm new. Just here a few months now."
"Really? I wouldn't have guessed it. I thought for sure you had worked somewhere else before. You're very good. You speak very confidently, and you really seem to know what you're doing."

I melted. I couldn't help but collapse in a heap of overwhelmed gratitude. It had been a long day, and I felt like it had been a good day, but it was so nice to hear someone tell me that I had done a good job.


mad. said...

What you are feeling is totally normal. I still feel it sometimes, although at 10 yeears out of law school I am starting to feel like I know what I'm doing at least part of the time. I think it's a good thing, because it makes you more careful and it prompts you to seek out others for brainstorming and triple-checking yourself, which can only make you better. Those alpha-male guys don't know anything more than you do, they're just not as comfortable admitting it to themselves. Really, it sounds you're doing a great job in tough conditions. Hang in there!

Blonde Justice said...

I second that "totally normal" vote. The day when the job starts to feel easy, I'll probably quit because I'll know I'm probably not doing it right.

The Divine Miss Em said...

TOTALLY normal - and human.

A few years ago a Judge called me an embarrassment to the profession. I went into the ladies' room at the courthouse and cried until there was no more liquid in my body.

I mentioned that to a (non-lawyer) friend of mine. I was horrified that I, a litigator, was reduced to tears.

Her response? "If something like that doesn't make you cry, get out of the profession immediately."

Anonymous said...

Fortunately, modern society has come up with alternative career paths for alpha males to channel them away from their traditional occupation, raising armies and pillaging the countryside.
Unfortunately, one of them is yours. Just look at it as another of the benefits public defenders provide society below cost: providing a nonviolent channel for stupid ambitious ultimately unproductive alpha male agression. :)

HarvardFirm said...

Woman, depending on just how "very good" your law school was, I'd say you should apply to We have positions open, and nobody here is ever insecure.

Anonymous said...

This Harvardfirm guy is getting annoying

HarvardFirm said...

Nobody asked you, mofo. I, through FIFTEEN years of enduring and constant friendship, have earned the right to post my drivel here. In closing, suck it, beyatch.

p.s. What makes you think I'm a guy?

Fresh? said...

They THRIVE on that fear. Hell, my moniker was IncompetentAttorney for three years.

Anonymous said...

Of course all of us, all of your fellow PDs, are sympathetic. And its normal, etc. So we are all there for you and support you because of our commitment to the work and because most of us don't have much other than each other. Now, that is all necessary stuff but not even close to addressing the issue. The bottom line is that you need to quit caring so much what other people think about you. You are a PD. Either your believe in yourself and the cause or you don't. Most of the world has already heaped piles of disrespect on you without even knowing you, so who cares what they think. The time you spend being insecure is not helping you and damn sure is not helping your client whose problems are much, much bigger than yours. So, know you have support, but get over it already. The support is for the end of the day, after court is over. You have brains, logic, the law and a commitment to justice. What else does a PD need?
Anonymous PD

ps-your program has not given you a mentor?

pps-just as many male PDs sit in the park and feel insecure. I know. I see them. They ought to be out interviewing witnesses or analyzing discovery or doing something else productive.

Consigliere said...

Been out awhile and I still get knots. It is standard. As blonde said, when the job feels easy, you have missed something that needed to be done.

Fresh is right that when the fear leaks out its like blood in the water. So, fake the confidence; its what everybody else is doing.

Nicole Black said...

After my first day in court as a PD, I sobbed uncontrollobly once I got home. Everything you're feeling is sooo normal. It's a very hard job, but it can also be really rewarding. And, years later, you'll find that your best stories are from taht job. Civil practice (which is no at all civil, btw)is so boring in comparison!

Hang in there.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this. It's nice to know I'm not the only one. It must be hard to put something so personal out there like that-- that takes strength.