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10 things you really need to know to practise law

|Written By Michael McKiernan
10 things you really need to know to practise law
Illustration: Huan Tran

Law school is just the beginning of a legal career. With the call to the bar comes a whole new set of people and a whole new set of skills. What more do you need to know besides the law? Michael McKiernan canvassed practitioners across the country to find out what they’ve learned from the school of legal hard knocks. 1. We're not in law school anymore, Toto

The debate over how well law schools prepare students for private practice has a long and heated history, and it’s one that will likely rumble on long after you’ve crossed the stage at Convocation. In the meantime, all you need to know is things are different out there. “The focus of law school is on learning legal rules and applying these rules to relatively simple fact scenarios,” says Adrienne Boudreau, a second-year associate at McMillan LLP in Toronto. Simplicity is often lacking in the real world of legal practice, where it’s the facts, not the rules, that drive the case, according to Boudreau. “It’s critical that you take the time to understand the factual scenario underlying your client’s situation and don’t rush to apply legal rules in the hope of arriving at a nice, neat conclusion, because it won’t happen.”

2. You can’t know everything

No matter how exhaustive you think your research techniques are, in a field as all-encompassing as the law, there are going to be gaps. “Too often, we assume that we should know what to do and how to do it,” says Neena Ahluwalia, a lawyer with Alberta’s Youth Criminal Defence Office in Edmonton and a bencher of the province’s law society. Boudreau says she is unconcerned when she’s stumped by a question of substantive law. “Continuing legal education is not a reflection of your abilities; it’s a necessary part of everyone’s practice,” she says. According to Ahluwalia, the worst thing you can do is try to soldier on alone. “Sometimes when we don’t know or put something off until later, larger problems arise,” she says. “Don’t be afraid to confess that you need advice. It will be soon enough that other lawyers come to you for your sage counsel.”

3. Help is at hand

Luckily, there are a lot of people out there who have been doing this a lot longer than you have, and they’re willing to help. Sharon Davis of Hull & Hull LLP is the president of the Women’s Law Association of Ontario. She says it’s never too early to find a mentor. “Mentoring is the cornerstone of a successful career in law,” she says. “Once you’ve established meaningful mentoring relationships, you will find them an invaluable resource and confidence booster.” Joy Casey, a Toronto lawyer who co-founded A Call to Action Canada, says you may have to look beyond your own firm to search out mentors, but it will be worth it in the long run. “Watch and learn from what others in the profession do and how they do it, not just from what they say,” she says. And don’t forget to return the favour, says Davis. “No matter how junior you think you are, there is always someone out there who is where you were a few years ago. As a mentor, you will learn a lot from a mentee no matter what stage you are at in your career,” she says.

4. It’s who you know (not what you know)

Networking, networking, networking. “Developing close relationships with people both internally within the firm and also externally is very important to building a network,” says Robert Granatstein, managing partner at Blake Cassels & Graydon LLP in Toronto. That can mean active participation in legal associations such as the Canadian Bar Association or in other community groups such as business associations. Wherever you make your contacts, presentation skills are critical, according to Granatstein. “It is important to learn to speak well and to learn how to engage others in conversation in order to build a professional network.” Steve Raby, a partner at Macleod Dixon LLP in Calgary, says friendly and respectful treatment of lawyers on the other side of a file, even an ugly one, often pays off. “It has never ceased to amaze me how much business comes through, or with the encouragement of, my ‘competitors,’” says Raby. But there are pitfalls to avoid, according to Jason Leung, president of the Federation of Asian Canadian Lawyers and director of knowledge management at Ridout & Maybee LLP in Toronto. “When you network, remember that the first rule is to give. Try to help people, especially your fellow lawyers, in any way you can,” he says. “Have faith that it will come back to you. If you go out with the sole purpose of searching for business, it won’t work.”

5. Clients are people too

Eugene Meehan, a partner at McMillan LLP and chairman of the firm’s Supreme Court practice group in Ottawa, say it’s important to remember that, apart from being an important source of your income, clients are just like the rest of us. “They have a ‘me first’ attitude” and “they like lawyers who stop talking and listen to them.”  What’s more, “most clients are comfortable letting you learn about them” and their business. Meehan changes his voice mail daily and promises to get back to clients within four business hours. If it’s not possible, he has his legal assistant return calls to explain why not. “It signals to people that they’re important to you,” says Meehan. Glen Ridgway, former president of the Law Society of British Columbia, practises in Duncan, B.C. He says it’s important to develop a relationship with your client as soon as possible. “Get to know their expectations and let them know what the realistic potentials are both with respect to the service you are providing and the costs involved,” he says. “Do not be afraid to lose an unrealistic, improperly motivated client.”

[strong]6. You need to get a life

[/strong]The life of a lawyer should not begin and end in the office. According to Ridgway, you need to have strict boundaries around your personal life and free time, even if it means laying down the law to clients. “If you have a client who regularly calls during your off time without your permission, put a stop to it. Send them an account the next morning,” he says. Casey says it’s important to develop and maintain interests outside of work, adding that they may actually benefit your practice in the long run. “Life experiences, relationships, and interests all contribute to making you a better lawyer,” she says. Just as long as they don’t include golf, says Meehan. “Golf is a complete waste of time. It’s a sado-masochistic fetish two Celtic drunks invented after a night out. The time and effort to you is simply not worth the return.”

7. Money isn’t everything

As tempting as Bay Street salaries may seem with a heap of student loans and bank debts on your shoulders, it’s foolish to make cold, hard cash the only factor in your career choice. “A career in law can and should be fun. You should like what you do; it will make you a better lawyer,” says Davis, who has switched in and out of private practice in her career. She says it’s best to keep an open mind when choosing the right career combination. “I love many aspects of my present practice that I never dreamed I would like. Give each opportunity adequate time and a fair chance before you assess whether it is for you.” “Specialize in an area that you have a passion for,” says Gary Gottlieb, a sole practitioner from Toronto. Gottlieb, who is also a bencher with the Law Society of Upper Canada, urges students to use the articling process to get experience in areas that fire them up. Leung says it’s important to be honest with yourself about what type of lifestyle will make you happy, as well as your professional goals. “Always consider how your career will fit into your personal situation, such as where you live and whether you have, or plan to raise, a family,” he says.

8. Get organized

Quite apart from the demands on your personal life, you’re going to find clients, colleagues, and bosses pulling you in several different directions at once. “This requires careful time management, flexibility, and the need to regularly assess and reassess what is truly important and time-sensitive,” says Rita Andreone, a partner at Lawson Lundell LLP in Vancouver. “You need to prioritize and build in time to plan, research, and think and fight the temptation to react prematurely.” Without good organizational skills, you run the risk of “becoming overburdened with work and prejudicing clients,” says Ron Minken of employment law firm Minken & Associates Professional Corp. “A lawyer needs to stay organized and manage their time with the client’s best interest in mind. This can become difficult when a lawyer is required to meet numerous deadlines on different matters, communicate with clients, both new and existing, as well as with opposing counsel, and ensure that everything that needs to be addressed is handled,” he says.

9. Perfectionism doesn’t pay

Every case you encounter in practice will present a number of rabbit holes, down which you will feel inclined to go. Resist the temptation, says Michael Campbell of Deacon Spears Fedson & Montizambert, a Toronto firm specializing in condominium law. “As an articling student or a new lawyer, it’s easy to become mired down with non-contentious matters, or preoccupied with addressing a question that’s entirely immaterial to the case before you, but happens to have been addressed in whatever precedent you’re working from,” he says. It may seem counterintuitive not to strive for perfection, says Raby, but it’s not what clients are looking for. “They want a good, solid work product delivered in a timely manner and for a fair price,” he says, repeating the advice his old principal gave to him: “You could be the best technical lawyer in the world, but if your clients don’t think that, then you’re not going to be successful.”

10. Look out for No. 1

Don’t forget to advocate for yourself, says Andreone. “Few firms will or can plan out your practice and professional development. They may enable it and support you, but as a lawyer, you must take ownership; planning and making conscious decisions and taking active steps to achieve your goals,” she says. Boudreau says a little confidence can go a long way in your dealings with clients and colleagues. “Trust in your training, don’t forget about common sense, and remember there’s absolutely nothing wrong with saying that you need to consider a matter before providing advice. In my experience, people will respect your candour and commitment to providing the right information.”

  • Leslie McRae
    I have been practising law for just over 10 years. I think this is an excellent article, and a very good reminder to all lawyers, not just articled students. Thank you.

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