Undertaking a Task for the First Time

My first year in practice, I found myself repeatedly undertaking tasks for the first time—drafting discovery, writing a complaint, taking a deposition, defending a deposition, or handling a first oral argument. Even three years later, there are multiple occasions for venturing into new territory—new types of representations, new motions, and new forums. I’ve found that approaching something for the first time requires a bit more caution and planning than diving in for the second or even third time to complete a task.

Get Samples

In the law, there is seldom any reason to reinvent the wheel. If you work at a firm, rely on your firm’s database of motions, discovery requests, or complaints for samples. If I am working for a particular partner, I always try and snag a copy of his or her work product as a sample (and I’ve found a good way to hone in on the right sample is to ask his or her assistant for a recent example of whatever it is you need to draft).

Sometimes, however, the well is dry. You may be drafting a particularly unusual motion or you may be a solo with no database to search. Here’s where I turn to the world’s best database: Pacer. I first head to Lexis (that’s another column—I sometimes feel like the lone lawyer who prefers Lexis to Westlaw) and find a case similar to my own. If you’re looking for a particular type of motion, you’ll want to find a case ruling on that motion (preferably in your favor). If you’re looking for a complaint or answer, simply find a similar case with similar claims. Then, head to Pacer and pull up the case’s docket—there you will find your example. If you’re practicing in federal court, the Pacer method is particularly awesome because it enables you to zero in on motions that your very judge has granted (or denied). One key tip: just remember that Pacer didn’t go on-line until the early 2000s in some districts, so try to find recent cases before hitting up Pacer.

A final benefit of Pacer? Sometimes it’s not clear what types of documents need to be filed and in what order. If I’m trying to get money out of deposit with the court, what do I file? Finding a similar case on Pacer lets you see all the steps—the notice of motion, the motion, and the court’s order granting or denying the motion. Now I’m not saying skip looking at the local rules, because Pacer will also reveal that lots of practitioners are not necessarily following those rules. But, checking out Pacer is a nice double check when you think you have the process figured out.

Chat with the folks just a few years ahead of you

The folks a few years ahead of you are the most recent trodders of your path. They may have insight (and may even offer a helpful “don’t forget to request the transcript,”-type pieces of advice). And, if they aren’t crazy busy, they may even generously offer to review your draft before you hand it over to the senior partner for review.

Take Notes for the Second Time

Undertaking a task for the first time can be overwhelming. I learn the partner’s preferences for that particular type of document, I learn the filing procedures, and I sometimes even learn a judge’s preferences. All details which will be helpful when I undertake the same task for a second time.

I don’t want to lose any of this information, but it does come pretty fast and furious. So, I take copious notes in my “new lawyer” book. If someone likes two spaces after a period, I write that down. If someone has a stylistic preference, it’s noted. If the Judge likes two courtesy copies (clipped, not stapled), it’s recorded. This means that I can be helpful when the next junior attorney asks for advice, and it means I can look like I learned something the second time around.

I fully recognize that the first time is never perfect, but I can be taught—the trick becomes remembering what you learned.

(image: Teenager the First Time from Shutterstock)



  1. “I sometimes feel like the lone lawyer who prefers Lexis to Westlaw”

    You’re not alone. I’ve been a Lexis-over-Westlaw guy since law school. I’ve even got Lexis Advance for Solos lined up when I start my solo practice on May 1. I’m thiiiiis close to a Lexis 4 Life tattoo.

  2. Avatar LearningLawyerLisa says:

    I felt like this a million times as a new attorney, and still have this happen sometimes even now. I started a website to give clear, practical guidance, such as walkthroughs and case flow guidance that are not available at traditional sources. It’s not going to replace legal research, but getting a clear overview is so helpful.

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