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Help me

“Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Know that you don’t know it all. Find other people who you can rely on for advice and perspective.”

Keith Lee, Associate’sMind, Becoming a Good Lawyer Requires Failure

A Very Important Legal Skill is knowing when you are in over your head. When we first start out as lawyers, we are in over our heads with almost every project. Fortunately for many of us, we have supervising attorneys to guide us, push us, demand better from us and raise us. Others, particularly those who hang their own shingle the day those bar results come back, may depend on less formal hand-holding.

Hopefully, there will be a moment when we make the transition from know-nothing neophytes to qualified and competent counsel. And no matter how old, experienced or wise we become, I bet we will still have that one case that is just overwhelming.

Lawyers are constantly under pressure. This job has pressures that I’ve never had in any other line of work. Of course, I don’t know how our pressure compares to that of police officers, air traffic controllers and doctors. It could be that they have it worse — physical lives depend on those people. In our profession, with only some exceptions, we are not dealing with life-or-death decisions.

But quality of life is something that we have the ability to influence. If we screw up, it means someone loses a case and ends up in jail for the rest of their lives. It means someone loses a case and cannot afford quality medical care for themselves. It means someone loses a case and will never see his children again. That’s a lot of pressure. It all depends on me. It all depends on you.

You know how to identify that overwhelming case. It’s the case that has been on every day’s to-do-list for weeks or months. It’s the case that, every day, never gets touched because more “urgent” matters always seem to take priority. It’s the case that you don’t have a solid game plan for. It’s the case you don’t know what to do with. It’s the case that you lose sleep about at night. It’s the case that causes you to instinctively push the gas pedal a little too fast when you’re in the car thinking about it. It’s the case that paralyzes you.

That case is the most important case in your office right now. It doesn’t matter if it is a “small,” district court motor tort or if it’s a three-million-dollar birth injury case. It’s important because if you don’t figure it out, it will continue to languish and deadlines will pass, opportunities will be missed, and the case will be lost. The client’s life will be changed. You will blame yourself.

Get help. Block off a day to think about that case outside of the office, and don’t get distracted by anything. Ask your boss to give you direction, even if you think you’ll look stupid by asking. If you can’t ask, or if you don’t have a boss, find your mentor. If you don’t have one, find any experienced attorney whose practice focuses on that type of case. Call him or her out the blue and repeat after me: “I am a new attorney. I have a case, and it scares me. Can I buy you lunch in exchange for an hour of your advice?”

I’ve been there. I know that you need a kick in the pants. Fear is a good motivator. Your client depends on you. Your sanity depends on you.