Introduction: Developing Confidence as an Attorney
“Who will be your primary supervisor, and have you worked with that person before? What experience do they have in the legal areas you will be working in? Have you discussed training, orientation and ongoing support with the supervisor?” This is an important line of questioning for any law student applying for a post-graduate legal fellowship. For one, all of the organizations that select applicants will be looking to see that there is a clear supervision plan in place. For another, the baby attorney themself is likely looking for an environment where they can easily ask questions and get help from more experienced colleagues.
That was certainly the case for myself. When I first began working at the Sustainable Economies Law Center in September of 2021, I relied heavily on my onboarding team and fellowship supervisors to help me make decisions about my work, understand how to navigate the culture and workflow of the organization, and even to lead in the day-to-day of managing client relationships. I was especially grateful to have Janelle, an incredible and highly experienced attorney that I looked up to and had worked with during an internship at the Law Center the previous year. After each client meeting, Janelle would put together a list of to-do’s and offer suggested assignments. Sometimes she would also ask me to take on unrelated small tasks. I would always respond with an enthusiastic yes. I relied on her to look over every document I drafted, form I filled out, and research conclusion I came to.
Then, starting in the spring of 2022, Janelle decided to go on sabbatical, and began stepping out of her client roles. She left behind a number of other experienced attorneys I worked closely with and could turn to for support, but nobody who I could consistently rely on to look over all my work as soon as I had completed it. That spring and summer, I often felt panicky as I realized I would have to either delay answering a client or rely on my own, un-supervised opinions and research. I found myself wondering, “Is this okay? Is this normal? Am I doing enough? Am I doing my clients a disservice? Would they be getting better quality legal support elsewhere?”
My onboarding team helpfully offered me support with managing specific client relationships and resources for answering specific questions. But although these things were helpful, they didn’t change the way I felt about the big picture of my legal work. Then one day, I reached out to Janelle in a panic over an urgent client matter, asking her how to know when I need someone else to look over something I’ve drafted vs. when I can just send it in. She responded by saying something I had been waiting to hear: there comes a certain time when you just need to trust that you’ve done enough and your work is good.
At first, I didn’t really believe her. Janelle, after all, had suggested that I start my own law practice directly out of law school if I didn’t get a fellowship (something she did, but I didn’t believe I could do in a million years). But over time, I came to realize that I did and could trust myself and my work. I realized this slowly, as I helped review my colleagues’ work and asked for their review of mine. I finally gave myself what I was looking for: permission to trust myself and the quality of my legal work.
So what is the basis of this trust in my work? As an attorney who has been only practicing for a little over a year, I might get some side eye for proudly proclaiming that I trust the quality of my work. This is especially the case given the field I work in: law. Our legal system is incredibly conservative, and is deeply invested in the values of experience, precedent, and continuity. In law school, we learned that every case builds on and draws guidance from all previous cases to form a body of law in a given jurisdiction. Judges are not supposed to overturn an interpretation from an old case unless they both have an exceedingly good reason to do so and are at least as high in the hierarchy as the judges who made the previous decision. But we already know that this system doesn’t work. Instead, bad decisions build upon old bad decisions to make bad outcomes. So, if it doesn’t come from blindly following what people have done in the past, how can we do good legal work?
“Quality Legal Services”
Below I outline a number of principles that distinguish the way we practice law at the Sustainable Economies Law Center from most other legal services providers. These are the things that make me confident in the quality of my work.
Ask yourself if this is really a question where there is only one true right answer.
In law school, we learn that there is an objective answer to the question, “what is the law?” and we just have to find that answer. That’s what judges do (supposedly). In reality, practicing law is much more complicated. Often there are too many similar cases with a variety of outcomes, or there are no cases dealing with the type of situation your client is in, so that it’s not at all clear what would happen if an issue were to come before a judge. On top of that, transactional law often involves weighing the pros and cons of different options, as different decisions might impact a client’s liability risk, costs, administrative burdens, and future options differently. The questions lawyers need to consider in these situations have no simple right or wrong answer. Instead, they are value-based judgments that ideally involve not just a thorough understanding of the legal landscape, but also collaborative, accessible information-sharing and decision-making with the client.
Finally, there is room for improvement at the margins. Because we are often structuring complex transactions and organizations, it’s not just a matter of choosing between one option or another. It’s more like writing a paper. Working with a team of other lawyers, I am able to make and receive helpful suggestions that improve our collective work, but rarely does it come out in the review process that the drafter or researcher had made a grave error or completely misunderstood the answer. Instead, each draft and reviewer improves upon the work, adding clarity and removing excess words.
Value alternative forms of information, knowledge, and experience.
Another practice we live by at the Sustainable Economies Law Center is to value non-professional contributions. This point goes to the heart of the issue with what I deem the “cult of experience”: our society traditionally only values certain types of experience and knowledge.
Traditional law practice is, of course, important and valuable experience that attorneys bring to the table. It has taught many of us important skills in document drafting, legal research, and that itchy feeling we get when we spot a potential issue. But it’s not the only kind of experience that matters. One especially helpful type of experience to have when working with clients of specific (class, race, etc.) backgrounds is to come from that background yourself, or have experience working with and in relevant communities. This type of experience allows us to better understand our clients’ needs. Explicitly valuing non-traditional experience and information also reminds us to actually listen to and learn from our clients. This should go without saying, but they know their situation best and have a lot of really helpful contextual information (and sometimes even helpful legal information), so it’s important to follow up on the threads they invite, take their concerns seriously, and generally try to understand where they are coming from rather than shutting them out.
One way we have committed to this value at the Law Center is through our equitable merit-based pay adjustments. As part of our efforts to create an equitable model for compensation, in the past several years we have adjusted the salaries of our staff “who are deeply rooted in BIPOC and low-income communities because we believe that their lived experience and cultural competency allows us to build stronger relationships with the frontline communities that drive our work.” Staff can choose to opt into or out of this $10,000 per year bonus. You can learn more about our compensation journey here, but the point I’d like to make here is that this choice in our compensation structure places explicit value on non-traditional and non-professional experiences and knowledge.
Having Law Center staff in our client meetings who may or may not be attorneys but have relevant lived experiences helps to bridge the lawyer-client gap. Non-attorney staff members can play an essential role in helping to create a learning environment and letting the lawyers know when we are not communicating clearly. Staff with lived experiences similar to our clients are incredibly important for understanding our clients and advocating for their communities’ interests within the Law Center’s internal processes. Thus, while many other workplaces pay extra for specific degrees or licenses, such as being an attorney, we choose to instead uplift the types of experiences that will help us better understand the communities we work for and with.
Share information freely and respectfully.
The final practice that I believe makes our work quality is that we seek peer feedback, practice collective brainstorming, and share information freely. This value comes up in a variety of ways. For one, every proposal we pass at the Law Center has gone through a collaborative process of collecting and incorporating feedback from all members within a circle. Much of the time, the feedback we give is as simple as “Support!”, but we each have the opportunity to share our thoughts, and to do so as equals rather than as supervisor or supervised. You can learn more about our governance and circle structure here. Similarly, when we draft legal, grant-related, and public-facing documents, we share drafts in relevant Slack channels and ask each other to review them. Even when it comes to more technical legal issues, we default to a collective information sharing process. For example, we conduct regular “beehives” for staff and for members of our legal fellows program to come together, bring the legal questions we are chewing on, and brainstorm ideas, resources, and options.
One crucial element of this practice is accessibility. We always try to minimize “legalese” and replace it with plain speech and even silly cartoons. This practice is exemplified by our library of bite sized legal guides, which aim to translate complex legal topics into understandable, user-friendly, and even fun guides. Another crucial element of this practice is framing it as a collective brainstorm rather than an effort to evaluate or even to mentor or give expert advice. Even experienced attorneys often feel unprepared to mentor or advise on topics which they are not 100% comfortable with, let alone less experienced and non-attorneys bringing in non-traditional types of information. Lowering the bar to contribute from “expert advising” to “peer information sharing” thus makes a world of difference.
In concert, these two elements allow us bring together strategies (2) and (3), so that we can share information across cultures. To be clear, even lawyers benefit from clear language and a non-hierarchical culture. But this method also allows us to work collaboratively with our clients rather than simply telling them what to do. This method is opposed to how lawyers traditionally hoard and hide information to ensure we feel important and our profession maintains its prestige and profitability. At the Law Center, we aim to translate and share information between the legal world and the rest of the world.
These three strategies are extra important given the types of law that we practice: most of our clients are doing things that haven’t really been done before. It’s therefore impossible to rely only on traditional legal experience and past ways of doing things. Instead, we rely on ourselves and each other to do do the necessary research and check each others’ work.
One example of how this all might play out is with a mutual aid organization client–a collection of people in a community that come together to share and redistribute food, money, and other resources on a volunteer basis. Traditional attorneys would be likely to suggest they form a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation, because that is what they are familiar with and because it could make sense for reducing the group’s potential for income tax liability and gaining access to other benefits. It’s true that a nonprofit likely makes more sense than a for-profit. But a better option might be an unincorporated association, perhaps seeking 501(c)(3) tax exemption or perhaps not. Unincorporated associations are a good option for groups that want to minimize administrative burdens and the need for professional services to run the organization, and they offer some of the same benefits as nonprofit corporations, but lawyers typically don’t suggest them because they aren’t as commonly used among professionals. Further, because there’s no need to submit articles of incorporation to the state to create an unincorporated association, it might be harder to justify charging exorbitant legal fees.
Only a lawyer that has the confidence to explore non-traditional options and understands the needs and culture of their client would think to suggest this form. This understanding might come from experience working with mutual aid organizations, or growing up in communities that practice mutual aid principles, such as many immigrant communities. It might also come from their peers, who they asked for help in reviewing their plan. It might even come from their clients, who they listened to when they told them that the nonprofit corporation idea sounded like a lot of administrative work and they weren’t sure if they could maintain it correctly. The three strategies discussed above could all help them reach this conclusion.
To be an attorney in this field and try to make radical change through legal work means that we cannot rely only on what has been done by other attorneys already. This method comes with its own costs—it can feel scary and risky and make us uncomfortable. Lawyers tend to be highly risk-averse, so this is very difficult for many of us. But in the end, the riskier option would be to stick by a body of knowledge and systems that we already know doesn’t work. Instead, we need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable and create the solutions we need. We need to bring in non-traditional and non-professional resources and knowledge. This is the only way we can co-create the world we want to see.