Using Newbie Attorneys in Your Fiction

Photograph of a judge's gavel on a desk with some paperwork
by Brian Turner | via Flickr

Note from Jane: Today’s guest post is an excerpt from Closest to the Fire: A Writer’s Guide to Law and Lawyers, available this fall from Karen A. Wyle, herself an attorney and author of the novel Division.

Is your novel’s protagonist fresh out of law school? Here’s what you need to know about what happens when newly minted lawyers enter the work force.

New Attorneys in Paperwork Hell

In large and many mid-size law firms, associates in their first two or three years of practice rarely see the light of day, let alone the inside of a courtroom. They work very long hours to meet their ever-increasing quota of billable hours, because not everything they do counts as billable.

By the way, there’s not necessarily a consensus on the difference between billable and non-billable hours. One possible metric: if someone other than an attorney could easily and properly perform the task (e.g., making copies), any time the lawyer spends on that task is non-billable (though larger firms may itemize time spent by nonlegal staff). And any personal break of more than a few minutes shouldn’t be billable—which doesn’t mean attorneys always keep track of and deduct those breaks.

New associates in large firms may spend months or even years in “document review” for a single huge case. Document review is even duller than it sounds. These unfortunate associates spend their time going through huge amounts of paper, microfilm, and/or digital files, looking for information that can answer interrogatories (written questions sent by the opposing party’s attorney) or for documents that come within a “request for production” or “subpoena duces tecum” (written requests for documents or occasionally other items, again sent by opposing counsel). And when the opposition answers their requests for documents, then these same associates must wade through the avalanche of material provided, looking for those few documents that are worth using in a deposition or at trial.

If you want your protagonist to have a professional identity crisis early in their career, stick them in document review. You could also have your young attorney crack under the strain and start doodling on or annotating the documents. Extra points if you can figure out some plausible way these alterations wouldn’t be noticed until trial, though that’s highly unlikely.

New associates may also spend a great deal of time on legal research and summarizing their research in legal memoranda. As they gain seniority, they may draft more important documents, such as trial briefs (arguing the law to the trial judge) and appellate briefs (the principal vehicle for asserting trial court error to appellate courts). They may also act as second chair at a trial, lugging files to and from court, taking notes, and handing exhibits to the attorney actually trying the case.

New Attorneys in Trial Work

Some new attorneys actually do try cases. The best quick path to trial experience is to work for the prosecutor’s office or for the office of the public defender. While most criminal prosecutions end in a plea bargain, there are so many criminal cases in most counties that both prosecutors and defense attorneys generally try cases years before junior associates in private practice.

A small, small-town practice will also offer more trial work than the law-firm life. And then there’s good old nepotism: a young lawyer in Daddy’s (or, increasingly, Mommy’s) law firm might get to try cases before their peers.

Less likely but still feasible ways for your protagonist to get thrown into trial work ahead of schedule could include an urgent request from a friend who (possibly for reasons of local and/or judicial politics) doesn’t trust other available attorneys; or the sudden incapacity of the more senior lawyer who was supposed to try the case, where the young attorney is intimately familiar with the details and it’s for some reason impossible to delay the trial. (Delays of trials, called continuances, are extremely common, with multiple continuances possible in a single case, so you’ll need to have a reason that no continuance will be granted.)

Of course, your new lawyer might try hanging up a shingle as a solo practitioner. However, unless the community is isolated or impoverished enough to be short of lawyers, it’ll be hard for the newbie to drum up any business. It might help if they have lifelong contacts with the community; but on the other hand, having everyone know the new lawyer as the Henry boy or the Jameson girl, who should really still be wearing short pants or puffy skirts, could be a hindrance when it comes to the locals entrusting them with their funds or their freedom.

In most law firms, even if the firm handles work in several areas of the law, an associate will be assigned to only one at a time. Some firms rotate young associates through different departments, while others hire new attorneys to work in a specific area and stay there. Someone in a very small firm may handle any business that walks through the door, from contract disputes to divorces to negligence to criminal law, but so general a practice is the exception even for small firms and solo practitioners. It’s often better business to develop a reputation for expertise in one or two areas.

Paralegals and Secretaries

To whom can an attorney turn for help with paperwork, legwork, or other tasks?

Law firm support staff typically include secretaries, receptionists, office managers, and the often-indispensable paralegals. Paralegals may do much of the grunt work otherwise assigned to new associates, from witness interviews to document review to preliminary legal research. If, however, they’re called upon to write legal documents, they never sign anything they write; and it would be quite risky for a lawyer to send out a paralegal’s work product without reviewing it first. Larger law firms handling family law (divorce or custody) work, insurance defense, and/or criminal law may have a private investigator on retainer or even on staff. A smaller firm in these areas of practice would hire an independent investigator as needed.

Junior associates will almost certainly share a secretary with one or more other attorneys. This can be quite frustrating if, as is often the case, the secretary also works for a senior associate or a partner. Even though the senior attorney may be the one expecting the newbie to turn out work in a hurry, the newbie’s work is last on the secretary’s priority list. This will be a more important obstacle if your story is set before personal computers became standard equipment for professionals. If every document a lawyer turns out has to be typed (from Cover for Closest to the Fire by Karen A. Wylehandwritten or audiotape drafts) by a secretary, and then revised by the same secretary, that secretary holds the lawyer’s fate in her (in that era, almost certainly her) hands. The evolution of a new lawyer’s relationship with an experienced and possibly prickly secretary could be an important secondary theme in your story.

For more expert guidance in using attorneys in your fiction, pick up a copy of Closest to the Fire, available in print and digital editions.

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