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Which Way Did Your Learning Curve, Curve?

     I remember reporting for work to my first job after graduating law school and passing the bar.  Excited and eager to prosecute criminals and keep the bad guys behind bars, I very quickly realized that I didn't know all that I needed  to know, even though I was fully qualified, certified, and all that jazz.  And that included what I'd learned working two internships with two prosecutorial agencies, two different courts, and many years as a legal clerk and secretary. 

     I remember my first court appearance.  All dressed up in my lawyer suit, briefcase in hand, exhibits in order, pleadings prepared, arguments and objections ready - all my ducks in a row, right?  Annd as I passed through the railing, approaching the bench, I suddenly realized I didn't know which table I was supposed to go to.  Which table was for the defense?  Which for the prosecution?  They're not labeled, you know.  Ack! 

     Looking back, it seems such a small thing, but at the time it seemed huge.  I didn't want to look like an idiot in front of my peers.  More importantly, I didn't want the opposition to know they were facing a newbie.  Fortunately, a kind bailiff rescued me and directed me to the right table. Later, at the end of that hearing, I presented my pleadings to the judge for his signature.  He refused to sign them.  Double ack!  As I frantically re-read them, trying to see what was wrong, the district attorney stepped up whispered in my ear.

     'Nothing‘s wrong with them,' he said, 'this judge just likes his own format.  Come to my office, I'll show you the wording he likes, and you can use my computer to make the changes.' 'Or,' he paused, 'or you can insist the judge accept them as is.  But I wouldn't advise it, he'd be annoyed.  And it's never  wise to unnecessarily annoy the judge.'   Those were golden words of advice. When I returned to my office and related the above to my co-workers, they screamed with laughter.  Apparently, they'd all experienced similar things in the beginning and thought it just dandy that I go through it too.

     Another time, different court, different judge, different problem.  I was at the podium, arguing my motion and the judge asked me a question . . . in a foreign language.  I couldn't understand a word he said.  I politely asked him to repeat his question.  He did; I still couldn't understand him.  Rinse and repeat.  I glanced behind me to where my boss sat, hoping for help.  He was laughing so hard tears were rolling down his face.  He waved at me.  That didn't help. Defense counsel, the opposition, crossed over to me and whispered that the judge had a serious mumbling problem and that it was worse today because he hadn't put his teeth in.  Bless his heart, the defense counsel stood by my side and translated for me for the duration. Yet another time, yes, different court and judge, different problem.  Everyone, and I mean everyone, the bailiffs, the clerks, the court reporter, the judge, were extremely hostile.  I didn't understand it.  I'd never been to that court before.  What was the problem?  I didn't find out until I got back to my office and expressed my puzzlement.  The week before, another division of my office had arrested the judge's secretary.  And wasn't it funny that I was before that judge the very next week?

    They just don't teach you stuff like that in law school.  So, yes, I had a learning curve.  My office had a weird sense of humor, but in the important stuff, the legal stuff, where it really mattered, they were great.  They were always willing to provide input, offer advice, and strategies.  Many years later, I can say that every time I try something new, my learning curve continues.  Most of all, I've learned not to sweat the small stuff. I know that the majority of the readers of this fine journal are law enforcement, not prosecutors.  Your training and mine is very different.  Our experiences are very different.  Our work, and bless you for doing yours, is very different.  But we all had learning curves. You went through a grueling law enforcement academy.  Some of you served before attending the academy.  Upon graduation, most of you were paired with a more experienced officer.  You continued to learn on the job with this officer's mentoring.  You have continuing education requirements (me too).  For some of you, it's mostly re-qualifying on the range.  Others have the opportunity to learn new skills or enhance old ones; new tools in your tool box.  If only time and budgetary restraints would allow more. 

     I'd venture to say that, like me, you've learned more out of school than in it.  You've dealt with difficult and dangerous people and situations.  You get by with too little sleep.  You rarely get to finish a meal.  You experience massive adrenaline rushes and dumps.  You've seen things that haunt you, things you wish you could forget.  You help people in their most trying times.  And you're bored out of your mind waiting to be called into court (yeah,yeah, I know, sorry about that).  Your subsequent experiences have no doubt revealed if your mentor helped or hindered you.  A good mentor knows his stuff, has his act together, sets an example, explains things, shares what he's learned, has a good moral and spiritual compass, is a leader, pushes you to exceed your own expectations, and is not too proud to say, 'I don't know, let's find out.'  A good mentor knows he is a role model and acts accordingly. A bad mentor?  Well, let's just say, 'garbage in, garbage out.'  If you're ever in a situation and your little inner voice raises a red flag, be cautious and check it out, verify as soon as you can.  You can discretely ask a knowledgeable, respected member of your agency.  Or, hey, ask your local prosecutor (that's part of his job).


So, how will you help the next newbie with his or her learning curve?