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Being A Lawyer

What's it like on the job?

You have struggled through college, been admitted to law school, studied more than you thought possible for three years, studied even more for the bar exam, endured the agony of waiting, and finally have been sworn in as a lawyer.  So now what do you do?

Your first emotion will be a new-found sense of fear and uncertainty.  You're a lawyer, right?  So you should have all the answers.  But it doesn't work that way.  This is why it is called "practicing" law.  What your law school education has taught you is how to figure out the answers to problems.  No one (except maybe the public!) expects you already to know what the answers are.

Once you understand that the bewildering sense of inadequacy you feel is normal, then you get to work.  Use your brain - analyze those problems just as you would in law school.  Use your verbal and writing skills to get your point across.  Slowly, over time, you will learn.  You will undoubtedly build up a body of substantive knowledge in the areas of your practice.  From time to time you will know the answer to a question because you have seen that question before.  But every time the question is asked, you must double-check to make sure the law has not changed in the meantime.

Many new lawyers seek out - or are volunteered for - court appointments.  One frequent area of court appointments is indigent criminal defense work.  It is at this point that you will be asked by family and friends, "How can you defend someone you know is guilty?"  This question becomes more pressing when you progress from defending someone accused of stealing a social security check from a mailbox to defending someone accused of murder.

The answer to this question has nothing to do with the guilt or innocence of your client.  That determination is for the judge or the jury, and as you will learn, juries miss nothing at trial.  Your job, rather, is to put the state to the test:  Our Constitution requires that no one be convicted of a crime unless the state proves the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.  You will remember the famous dictum that it is better for ten guilty persons to go free than it is for one innocent person to be convicted.  In a sense, you are not representing the defendant, you are representing us all.

Perhaps your learning curve will include court appointments for persons who are allegedly insane.  Every person has a right to counsel prior to prolonged involuntary incarceration.  Your job will be to interview, for example, the man who was tossed out of the sports bar for insisting to everyone that the CIA was sending him messages via ESPN.  Such a person obviously needs psychiatric help, but what about others whose situations are not so clear?  It's your call because the court is relying on you for a recommendation.

Most lawyers' careers include some involvement with personal injury work.  You may have the opportunity to seek compensation for the horribly burned child after an electrical cable accident.  On the other hand, you may be retained by an insurance company to defend the electrical company, arguing that the cable, not the company, was at fault.  You will learn to negotiate, with your heart in your mouth over the high stakes, when millions of dollars are at stake.

Maybe you will have the opportunity to soar into the stratified air of political issues, such as were at stake in the famous Scopes "Monkey Trial", in which William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow were pitted against one another in the rugged mountains of East Tennessee in 1925.  Or more recently, perhaps you will be injected into processes such as the legal strategies underlying the 2000 Presidential election. 

Practicing law is a unparalleled opportunity to involve yourself in the world, help people, and really make a difference.  The differences you make may be great or small, but every one of them is important.  There is nothing quite like holding the trust of another person in your hands.  It is an honor.

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