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For new lawyers: Skills I wish I learned earlier

With the end of summer nearing, I am excited to welcome a group of newly minted lawyers to the bar, entering the profession with eyes wide open. I am reminded that it was only three years ago that I donned my legal gown for the first time. I knew that being called was only the start of my development as a lawyer and understood that many of the most useful lessons will be learned on the job. Good habits and solid technical skills go a long way early in a lawyer’s career, as building on bad habits and mediocre skills will severely limit one’s growth potential and make working a nightmare.

Three years in, I have noticed that there are certain skills that would have allowed me to either avoid headaches or provide added value earlier on had I known it.

Excel

It is surprising how many times I use Microsoft Excel in a day. I constantly read capitalization tables and will manipulate data to see the impact of dilution on shares. I create and maintain spreadsheets, which track key commercial information on deals to present to senior management and for my personal log of ongoing and potential deal flow.

In finance-focused practice areas such as private equity or investment funds, having the ability to manipulate data to substantiate or add further detail to your advice is invaluable.

Excel becomes even more useful when you are at a startup, in-house department or solo practice where resources are limited, and you must rely on Excel as your tool for daily tasks, expenses and compliance.

More and more, the role of a lawyer is merging with that of other professional careers, such as accountants and management consultants. An understanding of how to deal with mass amounts of data in an organized manner will go a long way for this future breed of hybrid lawyer. Also, pivot tables are one of Excell’s most powerful tools, so you should learn how to use them.

Shorthand note taking

Taking instructions is basic but important. Do it right and at best you will not mess up an assignment; do it wrong and you will have wasted the time of your senior and yourself going around in circles and tangents. If you have not already done so, create and adopt shorthand techniques that are suitable to yourself. Little things such as writing “clt” instead of client, “w/o” instead of without and using the therefore sign (∴) are just some short forms I use to take down accurate instructions quickly.  

Blacklines

When you are on a live deal such as a private equity funding round or M&A transaction, you will inevitably see multiple drafts of transactional documents (share purchase agreement, shareholders agreement, certificate of incorporation, among others) flying around with comments from many investors. To view the most recent changes to such documents, it is easy to run the most recent draft to the previous draft. It gets more complicated when your senior wants you to provide the changes from last Tuesday from X and Y investor only and there are multiple comments to a certain draft already. Having a specific style of naming your files and versions, creating specific folders for certain investors and organizing chronologically have helped me keep on top of constant amendments.  

Deal structure charts

During my articling term, my principal had given me a tax assignment that involved various corporate and individual entities engaging in consecutive transactions. Being a tax lawyer himself, it was obvious to him how each stakeholder interacted with each other through the deal structure chart. Rectangles and ovals, dashed and thick lines, white and blue background shading — it was all very confusing. At the time, I could not appreciate the shapes, colours and lines used to describe each entity and interaction. I now see that there are generally accepted tax chart shapes and colour conventions that are not only used by tax lawyers but other lawyers dealing with multiple entities in a transaction or deal setting. Rectangles represent corporates, pentagons represent trusts and outlines of dashed lines represent newly formed entities. This skill will prove itself when you start to engage with accountants on deals or looking at complicated multi-step M&A and restructuring transactions.