The Mental Fortitude Necessary to Practice Law
From the moment you start practicing law, people are going to tell you that you aren’t very good at your job. Sometimes they will be right. Sometimes they will be trying to intimidate you. Sometimes they will just be jerks.
If you aren’t prepared for this (because your law school artificially boosted your GPA, for example), you won’t be very good at being a lawyer.
It is crucial for law students — would-be lawyers, that is — to learn to deal with people telling them they aren’t very good at things. Bad grades in law school don’t make you a bad lawyer. Moping about them because you can’t deal with criticism, does.
As a first-year lawyer, all kinds of people are going to tell you that you aren’t very good at what you are doing. In fact, they will keep telling you that for years. Many of the opposing counsel I have faced during 9+ years of litigation have told me I am stupid, my client is lying and I am gullible for believing him, my claims are frivolous, and I should feel lucky if they let me voluntarily dismiss my own lawsuit with prejudice. I have been threatened with sanctions numerous times, and a few lawyers even filed the motion.
If you work for a firm, you will get the same sort of criticism, but it will mostly come from more-senior lawyers. You will probably get
flack flak from staff and even your new-lawyer peers, too, depending on the culture of the firm in which you work.
Being a lawyer takes thick skin. (So does being a blogger, for that matter.) That’s because your job, in serving your client, is to tune out the bluster, stay cool, and make good decisions under fire.
That includes mean partners and opposing counsel who are jerks. Regardless of their tone, swearing, or insults, you have to be able to assess their criticism, decide if there is any merit to it, and respond appropriately. In order to serve your client, sometimes you have to suck it up and withdraw your motion even thought opposing counsel is being a sexist pig (n.b., there are plenty of appropriate ways to deal with sexist pigs). Other times, you have to just get up and walk away. And no matter how upset you get, it is almost never a good idea to respond in kind.
I am not stupid, my clients aren’t usually lying about anything important, I don’t bring frivolous claims, and I’m not likely to voluntarily dismiss my lawsuit. Neither are you. But the practice of law is not always collegial, and withering under fire is not an option for a lawyer. Your job is to serve your client, which means controlling your emotions and responding appropriately at all times.
That’s why the argument that law students shouldn’t have to get Cs because they will feel bad seems so ridiculous to a lawyer who has actually practiced law. When your partner is making your research memo bleed red ink or opposing counsel is threatening you with sanctions, your feelings are irrelevant. Your client needs you — and your professional obligations require you — to make the right decision no matter how you feel.
Maybe there’s a reason why the saying goes “A students become professors, B students become judges, and C students become litigators.” Maybe it takes a few Cs to learn how to be a real lawyer.