Legal Practice

Old & New: Balancing Your Idealism with Your Senior Colleagues’ Experience

I joke that I am #foreveryoung and will always attend young alumni events (though I think in all honesty I probably have one more year left on that 🙁 ). Regardless, of how I feel, the truth is that I’m not a super young attorney. Yes, I’ve been practicing for less than ten years, but I’ve done enough of the same thing to really know what I’m talking about, which has led to an interesting situation when I interact with younger attorneys.

Often new attorneys will come, bright-eyed and idealistic, and present ideas that I know will not work. And it sucks to be a Debbie Downer; to lay out problems a less experienced attorney may not see because not only does it feel like I’m quashing their fire, but I also feel like they may perceive me as jaded or disinterested in pursuing justice, which is so untrue. It’s a weird dynamic that I’m still learning to balance.

Perhaps as a new attorney you’ve experienced situations with older attorneys where it seemed like they rarely took your suggestions into account. Or some attorneys that were stuck in their ways and dismissed your suggestions because of their past experience. Regardless of where you fall in that spectrum, it’s frustrating. So before I tell you ways to get around this as a new attorney, I want to defend those of us that have a little more experience and come off as difficult.

Here’s the reason I often say “that won’t work” to a new attorney:

  1. It’s something I’ve/someone has done before that hasn’t worked out well—and I know the current status of the situation enough to understand this still won’t work.
  2. There’s a difference between policy and practice. Even though in theory something should go one way, the reality is that some unwritten policy/norm won’t allow it.
  3. You’re still living in Bar Exam World where everything is a cause of action and justice is just one filing away. The real world is much more complicated and sadly, access to justice is less likely. For example, yes, in theory if someone pushes you (battery) you could sue, but good luck finding an attorney that would put in the time and resources on a case with incredibly small returns—it’s just so unlikely to happen.

 

So maybe you’re at a job where you’re butting heads with senior associates or feel like everything you say is dismissed. Approach this problem by thinking proactively. First, don’t take their behavior personally. In meetings and in one on ones, I’ve often had to redirect and explain why ideas won’t work. It’s not because I like proving people wrong, but rather because I know how things work a tad bit more than someone with less than a year under their belt.

Of course, some experienced attorney’s personalities may be abrasive and rude, but unless they are straight up insulting you, just assume that they’re telling you no because they have a better handle on the procedures/policy–don’t take it personal. Then, when possible, ask for further follow up as to why an idea won’t work. Come at this like you’re not trying to re-invent the wheel and want to learn from their experience. You’ll learn from them and they’ll see you as a colleague that wants to learn rather than one who has a lot to learn (yes, there is a difference).

Finally, do your own research—I’m not going to tell you that seasoned attorneys are always right and you’ll always be wrong. Things change, policies are altered, hearts soften,  in ways someone practicing for a while may not realize. For example, when I was new, I was told that certain agencies would never ever sign a document we needed for a client. It just had always been that way. But after some discreet follow up, I learned that a new person in charge of that agency had a change of heart and with some advocacy we could get the docs we needed for our clients. When I learned this, I didn’t approach my colleagues who had said no with an “I told you so,” but rather like I was sharing an update with them. They appreciated the news and without any hard feelings we were all able to move forward with the case. So obviously, your attitude and approach to how you problem solve will also play a big part in how open and willing your senior colleagues will be in listening to you.

Ultimately, those of us practicing for a while need innovative thinkers and idealistic newbies that remind us how important it is to keep pushing towards justice. Don’t let anyone’s negativity dissuade you from that goal, but do learn to appreciate and learn from others’ experiences in a way that strengthens your own budding legal skills.

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