Don't Let Your Apprentice Get Lost in the Woods
I love fall in Montana. We put our rafts away and get ready for the winter as the temperature drops, the leaves change, and the snow starts to fly. Fall is also eagerly anticipated at my house because fall brings with it Montana’s deer and elk hunting season. Hunting is a deep-rooted tradition in Montana and affords not only an opportunity to fill the freezer with good healthy meat for our family but also a chance to grow and strengthen our bonds and fill our experience with lifelong memories of good times spent together up in the mountains. This year, my 9-year-old daughter Paige really showed her interest in hunting with us. In Montana, kids can hunt as apprentice hunters with a parent once they turn 10 years old. Paige isn’t quite old enough yet so we are using this time to harness her excitement and show her the ropes by watching me and my wife Anna and listening to lessons from us. So, after several good talks about responsible rifle use, wilderness and backcountry safety, and hunter ethics, Paige and Anna and I woke up before the sunrise, got our packs together, and hopped in the truck heading out to find some deer.
We arrived at the trail still in the dark of the early morning and hiked a little ways and set up at a good spot I have been hunting for a few years. We laid down on the cold ground looking out into the half-light over the hillsides with our binoculars and waited for the sun to show. We are used to deer sleeping in our backyard year-round so I had to remind Paige that deer in Montana seem to be everywhere until you really want to find them, and finding them can be hard work. Deer do tend to move around quite a bit right before dawn which is a good time to get a shot. Unfortunately, this time the sun rose and not a deer in sight. Even with the sun up it was still a cold frosty morning so after a couple of fruitless hours, we decided to head back to the truck to warm up and put together a new plan. The decision was made to head home and come back out in the evening, so I started the truck and we pulled away, a little disappointed. But then a couple miles down the road, Paige (who I am discovering has an eagle eye) yelled from the back seat “DAD! A deer a deer!!” I slowed the truck down and saw several whitetail deer up on the hillside. By the time I stopped the truck, the deer Paige had spotted moved up the ridgeline and just out of sight. We grabbed our stuff and made a quick plan to hike the other side of the ridge to see if we could head them off at the top without being noticed. Paige is a strong and determined hiker and she led the charge, carefully and quietly scrambling up the loose scree and dirt, staying low and keeping her eyes on the ridge. I was proud of her. We got to the top of the ridge, just out of the tree line and realized we had lost the deer. We saw some mule deer moving up the other mountainside across the way, but they were too far away for us to get after. The sun was warming things up and there was no wind. Our hunter’s optimism was high. We plopped down just off the ridge and after some glassing around the canyon with our binoculars, I turned and hiked to an outcropping behind us and discovered a group of whitetail bucks milling around on a grassy bench about 250 yards from where we were. I whispered the news to Anna and Paige and we changed our plan again. We turned and carefully made our way out to a rocky promontory and then the three of us army-crawled around a group of trees to a flatter outcropping to get Anna a closer shot. Laying down flat on our bellies, Anna got her rifle set up and Paige and I kept our binocs on the deer. After some patient and careful waiting, Anna took aim and made a great shot, dropping the buck instantly. We celebrated our successful hunt with some big smiles and big hugs and then made our way to the deer. We spent some important time with the deer, respecting and honoring him. Then Paige and I got to work together, with her by my side as my helper, in field-dressing the deer. I showed her the proper cuts to make and she was fascinated by all of it. At one point she stopped and looked up at me and said with a big smile, “Hey dad, we probably wouldn’t have found this deer if it wasn’t for me!!” And I said, “You’re right. See, you’re already a great hunter. Tough Montana girl!!!” It was quite a day.
Of course, I wasn’t thinking about lawyers and malpractice claims while we were up stomping around in the mountains with our rifles. So what exactly is the point of this story and how does this have anything to do with ALPS and malpractice claims? I expect that someday Paige will be a skilled and responsible mountain adventurer and hunter. But for now, she is my apprentice. She has so much to learn and I have so much to show her. The wilderness can be unforgiving and it requires proper teaching and skills and toughness and respect to safely adventure in the mountains. The point is I take Paige’s training very seriously. And just like I would never hand Paige a rifle and send her out into the woods without showing her the way and teaching her the skills she needs to be safe and strong, attorneys need to be equally serious and mindful of mentoring new attorneys before they are ready to take on significant roles in representing clients and providing legal services on their own.
Proper training and guidance is critical to avoiding mistakes. At ALPS we often see claims involving new lawyers at firms who just didn’t know what they were doing and didn’t have proper guidance or training or supervision and were handed tasks beyond their abilities. Law school doesn’t really train us to be lawyers and new lawyers tend to believe they can handle it all anyway. All the claims attorneys at ALPS have claims where an associate attorney was set off on their own without proper guidance or supervision. When things go bad, new lawyers don’t relish the thought of telling the senior attorneys and so they often try to fix it themselves. And then things get overwhelming and out of control until it is too late. One of the largest losses in my claims involved that sort of a scenario. And of course, the claims involve not only the negligence of the attorney but also the negligence of the senior lawyer and the law firm in failing to properly train and supervise.
It is important for law firms of all sizes to have a set of policies and protocols to assist and mentor and supervise new lawyers. To the extent possible, firms should consider an apprentice/mentor program and set up weekly meetings with all the lawyers or mentor/apprentice groups where they regularly go over the firm’s cases together. A comprehensive and easily accessible file list reflecting the responsible attorneys on each case should be circulated and regularly updated with deadlines, daily/weekly/monthly tasks, etc. The more attention paid to each file and to each attorney, the less likely a claim will arise where a new lawyer gets in over his head. Don’t set your associates off on their own to get lost in the woods.
Anyway, next year Paige will be old enough to get an apprentice deer tag and head out into the woods by my side in search of a deer, this time with her own rifle. She’s real excited about it. We still have some work to do before then, but I’m certain she’ll be ready.
Authored by: Chris Fagan Claims Attorney
Chris Fagan joined the ALPS Claims Team in 2015. He is a graduate of the University of Montana School of Law. In addition to his years of experience in private practice as a civil and commercial litigator, Chris also has experience in land management from both the conservation and ranch real estate sides. When he’s not helping ALPS-insured law firms through the claims process, he’s rowing his raft on one of Montana’s many rivers or cutting fresh tracks on the ski hill.