A Note To My Younger Self


The NCBA Professional Vitality Committee creates sourced articles centered on reducing inherent stress and enhancing vitality in the lives of legal professionals and offers those resources as a benefit for members of the North Carolina Bar Association.

By Coleman Cowan

Life is a journey. We all learn from our experiences. And if we’re paying attention, we become better people and lawyers not only from our successes but also from our failures. When I first started practicing, I made an effort to soak up as much knowledge and insight as I could from older, more experienced lawyers. Now that I’m one of them, I’ve taken on mentoring roles to help young lawyers just beginning to practice. If I’m honest, more time has passed than I would like to admit, but I still remember what it was like to be young, inexperienced, and fighting for my place at the table.

What appears below is a note to my younger self, with a bit of knowledge and experience I gained since I started practicing law more than 25 years ago. The idea was to help young lawyers – and maybe some not so young – learn from the experience of others, and perhaps come to terms a bit with the stress and pressure of being a new lawyer finding your way in an adversarial profession, whether in a transactional or a litigation practice.

A complete list of guidance would be endless, and there are likely as many good pieces of advice as there are practicing lawyers in the state. What appears below is in part unique to my experience, but also broad enough that others might benefit.

Dear Coleman,

Congratulations. You are 25 years old, with three hard-fought years of law school behind you, and a world of opportunity ahead. All the long hours you spent struggling to make sense of the law and understand how it works are about to pay off. Your hard work is soon to be rewarded with a career filled with even more hard work, mounting stress, and greater challenges – both personal and professional — than you’ve ever faced. There will be times when you will doubt yourself and the decisions you’ve made. But if you follow these simple rules, everything else will fall into place.

Be prepared. No matter what you are doing, and no matter how many times you’ve done it before, always be prepared. Know the details of your case. Read the caselaw and understand how it works for you as well as against you. Let this be your motivation: If you are the most prepared person in the room, you will have an advantage over everyone. Knowledge will always overcome inexperience. And preparation will fuel that knowledge.

Be confident. For many years you will be the youngest, greenest, least experienced lawyer involved in every case you handle. Know that. Appreciate that. But do not let it limit you. Some lawyers will try to take advantage of it. Don’t let them. Be confident in everything that got you to where you are. And be confident in your preparation (see Rule #1). Do that and you will understand that the number of years of your experience does not matter nearly as much as how you use them.

Pay attention to other lawyers. You will practice with and against effective lawyers, just as you will practice with and against ineffective lawyers. It will be easy to tell the difference, and you can learn a great deal from both. Teach yourself good habits and techniques, as well as the things you should never do.

Be self-aware. Effective lawyers make it look easy. They have a command over the facts and the law. Understand that despite appearances, it is never easy, and never will be. It only looks that way because those lawyers have followed the first three rules.

Don’t be afraid to fail. Most people focus on the endpoint rather than the journey. Their focus on getting to the top, winning or being the best prevents them from taking risks, which means they will never reach their goal. If you don’t take risks, you will not grow. But understand that you will fail. Many times. When that happens, own your failures. But learn from them. That is what will make you grow, both as a lawyer, and as a person. Think about your greatest success and your biggest failure. Which one did you learn more from? I bet it’s not the one that made you feel good. Failing is natural. Not learning from it is inexcusable.

Learn to overcome adversity. You have chosen a career grounded in the adversary system. Everything will be a challenge, and you will be faced with adversity every day of your career. Learn to overcome it. Do not let it consume you. Beyond your career, you will be faced with extraordinary adversity in your personal life. In a few short years, a bullet will change your life and teach you that every day is a gift. Always remember that. And know that Nietzsche had it right when he said, “What doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger.”

Learn to be a good writer. Spend an hour reading Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style.”  Learn when to use “that” and “which,” and when to use “who” and “whom.” Spend time reading good, long-form journalism, and pay attention to how journalists tell stories. There is a difference between legal writing you have to read and legal writing you want to read. Learn how to write the second kind.

Never stop learning. Law school didn’t teach you the law. It taught you how to teach yourself the law. Law is an evolving concept. No one ever knows the law. You can only master it for a moment. Life is the same way. Stay curious. Never stop learning.

Respect everyone. The staff in your office and every office you visit. Every lawyer you encounter. Every judge and jury you appear in front of. And everyone you meet inside and outside the courtroom. Treat everyone with respect.

You will never find the perfect work/life balance. But that doesn’t mean you should ever stop searching for it. Dad always told us, “Keep doing what you’re doing.” Never forget that, follow these rules, and you will have a long and happy career and life. Take care of yourself, both mind and body, eat your vegetables and call Mom. And always remember what Dad preached to us. From the gospel according to the brothers Angus and Malcolm Young:

It’s a long way to the top /

if you want to rock ‘n’ roll.

Enjoy your life. See you on the other side.

Coleman Cowan
Jan. 24, 2021

The preceding article was researched, written and reviewed as part of the work of the NCBA Professional Vitality Committee (“PVC”). The lead author was Coleman Cowan of The Law Offices of James Scott Farrin, Raleigh, NC. Please direct comments and suggestions to Erna Womble, Committee Chair, and Holly Morris, Communities Manager. See more of the PVC’s Compendium of articles and blog posts online.