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Tips for making the most of your work experience

We are the sum of our experiences, for better or worse. This becomes clearer as you enter the world of employment. Having a track record of valuable and diverse roles speaks to your unique character and, quite frankly, makes you a much more interesting person to talk to. In building your legal career, I advocate for always making the best out of your situation but consistently striving toward careful and deliberate employment choices leading up to your call to the bar and beyond. This building process is one that I continue to practice. I refer to it as building your experience pipeline. Each new work experience is a chance to build on past experiences and to craft your narrative.

To understand this process, I use the analogy of a city planner trying to navigate an underground water pipeline through the city. A pipe represents a past work experience, which may be as long or short as needed. It may represent a new employer or a change in position with the same employer. A pipe will eventually reach a point of obstruction such as a park or building where it cannot continue and must navigate around. These obstructions represent reasons why you need a change, such as not feeling challenged at work, redundancy, wanting to pursue a new interest, etc. Each joining piece that manoeuvres a pipe around an obstruction represents your unique connectors in the form of a trait, skill or knowledge. These unique connectors should highlight strengths from your previous role, which will allow you to add value to your next role.

For example, in my shift from a quasi-legal role at an investment bank into a student-at-law position, I drew on my niche experience with OTC derivatives as my connector and targeted law firms that had an existing practice in that area or were building one. In my subsequent transition from Canadian private practice to a Hong-Kong-based, private-equity in-house role, my connectors have now compounded and include my previous experience in OTC derivatives and M&A. Finding the appropriate connectors depends on the type of role for which you are applying and the context.

Had I applied to non-law roles, I would have drawn more on transferable skills developed as opposed to substantive legal knowledge. As you progress, you will find that your connectors will have morphed into key contributions that you bring to a new position, crafted from a quality and diverse pipeline of work experiences. Look back on your past few roles; what were your unique connectors? Are they still working for you today? What would you like your connectors to look like five years from now? 

After you have successfully transitioned into a new role, how do you make sure you learn as much as possible and as fast as you can so that you have enough connecting material for later? Many people have trouble adjusting and acclimatizing to a new employment situation, which will stall their growth and hurt their chances at future opportunities. A few habits have helped me with adjusting.

Always carry a notebook

You should always be acquiring new knowledge and skills, especially in your first six to 12 months of any new role. You never know when you will need to record something, so always have a notebook close by. Write down tips and tricks you have learned along the way and, most importantly, all the failures you have encountered. Noting my failures has allowed me to not only evaluate what remedial steps I need to take so it does not happen again but also be reminded that you learn more when you handle mistakes with humility.

Maintain familiar habits

Whether it is grabbing a coffee in the morning, working out at lunch hour or arranging emails in a certain format, try to maintain some of your familiar habits from your previous role that keep you level-headed and stress-free. In my move to Hong Kong, maintaining my workout routine from Canada was important to me as it allowed me to settle into my new role much faster and more comfortably despite having to deal with the culture shock and intense work culture. Familiarity leads to comfort and comfort leads to less stress and more bandwidth to deal with new challenges.

Do your background work

Spend time after work or on weekends to digest all the new content you have learned. Often, you will not have enough time or capacity during work hours to fully understand everything you are doing or the context of it all. The amount of extra time you put into doing your background work will contribute to your ability to add value in your role faster. In my first few months of working as in-house counsel, like a sponge, I was absorbing everything and anything relevant, whether that is Investopedia, law firm guidance notes or private equity for dummies books.

Get to know your colleagues

In addition to meeting new friends, this is a way for you to fast track your learning curve and adjustment and to understand your new role and employer first-hand. Things such as work culture and etiquette, delegation work flows, informal processes, preferences and attitudes of colleagues and managers, etc. can be learned on a proactive basis, a much better approach than reacting through trial and error. Understanding the preferences of my managers and informal processes has allowed me to anticipate tasks without being asked and has allowed me to contribute more to the business flow and not slow it down. For any junior lawyer, the mere ability to make the life of your senior lawyers easier is one that will pay dividends in the long run and is not to be understated.

Daniel Lo is a Canadian and English lawyer, admitted to practice in Ontario, Alberta and England and Wales. His practice involves private equity, funds and mergers and acquisitions.