Barely Legal - My Trials and Errors as a Young Lawyer
by Becky Bye
Two years ago, a friend introduced me to Texas Hold ’Em poker. Since the first time I played this wonderful game, my life has transformed in so many positive ways. Every week, when I venture to a local bar that offers free poker ("free" fits my law school debt-laden budget), I am excited and nervous. The excitement stems from the opportunity to mix and mingle with new people over after-work libations. More important, I am excited by the challenge to maintain a poker face, and use a mixture of strategy, psychology, charm and a smidgen of luck to win a gift certificate to that bar and perhaps advance to a monthly tournament where the award is an all-expenses-paid trip to Las Vegas.
My nights at poker also begin with some butterflies in my stomach. After all, I am playing poker among great players who have years of experience. I’m still a newbie. Many times, I will be dealt a difficult hand, and although I must maintain a carefree and nonchalant attitude to mask my obliviousness, my stomach will be in knots. For many hands, I am clueless, even though my poker face may make me look like a poker "shark."
Coincidentally, also two years ago, the University of Denver bestowed upon me a juris doctor diploma. Little did I know that the knowledge I acquired in law school and the days of studying for my finals and the Bar would do me little to no good in the everyday trials and errors of my "practice" of law. Just like poker, my new profession is unpredictable and exciting. Unfortunately, fear and nervousness overshadow the excitement of being a young lawyer. Like my poker challengers, my fellow lawyers in the Denver legal community have years of experience over me. And like poker, at times when I’m clueless about a new task or legal concept, I have to keep my calm and poised "poker face" so no one questions my being barely legal.
Because my trials and errors are similar to any young lawyer’s experiences in this quirky profession, the great folks of The Docket thought it would be a good idea for me to have my own column describing my own professional and social experiences as a young shark. Welcome to the first installment.
The one positive twist on trials and errors is that people always learn from them. The downside to this is that one must live through the error (or terror) to learn. For example, soon after I was admitted to the Colorado Bar, I was the sole attorney for my client in a small trial to the Bench. When I made my motion to dismiss, the judge granted the motion and dismissed the opposing counsel’s case "with prejudice." Caught up in the moment of being a trial lawyer for the first time, I temporarily forgot that dismissal "with prejudice" was positive for me and my client. Rather, I put on my poker face and very assertively and dramatically told the court, "I object, Your Honor. My client does not want this case dismissed with prejudice." Smirking, the judge answered "Counsel, I advise you not to object to my dismissing this case with prejudice because it is more favorable to your client." After embarrassing myself in front of the court, opposing counsel, and my client, I will never forget what "prejudice" means in the courtroom.
Outside of the courtroom, my various trials and errors have enabled my understanding of the difference between good clients and bad clients. When I began practicing law, I eagerly ventured out of my usual practice area, volunteering to be the sole attorney on a fairly straightforward divorce case. I figured I could put my retention of family law from the bar exam to good use. My client, who at first seemed sweet and honest, kept pushing for a fixed sum of money from her former husband as settlement. I thought the amount she wanted might be beyond our reach, but she was obsessed with this precise sum. After months of sweat, tears and frustration with the client, who later became very pushy and rude, we reached a settlement close to the amount she wanted.
When she received the check, she called me to thank me for getting close to the amount she originally requested. She added, "This is great — I can finally have the boob job I wanted." Upon hearing her real reasons for monopolizing my time, effort and sanity, I learned to constantly question whether my clients had ulterior motives, such as cosmetic surgery.
The trials and errors of a barely legal lawyer go beyond cases and clients. I’ve also learned, through many errors, about interactions with fellow attorneys that I hope never to relive. When I had just started at my law firm, I went out-of-state with some partners from my firm to attend a CLE program. After the concluding cocktail reception, we headed to the airport where I purchased a large, cold Starbucks Frappuccino® in a plastic cup. When I boarded the plane, I put my beverage in my seat as I placed my luggage overhead. As I sat down next to a partner, I realized I was sitting on my large, cold and very wet drink. Again, I put on a poker face, acting as if nothing had happened for the remainder of the uncomfortable two-hour plane trip, despite being extremely cold, extremely wet and extremely embarrassed. Luckily, the wine from the cocktail party helped cushion some of this embarrassment. Lesson learned? Wine, Frappuccinos® and airplane rides do not a pleasant journey make.
Speaking of beverages, recently I entered the elevator in my building with another partner. We were talking about our New Year’s resolutions to eat healthy food. A few seconds later, as we were on the crowded and silent elevator, I blurted out: "My only problem with keeping my New Year’s resolution is beer. I just love beer so much." After a few quiet moments, the entire elevator roared with laughter, and one person commented, "If your only problem is liking beer too much, you have a bright future." From this, I learned that by making this type of statement without carefully choosing my words, I looked like a young lawyer with an alcohol problem.
These and other embarrassing or amusing situations serve as a reminder that I am truly barely legal. Hopefully, these experiences will only help me grow into the legal shark I want to be. Still, my poker cards have been easier to solve than the cards the practice of law has dealt.
Becky Bye is an attorney with Holland & Hart. To reach her, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.