Happy new year! The most exciting part of 2012 for me is that I can officially say I was called to the Ontario bar “last year” — it already sounds better than saying “in June,” doesn’t it? Over the next 12 months, I look forward to sharing with you some of the highs and lows of my first year of legal practice. I welcome your comments and any suggestions for future articles.
I’m one of those nerdy, boring, and lucky people who knew from a young age what I wanted to be when I grew up. With the exception of a brief period when I was convinced I should open a dance studio (it’s still possible), I have always imagined myself running a law practice and advocating on behalf of clients. My father fondly recalls me submitting “briefs” at age 10 about why I should be allowed to ride my bike in the house. It was winter, and the bike was a birthday gift. I still think it was reasonable. My mother often reminds me of my Grade 12 mock trial, where I cross-examined one of my poor classmates. I quote: “That’s all very well, sir, but in your police interview you claimed the window was four feet wide, not six. Only one further question: were you lying then, or are you lying now?” I was a 16-year-old who couldn’t imagine how much fun it would be to get paid to do this kind of work.
Well, I’m here. I’ve landed my dream job at an incredible law firm doing work that is challenging, worthwhile, and well, totally cool at least 80 per cent of the time. The only problem is this consistent feeling that I know absolutely nothing about how to actually practise law. Substantive law? Sure — if you want to chat about contract law, human rights, the Employment Standards Act, or the law of evidence, we can chat all day (though would we? Bit of a boring day). But the practice of law, the business of law, I’m learning is an entirely different ball game.
In many ways, new lawyers are just expected to know how to run a practice. The Law Society of Upper Canada is to be commended for its efforts in teaching us about legal ethics and professionalism during our articles, but nobody teaches you how to work with an assistant, how to ask clients for money (and deal with their shock at your rates), how to structure your time to get the most out of your day, and have room for a personal life at the end. It’s on-the-job training at its finest, and feels a bit like a trial by fire.
After being called to the bar, I savoured my summer by relaxing, reading, and spending time with family. I also spent a month in Europe. I surfed in Portugal, practised yoga in rural Italy, and visited friends and family in the U.K. and Ireland. Despite some initial dorky intentions that were strongly objected to by friends and family, I did almost nothing law-related that summer.
Yet when I stepped back through the doors of my workplace, it seemed that my superiors thought I had spent the summer at some crazy intensive lawyer camp. Gone were the gentle explanations about procedural issues or substantive law I relied upon in articling. Suddenly, files were being dropped on my desk and I was expected to, well, be a lawyer. Of course, it’s an open-door policy for questions but much of it needs to be learned by experience. It’s equal parts exhilarating and terrifying, with a slight tilt toward the terrifying.
I’m told that feeling overwhelmed is normal and to be expected. I’m also told that in your first few years of law, if you don’t feel this way, you’re at risk of being negligent and not taking your role as a lawyer as seriously as you should be. So, good news: I’m taking my job seriously. That’s cold comfort when I’m junioring on a trial and am awake every night at 3 a.m. convinced I’ve forgotten something, or when my stomach was in knots while waiting to appear solo for the first time at the Court of Appeal last month. Sometimes the anxiety is useful and propels me to do just a little bit more research, a little bit more preparation, and it pays off. Usually, though, it just results in less sleep.
Over time, I’ve developed some ways of dealing with the first-year jitters. My favourite is commiserating with colleagues and friends in the same stage as me. At my last such get-together, a good friend from law school admitted half-jokingly that he was afraid he would get fired for what was actually a very minor procedural error he made on a file. Of course, he’s fantastic and totally qualified; there’s no way his job is in jeopardy. Maybe it’s a bit sick on my part, but it was comforting to know that other people have similarly irrational concerns about their performance in Year 1.
On the job, I try to stay extremely organized so I never miss court filing deadlines. I’m regularly mocked for how tidy my office is, but I also never lose things! I live by my Outlook calendar, and I’ve encouraged my assistant to remind me about upcoming filing dates. I’m quickly learning that while I may not be as experienced as more senior counsel, I can just about always be more prepared than them. So I generally over-prepare. I figure it’s good learning for me and even if I’m not successful in the result, I’ll know that I’ve done everything I could for my clients.
I also ask questions. All the time. Even when they’re embarrassing. I’d rather be embarrassed in front of my colleagues by asking a question than in front of clients or a judge by making an avoidable mistake. When mistakes do happen, I try not to dwell on the fixable ones (and so far, thankfully, they’ve all been fixable).
I’m told that drinking significant amounts of wine, buying fancy work clothes without guilt, and travelling whenever possible also helps. Naturally, I can’t confirm or deny these theories, but encourage you to find out for yourself.
So here’s to 2012 and all the newly minted lawyers who are generally terrified but living the dream. This year, I hope, will bring lots of learning, some ups and downs, a lot of satisfaction, and take me several steps closer to being the confident lawyer I’ve always wanted to be. Join me?