Apprenticeship – The Art of Mastering A Trade

Mastering a skill takes a lifetime. Formal education only scratches the surface of the learning journey. A great academic experience will cost money. A quality apprenticeship is priceless.

Years ago, apprenticeships were highly valued because learning from a professional carpenter, stone mason, or lawyer was the only way to achieve mastery of a chosen trade.

Now, academic study has replaced much of the focus of “on the job training.” However, it’s this “on the job training” that has provided me with my first challenging and sometimes extremely tough lessons on how to actually perform my trade; that of an American lawyer.

Observing and working with trained professionals as they practice their craft presents a learning opportunity unrivaled by the best classroom environment.

With the first day of my last year of law school approaching, the end of my formal education draws near. While practicing this summer under Georgia’s Third-Year Practice Act, I quickly realized my legal training has only begun. Crossing the courtroom threshold as a young practitioner presents a battery of emotions. Nervousness, excitement, fear, and passion must all be controlled and channeled. Controlling those natural impulses takes practice. My clerkships over the past two summers provided me with that opportunity.

Georgia’s Third-Year Practice Act allows rising and current third year law students to practice law under the watchful eye of a bar licensed attorney. I am grateful for the people who served as my summer supervisors. They taught me how to address difficult situations during motion hearings, negotiate effectively with prosecutors, and communicate clearly with clients. When I graduate, these lessons will continue.

Graduation merely marks the beginning of the educational path. Not a day goes by when I neglect to seek guidance from my mentors. Most of my questions are about practical advice, ligation strategy, and tactical decision-making.

One early morning in the middle of June, I nervously arrived to the office. Later that morning, I was scheduled to argue my first motion. This motion involved cross-examining a seasoned police officer. We practiced this at school, and I felt prepared with my questions. Just before the judge called our case, one of my mentors leaned over to me and said, “Whenever you’re going to question a police officer, go up to them before the case is called and introduce yourself. Cross-examination is a naturally combative procedure, and introducing yourself and saying ‘hello’ before the hearing lets the officer know you’re not approaching the situation out of anger or frustration.”
In all my preparation, I never thought to introduce myself to the witness. This was neither taught in our trial advocacy classes nor trial competition prep sessions. The advice my mentor gave me on that morning represents a classic example of a critical lesson not taught in law school.

Several weeks after my first motion hearing, another mentor and I went to a local jail to visit clients. While we were there he told me that, “client communication is crucial in order to be a successful attorney.” He continued by saying, “listening to clients, understanding their concerns, and communicating complex topics all need to be mastered.”

We met with many clients over the summer. All of them had a unique situation each with individual concerns. In the classroom, there is constant discussion about possible liability exposure, procedural strategies, and potential pre-trial motions. Improving client communication skills, however, rests on the back burner. At times during the summer, I found myself growing impatient with client behavior or decision-making. I approached a mentor about these frustrations and he reminded me, “even with the most challenging clients, it’s critical that we remain patient and address their concerns.”

As I finish school, I look forward to the challenges that lie ahead. I am also grateful for my continuing apprenticeship. My lifetime goal is to come as close as I can to mastering my chosen trade. With my mentors, apprenticeship, and community support, perhaps I will grow closer to my goal every day.

James “Jamie” Aaron Swindle II
Samford University – Cumberland School Law – Class of 2017