If you are a new lawyer in a small firm, you need to be prepared to have fear as a companion at times. Fear of missing deadlines, screwing up a discovery response, pissing off a partner. Fear of not having enough clients, being unable to make payroll, disappointing your family. From substantive case matters to interpersonal relationships, a dozen different challenges arise daily in a small firm that can cause stress, anxiety, and fear.
If you’re not careful, it can be crippling. Everyone is going to be afraid at times. Whether it is fear of a cranky old judge or looking like an idiot in front of your clients. What matters is how you deal with that fear.
Fear can also be fuel. Fear can motivate you to research an issue to exhaustion in order to ensure that you are absolutely correct in your position. Fear can cause you to to beat the streets, get in front of people, and land new clients. Fear encourages hard work, due diligence, and skill development.
Perhaps most importantly for new lawyers, fear should beget caution. As a new lawyer, you need to know what you don’t know. That some clients are too much for you to handle, no matter how much you try to research and learn about the issues. Experience matters. As a new lawyer, you don’t have it. And fear can help you check yourself and reflect on whether or not you are prepared to handle certain matters. But whether it be through hubris or ignorance, young lawyers continue to bite off more than they can chew….
The most recent example is a young Texas lawyer by the name of Maverick Ray. Despite having been licensed for only a few months, Ray touts himself as “An Experienced Houston Sex Crimes Lawyer” and “Houston’s premier DWI Attorney,” among other things. Mark Bennett, who actually is an experienced criminal defense lawyer, recently opined that these claims are deceptive:
Here’s what Ray had to say when I gave him a chance to take down his site — be the student or be the lesson — before I posted this: “What do you mean deceptive? It was approved by Texas Bar and is no different than countless other attorneys websites.”
Nothing about that justification works. Nothing makes Maverick Ray a “premier” DWI lawyer. Nothing makes him an “experienced” sex crimes lawyer. But the Texas Bar doesn’t bother to look real closely; they’re looking for violations of the objective rules, and often aren’t looking very closely for those. And “everyone else is doing it” has never been a good excuse for bad behavior.
[Walker County District Attorney David] Weeks also challenged the defense attorney’s qualifications to try a capital case Friday morning. Ray has only been out of law school for six months. There are concerns that his lack of experience hampers [defendant Howard Wayne] Lewis’s right to a fair trial, thus bolstering Lewis’s chance at an appeal if he is found guilty.
Judge [Don] Kraemer had appointed a lawyer to represent Lewis who is approved to defend capital cases in Walker County, but Lewis chose to hire his own counsel.
“I am extremely troubled about Mr. Ray’s lack of knowledge and training in taking this case,” Weeks said. “(Capital murder) is the most difficult and integral criminal case we have in this state.”
Ray argued that it was his client’s Sixth Amendment right to choose his own counsel. Judge Kraemer agreed with the defense, but stressed the importance of the case to Ray.
“I caution you to be careful,” Judge Kraemer told Ray. “This is a serious case you are taking on.”
Weeks said that he was considering taking the matter to the Texas Bar Association.
In a situation such as this one, fear is a necessity. Fear, and appropriate self-reflection, would allow a young lawyer to know when a matter is too much for him to handle. That enthusiasm and youth are no substitute for experience and wisdom. But Ray was not fearful enough. Whether it be overconfidence or just a desire to sign up a new client, he has taken on a matter that should be in the hands of an experienced lawyer. Political consultant Scott Henson points out the irony that if Lewis was indigent, he would have had an experienced lawyer:
Ironically, if the defendant were indigent, he’d be entitled to a better lawyer. Art. 26.052 of the Code of Criminal Procedure insists that lead counsel in capital cases must “have at least five years of criminal law experience,” they must “have tried to a verdict as lead defense counsel a significant number of felony cases, including homicide trials and other trials for offenses punishable as second or first degree felonies or capital felonies,” they must have “trial experience” in “the use of and challenges to mental health or forensic expert witnesses and investigating and presenting mitigating evidence at the penalty phase of a death penalty trial,” and they must have “participated in continuing legal education courses or other training relating to criminal defense in death penalty cases.” Why shouldn’t the state bar require similar standards for retained counsel in capital cases?
But Lewis is not indigent, and instead has chosen a lawyer who has been licensed for only six months to potentially defend his life. While that decision does ultimately belong to Lewis, if Ray had been appropriately fearful of the situation, he could have counseled Lewis against it. Ray could have put aside his desire for clients for the greater good of the client. Instead, Ray finds himself in a situation where both the Judge and the DA are questioning his experience in open court and lawyers and the media are doubting his ability and reason.
Let Ray be a lesson: fear is a necessary companion at times. Ignore it at your peril.
Keith Lee practices law at Hamer Law Group, LLC in Birmingham, Alabama. He writes about professional development, the law, the universe, and everything at Associate’s Mind. He is also the author of The Marble and The Sculptor: From Law School To Law Practice (affiliate link), published by the ABA. You can reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter at @associatesmind.