Vail Daily column: Learning how to read the river
Traipsing through riverside brush clad in pristine and awkward waders and boots, the cacophony of the rushing creek greets the neophyte angler’s ears. Donning a new suit and rushing to catch the elevator, the summer associate listens to the dings indicating progress up to the law office. Having already survived various ordeals to get to these points, the sight of the stream or the suite is a welcome one. Time to fish; time to work. Still, there is more to do before the first cast is made or memo written — one must decide on a fly or overcome the quirks of the document management system. A task that sounds simple becomes complex when it comes time to perform it. The novice fly fisherperson and the legal intern each throw themselves into the flow, realize how little they know and push on regardless, intent on mastering their respective arts.
Our firm has an intern for the summer, an eminently capable and eager law student named Chelsea. Watching her reconcile her legal training with the realities of law practice recalls my own humbling experiences as a summer associate. With no experience and no frame of reference, each part of each assignment is daunting. From something as seemingly innocuous as how to title a document to research critical to a client’s time-sensitive issue, you are bombarded with challenges that make you continually question your competence. This feeling is compounded when you watch seasoned attorneys answer complicated inquiries eloquently and extemporaneously.
GULF BETWEEN FOIBLES AND EXPERTISE
Fly tied on, you step into the river and try to cast to that beautiful eddy that surely holds a monster cutthroat. The first cast just barely misses your eyeball and the second hooks your fly … into that overhanging limb that you did not see until it was too late. Meanwhile, a quarter-mile downriver, you see the platonic ideal of angling: a deeply tanned woman in perfectly weathered gear shooting bow-string taut lines at a bubbling hole. With as much effort as blinking, she pulls a huge trout, looks at it briefly, and then removes the fly from its mouth and releases it back to its habitat. The gulf between your foibles and her expertise feels as wide as the Pacific.
The rookie aspires to be that adroit attorney or angler and fears that such mastery is hopelessly out of reach, that they would be better off taking that finance job or sticking to needlepoint. Existential dread of this type is exceedingly common, so do not despair. It is all a matter of perspective — your role models should be examples of what is possible, not harbingers of your inevitable failure. One trick to maintaining optimism is a variant of that “picture them in their underwear” trope. Visualize that award-winning litigator as an intern in an ill-fitting suit surrounded by mountains of books and pulling his hair out trying to find that one case that the partner is sure exists. See that graceful fisherwoman wrapped in knots and flailing in the water, having slipped on a rock. Remember that this is not just a thought exercise — these scenarios or something quite similar likely happened.
These mishaps were the crucible in which expertise was formed. Experience, and perhaps a modicum of natural talent, is what separates the intern from the ace. When the intern has enough days on the job that previously learned information helps solve a new problem, it is a revelatory moment. Experience not only gives practical wisdom but breeds confidence, that all-important psychological weapon. When I was mired in self-doubt about the sheer scope of the law and my limited knowledge thereof, my mentor gave me an important insight that has served me well to this day and which I have shared with Chelsea. Even 40 years into his law practice, he never felt that he knew everything or even needed to know everything. Instead, his experience allowed him to be comfortable with the uncertainty and even to embrace it.
As time passes, the situations that once caused consternation become rote — how best to cross-examine a hostile witness, the ideal way to utilize the multitude of pockets in your fishing vest, the preferred method for dealing with a difficult client, how to perfectly match your fly to the prevailing hatch. Each day in the office or on the river is an opportunity to learn, to hone, to excel. Setbacks will happen, but let them inspire, not distract. Perhaps too soon you will be seated in your office when the new intern knocks and asks for advice, awed by the breadth of your knowledge.
T.J. Voboril is a partner at Reynolds, Kalamaya & Voboril LLC, a local law firm, and the owner/mediator at Voice Of Reason Dispute Resolution. For more information, contact Voboril at 970-306-6456, email@example.com or visit http://www.rkvlaw.com.