Experience Means, What, Exactly?

So, kid, you want to practice law, eh? Here’s all you need to do:

Get a college degree. Study for LSAT. Take the LSAT. Get into best law school that will have you. Borrow $150K to pay for it. 3 years later, graduate. Spend several thousand dollars more studying for the bar exam. Pass it. Take the oath. Get your license. Yay! You’re a lawyer.

Got a job yet? No? Well, open a law office. And good luck, but be sure to put the year you were licensed on that website you built to lure clients in so you can impress them with your silver tongue and razor-sharp mind. Make sure they know you are a “baby lawyer” so that if their legal problem is, you know, important to them, they can avoid you like the plague. And if you happen to have experience that pre-dates your licensure, too bad. If you don’t list your licensure date, you’re unethical. Because experience matters that much. Oh, stop crying. You’re a lawyer. Toughen up.

Sorry, folks. But it’s just not that simple.

I imagine that an experienced lawyer, like, say, Scott Greenfield looks back on his early days as a lawyer and thinks,”Wow, I was terrible. I’ve learned so much over time. I’m a good lawyer now, but I sure wasn’t back then. And all these baby lawyers are just as not-good as I was. So, they must, if they are ethical, list their licensure years to warn people with serious legal problems about how not-good they are.”

It all seems so sensible. But it isn’t. Because your date of licensure doesn’t help anybody determine whether you are competent or ethical. And there are plenty of baby lawyers out there who are both.

My not-so-epic story

Forgive me while I talk about my own story a bit:

In law school, I took Evidence, Criminal Procedure 1 and 2, and Trial Advocacy, with a mock trial at the end. I took a class on public speaking taught by an actor/lawyer. I went to a lot of CLEs on criminal law practice, which were free for law students.

In my second year of law school I quit my old job as a graphic artist and took a big pay cut to work full time as a student attorney at the county attorney’s office. I was in court almost every day, at sentencings, probation violation hearings, restitution hearings, motions to withdraw plea, etc. I watched trials. I wrote a lot of memoranda. I did a lot of research. I had that job for 10 months.

Please tip the clerk, ‘cuz he’s broke

Then I worked as a judicial law clerk for 3 and a half years. For a year and a half, I was a fill-in law clerk, and I worked for every judge in that district (Minnesota’s 2nd) at one time or another. Then a judge hired me and I worked for him for 2 years. Unlike a lot of districts in MN, in the 2nd, the law clerk does everything (except court reporting, of course) for the judge, including attending every hearing. If the judge is on the bench, the law clerk is there too. I clerked just about every kind of hearing, including around a dozen trials. I read a lot of submissions from lawyers, and I drafted a lot of findings and orders. One of them, in a very difficult child protection case, was appealed. The order was upheld.

What I found is that good and bad lawyering comes from lawyers of all ages and levels of experience. I saw some student attorneys that were terrible, and some that were stellar. And I saw the same broad range in quality from lawyers with many years of experience.

I dealt with one lawyer with 35 years of experience (and two suspensions on his record for mishandling client funds) that wanted to change a court date so he could attend a baseball game. I saw 20-year prosecutors blow trials that should have been slam dunks. I saw a 20-year criminal-defense attorney make a completely nonsensical argument at a suppression hearing. His client was looking at 60 months. Had the evidence been admitted, there would have been no plea offer, and a trial would have been a mere formality. After the hearing, I made the right argument to the judge. The judge agreed wth me. The evidence was suppressed. The client was released and the charge dismissed by the state. I suspect that lawyer is still making nonsensical arguments, and his clients are going to prison.

When I went solo, I believed I was capable of taking misdemeanor criminal defense and juvenile delinquency defense cases. I don’t recall if I had my graduation date on my website, but if I didn’t, I don’t think that was unethical. At all. Because I felt my education, experience, and access to great advice from experienced lawyers made me ready.

It’s complicated

All this gnashing of teeth and pulling of hair over listing licensure dates is kind of silly. Because experience only makes you a better lawyer if:
1. You already possess the qualities required to be a good lawyer.
2. You actively observe and seek feedback as you go.
3. You ask good experienced lawyers for advice and constructive criticism.
4. You combine 1, 2, and 3 with real humility, which you must have in order to change for the better.

Everybody can do numbers 2 and 3. But it’s numbers 1 and 4 that are crucial. And one of those personal qualities included in number 1 is ethics. Part of being ethical is being realistic about knowing what kind of work you are qualified to do. Are there new lawyers out there who lack number 1? Of course. And they are lousy lawyers now, and will be lousy lawyers 30 years from now.

I’m not suggesting that experience doesn’t matter. Would I hire a rookie lawyer to defend me against a first-degree murder charge? No, because that lawyer couldn’t convince me that he had enough trial skills to take on such a tough job. I would, however, hire a lawyer in that situation if he convinced me he had enough trial skills (along with impressing me in a lot of other important respects – see number 1 above) even if he’d never defended a murder charge.

Are there new lawyers out there who are not putting their licensure dates on their websites because they think they’ll get more chances to convince clients that they are competent to handle their cases? Of course. And some of those lawyers are ethical and skilled, some are the former but not the latter, some are the latter but not the former, and some are neither. Just like every lawyer out there of any level of experience.

The mere presence of that date on that website doesn’t tell people if the lawyer is skilled or ethical. And that’s really what people need to know.

(photo: Lustrous Wooden Cabinet from Shutterstock)


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  • JJ

    Agree with you Andy. I caught some of the back and forth on the issue of posting one’s admission date in another article. While probably relivent for the under-30 crowd, especially those with little to no prior legal or business experience, those of us who either clerked before being licensed, or who were called to the law later in our careers but who have substatintual pre-licensure experience would be put at a major disadvantage if date of admission was a required feature of a website or the yard stick used to measure one’s abilities as a lawyer. Taking myself of instance, my experience in securities, business and commercial law, specifically financing, venture capital and M&A transactions, predates my law license by nearly 15 years. I started my career in IBanking, where I spent five years before earning a T1 MBA. After business school I took a position with a regional VC firm (where I still am today). I then earned my law degree, part-time, at a not-so-steller law school. I was first admitted to the bar in 2011. I practice law on the side by counseling small businesses and doing pro bono for folks with debt and tax problems. In terms of commerical or business transactions, I would put my skills up against any law firm senior associate or junior partner any day of the week. I work with said attorneys on a regular basis, and with all due respect, commerical lawyers with UG degrees in English and no real business experience outside of the law firm environment (even if admitted to the bar in 2001) are only good for editing documents and providing opinion letters. If law school worked like business school, where applicants were required to have five to seven years of practical expereince (business, social work, whatever) before attending law school, we would probably have far fewer, yet far more competant lawyers in this country.

    • RTK

      Why not just put all of this experience, plus your admission date, on your website and let a potential client come to the same conclusion you have here?

  • Paul J. Majors, Sr.

    I’ve never even heard this issue come up in my 22 years in practice. It may be a marketing issue but its certainly not an ethical issue. The State Bar says you’re competent when they give you a license. The State Bar and the ABA establishes the rules of ethics as to what a lawyer’s duties and responsibilities are when taking a case beyond his experience. Lawyers like salesmen are subject to the 80 – 20 rule. I.e. 80% of the work is done by 20% of the group.

  • Caleb

    Thank you for this post! The whole you-gotta-put-the-date-you-are-licensed-on-your-website argument drives me up the wall.

    • I know!

      Being ethical and disclosing important stuff is so hard. Ugh, it makes me SO MAD!