Are You Experienced?

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Jonathan D. Neerman approaches the practice of law with the confidence and calmness of a seasoned CIA agent. Per­haps because he used to be one.

Before heading to law school, the Dallas litigation associate worked as an intelligence officer in the Balkans and prepared daily briefings for two U.S. presidents. He says the skills he learned in the field have been invaluable to his new career in the courtroom.

“One of the things [the CIA] taught me was to always try and connect the dots,” says Neerman, who does a substantial amount of work on securities litigation matters. “It also helps in taking depositions–in cross- and direct examinations, it’s sort of a natural fit. In my old job, you try to talk to people, and it’s a lot like questioning witnesses. You don’t want them to know exactly where you’re going, but you’re trying to get in­formation out of them.”

Maturity also figures into the picture. “I see a lot of clerks who come through here who have never worked in an office before, and they have no idea how to act,” says Neerman, who started law school when he was 28. Young grads who have done nothing but go to school their whole lives, he says, also can have a tougher time relating to experienced lawyers.

Neerman does not seem to be alone in that theory.

“Knowing how to deal with supervisors and clients, handle work assignments and balance multiple projects are things the associate who’s gone straight through from college doesn’t necessarily navigate that well off the bat,” says Joanne Karchmer, executive director of career development at the University of California at Berkeley law school.

Work experience in a legal or business setting is best, but she says any pre-J.D. position can be advantageous if it enhances skills used in client development, client interaction and project management.

And, according to a 2003 study focusing on second-career lawyers, one out of five respondents reported that his or her prior career offered an advantage. Of the 2,144 lawyers who participated in the study, sponsored by the National Association of Law Placement, only 5 percent reported that age was a perceived hindrance in acquiring their current job.

Age-Related Expectations

James D. Fox, now a litigation associate in Naples, Fla., had a rich career history before graduating from law school in 2003. He had worked for the Republican National Commit­tee and served in President George H.W. Bush’s Department of Energy. He also had a stint as a Steubenville, Ohio, city councilman and was the communications director for the Ohio Republican Party.

Fox’s fear, he says, was that clients would see his age, 42, and expect his legal expertise to match. “A lot of people my age–by the time I graduated from law school, they had been practicing for 20 years,” he explains.

But Fox’s prior experience gave him a definite edge. After relocating to Florida, he networked to find law partners with whom he had something in common–primarily Repub­lican politics and the Catholic faith. He secured an associate position with a firm through a partner who was once a GOP state committeeman.

Fox’s experiences also contribute to his balanced approach to the practice. For example, he says his firm has a “no jerks” policy–something he admits that he probably wouldn’t have appreciated as much 20 years ago. “The goal was to be successful, win your cases and make money. It’s still important to do that, but there are more important things in life, like your family.”

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