My first courtroom experience as an attorney is still vivid in my mind.
My supervising attorney called me into his office around 6 p.m. “You will need to catch the train to Philadelphia at 6 a.m. tomorrow for a hearing.”
As I sat in that rigid office chair, it pushed back, unyielding. 6 a.m.? That was twelve hours away! I rushed to murmur my thanks, then left.
I spent that entire evening balancing the nauseating sensation that had taken residence in my stomach and studying the case file, taking notes in preparation for my sudden introduction to the courtroom. I somehow managed to nab a few hours of much-needed sleep, then armored myself with an absurd amount of coffee early the next morning.
Arriving early, I took a seat on a cold wooden pew with about a dozen other men and women in suits. Why are courtrooms and churches the only places with pews? I wondered, reminded of the way the office chair had pushed back in my supervisor’s office the previous evening. Massive, golden-framed portraits of former judges covered the walls, glaring down at me, seeming to judge me before I had uttered a word.
Imposter syndrome overwhelmed me. I was out of place despite my law degree. My freshly cleaned suit did nothing to reassure me I belonged. My tie seemed tighter than usual, like a noose ready to mete out my punishment as I stood before the gallows. I felt like two kids in a trench coat waiting for the judge to rip off our costume and expose us like a Scooby-Doo villain.
However, I forced myself to remain outwardly calm. Eventually, the judge called my client’s name, and I stood. The gaze of every lawyer and every portrait rested heavily on my shoulders as I walked to the bar.
Before I continue, please allow me to provide some clarity regarding the bar. In one sense, the bar refers to the entire legal profession. Attorneys are members of the bar. Passing the bar (exam) is a requirement for law graduates to be admitted to practice law. And finally, in a very literal sense, the bar is the wooden barrier that separates the judge from courtroom spectators. Everyone beyond the physical bar is an active participant in court. Once I graduated from law school and passed the bar exam, I was qualified to advocate for my client beyond the bar. Of course, in that moment, I certainly didn’t feel that way.
As I pushed my way through the bar’s swinging, saloon-style doors, I noticed a small sign that read, “Attorneys only.” In that instant, a surge of confidence rushed through me like adrenaline. The imposter syndrome vanished. That small sign reminded me that my years in law school and the time I spent studying for the bar exam meant something. Despite my initial insecurity, I was indeed qualified to advocate beyond the bar.