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Home / Commentary / Learning from my mistakes: Advice on that first year from someone who’s been there
The first few years of practice can be daunting, and I wanted to offer five tips and tricks that I wish I knew when I started practicing.

Learning from my mistakes: Advice on that first year from someone who’s been there

Sybil Dunlop offers “five tips and tricks that I wish I knew when I started practicing.” (Submitted photo)

I should start with a disclaimer: I pretty much hate it when anyone tells me what to do. I’ve been known to bristle when someone suggests that I might want to wear a coat because it’s cold outside. I will not admit that the person was correct even when I am freezing. Acknowledging my personal tendency to resist instruction, I’m aware that offering advice to others in this article may seem ironic. But this is not advice for the sake of advice. The first few years of practice can be daunting, and I wanted to offer five tips and tricks that I wish I knew when I started practicing.

1. Read the rules — all of them.

I know, I know, this is something they actually teach you in law school. But this piece of advice is so important that I’m breaking it up into subparts.

A. Read the whole rule.

Sometimes you will get halfway through reading a rule and think you’ve got the answer all figured out. Don’t stop there; read the whole rule. I have a personal tale of woe to illustrate this point. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 6 says that if you’re calculating a due date, count every day, but if the last day is a legal holiday, the due date continues to run until the end of the next day. I read the rule and thought, “Great. Monday is Columbus Day, so the brief will be due Tuesday because the ‘next day’ is Tuesday.” It turns out that the rule goes on to define “next day.” I never even thought to look for a definition because I thought I knew what “next day” meant. Not so fast. Rule 6’s definition of “next day” explains that “next day” is determined by continuing to count forward when the period is measured after an event and backward when measured before an event. So if you’re in a state like … oh, I don’t know … Minnesota, where briefing schedules are determined by counting backward from the hearing date, next day means your brief is due the Friday before Columbus Day. I finally read this rule, in its complete form, the Friday before Columbus Day. It was fine. After I collapsed in a pile on the floor, I picked myself up, called the court and explained my dilemma. We filed on Tuesday. But who really wants to do that? All because I stopped reading halfway through a rule.

B. There might be rules you didn’t even know about.

When I graduated from law school I knew that there were rules of civil and criminal procedure. I knew about ethical rules because I was forced to study for the MPRE. But that was about it. In the back of my mind I might have known that local rules existed, but this information was stored in the same file as my knowledge that haggis and Lichtenstein existed. It turns out there are other rules (and if you have an LAA, he or she can probably point you in the right direction):

i. There are electronic filing guides in federal court.

These CM/ECF guidelines tell you how the court wants you to file documents under seal, label your filings, and which types of personal information you’re required to redact. I didn’t even know that these rules existed, so I didn’t look for them. When I found them, it was like finding the rule book for a game that I’d been playing wrong for years.

ii. There are tons of state rules.

When I want to ensure that I’ve looked at all the relevant rules, I just pull up this handy website — — and use the list as a mini-checklist. In a normal state-court civil filing situation, I like to check out the civil procedure and general rules of practice before springing into action.

iii. Statutes can detail procedures.

This was another one of those places that I wasn’t looking for answers because I didn’t know that there were answers to be found. It turns out, however, that if you’re working on an eviction, a land use matter or an arbitration, Minnesota Statutes detail the procedural aspects of these proceedings. It’s always good to check (Google usually does the trick) and see if there is a statutory provision that governs your proceeding.

2. Use practice manuals.

Sometimes you read the rule and you still don’t know what it means. This does not mean that you are stupid. It means that you need to figure out what other people think the rule means. The day that I discovered the 8th Circuit Appellate Practice Manual was one of the best days of my life. The book synthesizes the rules and makes checklists so that you can ensure you’ve included everything you need in an appeal. The book also provides juicy details so that you can answer probing questions as to how cases are screened for oral argument. I promise that I have no financial interest in promoting this book (although if, after reading my praise for their book of greatness, the editors want me to promote their book I can be reached at

3. Pacer is your best friend.

I clerked for two years before starting my practice. When I first started, I would compare current legal issues to situations that arose when I was clerking. I would think “Gosh, I know the judge entered an order about this topic, I should see how it’s worded so that I get this right.” I would turn to Pacer, find the case and for 21 cents, I could find just the language I was looking for.

Well, it turns out you can use Pacer for every case this decade, not just the cases you remember from a clerkship. If you’re on Westlaw or Lexis and find an order dealing with your issue, you can visit Pacer and pull the briefs. You can pull the affidavits. This trick works for jury instructions, special verdict forms, etc.

Recently, lead counsel asked if I had any examples of successful motions to reconsider. Because a successful motion to reconsider is akin to a unicorn on Nicollet Mall, I turned to Pacer — I started with a Lexis search for something like “granted w/10 motion to reconsider.” Once I found a few court orders, I used Pacer and pulled the briefs. Then I gave myself a high five.

4. The pro se guides can round out your circle of friends.

When I started practice, I was a decent writer and researcher of stuff. I felt like my general feelings of competence disappeared when anyone asked me to MAKE SOMETHING HAPPEN. By make something happen, I mean start a civil lawsuit, file a complaint, execute a summons or arrange for service. The pro se civil guidebook and information sheets will walk you through these steps. Don’t feel ashamed that the website is designed for pro se people and you have a law degree; just revel in the guide’s use of plain English and refusal to rely on legal jargon.

5. Use calculator websites.

If you’re anything like me, you went to law school because you feel like you’ve got a full deck of cards as long as nobody asks you to calculate anything. But I also have an inner feminist inside of me that prevents me from saying something like, “Math is hard; let’s go shopping.” So when I’m asked to calculate anything, I look bravely in the asker’s eye and say “sure, no problem.” At this point, I run to the Internet.


This little beauty of a website will permit you to add to or subtract from a date — perfect for figuring out filing deadlines. You can also calculate time between two dates (for all those times that your brief calls for a sentence like, “Johnson tried to uncover the fraud for four years, three months, and 26 days”).


This calculator will help you determine X percent of Y, and calculate percentage increase and decreases. Now I’m not saying you couldn’t figure this out on your own … but isn’t it nice to check your work?

The bottom line is that there’s no reason to perpetuate the stereotype that lawyers are bad at math. With the Internet on your side, even advanced calculus is easy.

As I enter my third year of practice, I still need to remind myself to read the entire statute, check the rule books and double-check my math. This list has become a bit of a mantra. I’ve also found, however, that there is no website or practice manual that can compare to poking your head in a colleague’s office and just asking, “Does this seem right?”

Sybil Dunlop joined Greene Espel in 2010 after clerking for the Honorable James M. Rosenbaum of the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota. Her practice focuses on representing individuals, corporations and public-sector entities in business and governmental defense litigation.

About Sybil Dunlop

Sybil Dunlop joined Greene Espel in 2010. Her practice focuses on representing individuals, corporations and public-sector entities in business and governmental defense litigation. She can be reached at

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