None of us truly start from scratch. We are all heirs of history, of culture and of various conditions that we did not produce. That is true in life in general, and it is true specifically for lawyers. We do not get to reinvent the law. We take it as we find it and help mold it, adapt it and refresh it. But we do not start from scratch. Not even the founders of our country started from scratch. The founders were heirs of an already rich British legal tradition. The Magna Carta was already 561 years old when the Declaration of Independence was signed, and elements of the Magna Carta were simply codifications of longstanding customs. As the author of Ecclesiastes wrote thousands of years ago, “there is truly nothing new under the sun.”
We haven’t just inherited a body of law, but best practices as well. You must learn the proven ways of handling cases in your area of practice. Some of you may receive considerable guidance and training within your own firm, but many of you will be thrown into the deep end and expected to figure it out for yourself.
The best way to figure it out for yourself is to not try to figure it out for yourself but tap into the superior wisdom that already exists — whether within your firm or outside it. To paraphrase the motto of one of my favorite websites, you’ve got to master the best of what others have already figured out.
Don’t be shy about that. Odds are, some lawyer has already done what you’re trying to accomplish in a case. Someone has made the mistake you’re trying to avoid, or worse, don’t know to avoid. Don’t be afraid to call or email another lawyer out of the blue and ask to pick their brain for five minutes.
You might be surprised to learn that many lawyers are very generous with their time. In the last couple of weeks, I’ve reached out to several lawyers who don’t really know me well. I contacted them because I know that they’re very good at what they do and can tell me exactly how I can help my client. They can guide me because they’ve walked this path before. I might know the statute and cases as well as they do, but they will know how to put that knowledge into practice far better than I do.
I previously confessed to being shy and somewhat lousy at networking. But for some reason, that disappears when I have a question about a case. I have no hesitation about calling someone I don’t know if I doing so will help the case. You must not be afraid to look like you don’t know anything, because compared to someone who has been practicing for decades, you truly do not know anything. People already view you that way. Own it and make the best of it.
Those of us who are relatively inexperienced may have some knowledge but we don’t have a lot of wisdom and judgment yet. Wisdom and judgment comes from experience, and that wisdom and judgment shape the best practices that we need to learn. You should be able to gain knowledge on your own. That comes from reading the statutes and cases. And you should take Mark Bennett’s advice on how to ask for advice. But once you’ve done the work and are prepared to have a meaningful conversation about the topic, you shouldn’t hesitate to try to absorb the wisdom that exists within the legal community.
This is the best kind of networking, and the best kind of mentoring. And frankly, you’ll develop a more meaningful relationship with a lawyer by seeking their wisdom on a legal issue than by making small talk over weak cocktails at an overcrowded bar function. Most experienced lawyers are happy to share their wisdom. Don’t be afraid to ask. Be afraid of not asking.