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Halloween brings to mind images of scary things, like ghosts, goblins and ghouls. However, nothing compares to the fear of failure self-imposed by young lawyers. When I started as an attorney, I was nervous about the many unknowns in the not-so-distant future. I felt as though every bump, obstacle or setback would bring a premature end to my legal career. That line of thinking is ridiculous. It’s unlikely that any single setback will define who I am as a lawyer. I soon realized that all lawyers, regardless of the prefix (young, seasoned or old), face setbacks, disappointments and failures.
For this article, I have taken stock of my initial feelings, concerns and apprehensions as a young lawyer and discovered that I was more afraid of the unknown than anything else. To compare now to then, I discovered a sense of what it means to be resilient. Resilience, by definition, is the ability to recover from tough experiences and setbacks, adapt and move forward. As a lawyer, resilience is about how one handles the unknown as it becomes known to him. Particularly, preparing for a hearing presents many challenges, both in and out of the courtroom. Resilience is a necessary character trait for lawyers to exhibit and a key to overcoming obstacles.
OVERCOMING THE COURTROOM
I never imagined I would end up in court when I applied to law school. I read only a fraction of attorneys ever appear in court, and I did not foresee myself being among that fraction. Despite my own preconceived notions, I have found my niche as a family law attorney.
In family law, attorneys regularly appear in court. My first court appearance representing a client scared the crap out of me. While I had clerked two years and shadowed other lawyers as they argued in court, nothing compares to appearing in court without someone to catch you if you fall. My major fear was disappointing the client. Clients pay us to deliver certain desired results, yet the outcome of any case is never up to us. (If only, right?) There is only so much preparation that one can do. We can research every angle or write the most brilliant pre-hearing memorandum, then it’s time to dive in headfirst and sink or swim.
Looking back, my initial reservations were in the days before, when I was analyzing the case, drafting questions and thinking through objections. That’s when the alarm sounded. It was not a debilitating feeling, but a creeping doubt that you think you might not be as smart as you think. Or the doubt that something unforeseen will occur and the case will fall apart. Looking back at my days leading up to my first trial, I realize now that resilience is something that can be cultivated. By going through the trial preparation, I built my resilience by enduring and pushing through the adversity, even if it was self-inflicted. I let the feelings of anxiety and doubt wash over me. I dug in, grabbed my notes, and kept reading. I took control of the feelings and used them as fuel for my driving preparation.
As I prepared for the hearing, another way I calmed my nerves was by sorting out all the small insignificant details. I had arranged for the client to come into my office and while preparing him for what to expect, including how long it will take and what the results could be, I reassured myself. By simplifying the variables, I allowed myself to focus more attention on the important matters. By answering the client's questions and putting him at ease, I gained more confidence in myself.
Lastly, I brought with me a stick of ChapStick. I do not consider myself superstitious, but I have a ritual when doing any sort of public speaking. On the morning of the trial, I put the ChapStick on and carried it around in the breast pocket of my suit. I have long recognized that when I get nervous, my mouth and therefore, my lips become extremely dry. After 10 seconds of talking, I cannot speak and I look as though I’m chewing on my lips. It is not a pretty sight and not conducive to advocating for my client. While most lawyers are particular about their suit and tie combo or a specific pair of loafers, I make sure I have my ChapStick in the breast pocket of my suit. When I’m in court, even if I feel a sense of anxiety coming on, I tap the ChapStick and any lingering feelings fade. It keeps me calm, ensuring that my mind does not scatter with last-minute mental preparation before the judge takes the bench.
At my first trial, somehow announcing my name on the record and getting past that without screwing it up made me feel a lot more relaxed. I knew from that moment that this was something I could do. I did not hate the sound of my voice as I spoke into the microphone. Despite the trial preoccupying my full day, the entire event felt lightning quick. All the preparation pouring over text messages and notes paid off. Then the trial was suddenly over. I realized then that win or lose, life went on and other matters needed to be addressed: clients called while I was away from my desk, deadlines need to be considered, and overlooked texts from family members needed a response. I had a sense of exhaustion like no other—mentally, physically and emotionally—but the feeling post first trial was like nothing else in the world.
As a young lawyer, the courtroom becomes less intimidating with repeat appearances. Eventually, the feeling of going to court for small matters is routine. However, there are still cases and appearances in court that feel like an event. I have been told, and I completely agree with the sentiment, that if a lawyer is not even the slightest bit nervous before every trial or major motion, then they are likely doing something wrong. Or they do not care. While there are varying degrees of nervousness—unable to sleep the night before a trial or a light feeling of butterflies in the stomach—regardless of where one might fall on the spectrum, lawyers are vested with enormous responsibility on behalf of our clients. Good representation matters and if lawyers care about their clients—and I always do—then it is normal that I should exhibit feelings of nervousness as one or all facets of a client’s life is on the line. Yes, it may be uncomfortable, scary, nerve-racking, (insert whatever other stress-related adjective) at first. It shall pass.
My advice to other young lawyers is to remember that you are resilient. You will learn to overcome fear, recognize obstacles and manage your emotions. All it takes is time, experience, and maybe some ChapStick.•
David C. Hamilton is a family law attorney in Bucks County at Williams Family Law. Learn more about his practice by visiting www.bucksfamilylawyers.com.