After twenty years of practice, I can do an appeal from start to finish with my eyes closed. I’m intimately familiar with the Three-Bears like requirements for timely filing (too early can render the petition incurably premature; too late and the petition misses the unforgiving statutory deadlines and gets unceremoniously bounced) to the arguments – standing, waiver, jurisdiction and harmless error – that appeals courts embrace. I know which side of the aisle to sit and what to say when I open and how to prepare so that I never, ever need to look at my notes but can still cite to the Appendix, nonetheless. In fact, I’ve grown so jaded that sometimes, I’ll write my opening sentence the morning of argument and most importantly, I no longer need to bite my lip to avoid giggling when the court clerk enters chanting “Oyez, Oyez.”
Yet much as I enjoy operating on auto-pilot, many days, I’d trade it for the thrill of take-off. I remember back when I handled my first federal appeal to the tune of ten dollars an hour, working my tail off to achieve the competency which comes effortlessly now (not perfection, just competence). I pored endlessly over the court rules, calling the court clerks so frequently that they got to know me and spent many mornings observing arguments in court. Taking my place at the podium and looking up at judges whom I’d actually read about in the newspaper (that would be the pot smoking Judge Douglas Ginsburg), I felt, for the first time in my five year legal career that I’d really arrived.
But the excitement of the salad days and all of the firsts soon fades and inertia sets in. Sometimes, it’s easier (not to mention more financially rewarding) to stick with the cases that you can process without thinking than seek out new challenges; to keep the same old system in place (because if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it) instead of striving for ways to improve; to avoid asking questions to avoid the embarrassment of not knowing it all. And yet, if we don’t change, we run the risk of being left behind – like the sixty six biglaw partners who now earn less than associates after their compensation was slashed or the old lawyer in the hallway. Being a fresh new lawyer may be tough in these trying times, but staying fresh is harder, hands down.
So what do you do to keep your practice as fresh as the day you started out? Share your thoughts below.