You’ve been called to the bar. Congrats. Now you have a lot to learn. Turns out knowledge of the law is the minimum. Yes, you were on the dean’s list at law school. Did that help you understand how to actually practise law? And what have you done for the firm lately?
Welcome to boot camp for young lawyers. Put the books aside, step out of academia, and learn about the business of law, life, and the working world.
And pay attention, things will never be the same.
Lesson 1: Are you a good loser?
“You must have good marks and have done well in school and have a balanced CV, but what we’re looking for is the ability to handle stress, to be able to prioritize and work independently, and then have critical thinking skills and problem-solving abilities,” says Brian Grant, the managing partner at Lerners LLP.
More than that, though, he says, Lerners wants to know how well you take losing, because if you’re litigating, you won’t win them all. “We’re looking for the ability to lose publicly and carry on. As one of our partners says, if you’re not losing cases, you’re not trying cases.”
The reality is at some point new lawyers are likely to run up against a ruling that flays their carefully researched and presented arguments for the world to see. “We ask them to tell us how they lost and lost big.”
Lesson 2: Learning is a life-long journey. Don’t stop
The Canadian Bar Association and its provincial branches, as well as other associations such as the Advocates’ Society, local bar associations, and law societies across the country have seminars and workshops designed expressly for young lawyers. They provide guidance on everything from writing to dealing with clients, your first appeal, and big transactions.
From all accounts, they’re well worth it if it’s an area you’re likely to encounter because it takes it beyond law school into the nitty-gritty. And the classes are usually taught by experienced counsel.
Lesson 3: You’re a blank slate
“I think the big problem young lawyers face — myself included — is they don’t know what they don’t know,” says Ryan D. Campbell, an associate at Rubin Thomlinson and co-chairman of the Ontario Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division-Central. “You have to find ways to identify gaps in your knowledge and fill those gaps and the No. 1 way is to identify when you need to ask for help and to have the confidence to go and ask for that help.”
Lesson 4: Act like you’re part of a team
“As a newly minted lawyer, you want to show you can work independently and that’s commendable, but you don’t succeed or fail as a single lawyer, you succeed or fail as part of a team, and if you have problems you have to utilize the team,” says Campbell. “I have to say my law school experience really didn’t prepare me for teamwork.”
Lesson 5: Find your kindred spirits
Joining a group like the OBA young lawyers section or Young Women in Law can make a huge difference.
“You not only network and meet other lawyers in different areas of practice, but you also get introduced to people who may be able to mentor you or to other lawyers having similar issues,” says Campbell. “We have up to 100 people at our events and they are much less formal than at a firm’s offices.”
For women lawyers, it may be even more useful to join Young Women in Law because there aren’t a lot of women in senior positions and on the bench, so it helps to be able to network and get mentorship through the group, notes Erika Young, the group’s president. “Plus, misery loves company, people tend to share their stress and find others have the same problems.”
Lesson 6: Be flexible
That dream job with the corner office? Meh, not yet. Better to spend some years working than to turn down positions because they’re not in the area you want.
“You have to be flexible because it’s a tough market for lawyers today,” Salmon says. “You have to be flexible to take the opportunity as it presents. It could take 10 or 15 years to get that dream job.”
Patience is a virtue when building your career — law is most definitely not an instant gratification profession.
Lesson 7: Say goodbye to your social and sex life for now
“It’s important for us to expose articling students to realistic law firm pressures — and I don’t say this maliciously rubbing my hands together with glee and giggling,” says Grant. “We don’t dump work on them, but when we hear a student say they’re looking to ease up, we inquire. If they say something like, ‘I’ve been here two Saturdays running to work,’ then we say, ‘Really? Well, our view is you have a greater capacity to work. We don’t want you in here every Saturday, but two Saturday mornings in a row isn’t going to alter
Lesson 8: Learn to write well
It’s not that lawyers can’t write, says Neil Guthrie, director of professional development at Bennett Jones, it’s how they write. “You have people from different academic backgrounds, commerce degrees, science, and you get philosophers and history grads, who generally don’t have as many problems, but they can all fall into academic writing or fall into the template of writing like a lawyer and many lawyers are horrible writers,” he says. “I send out a weekly e-mail about writing, with tips like avoiding legal jargon or Latin, just plain English. And think of your client.”
Lesson 9: Learn when, what to delegate, and to whom
“Associates aren’t used to having people available to do work for them, so they do things like their own word processing, which is not a good use of their time and they’re not always that good at it,” says Guthrie. “Clients don’t want to get billed for the time their lawyer spent typing.”
His colleague, Darcy N. Legros, director of student and associate programs, law student recruitment, and supervision and professional development at Bennett Jones Toronto, concurs. “GenYs struggle with delegating,” she says. “That plays into the struggle with time management.”
Administrative work should be done by an assistant, not the lawyers; better to write the first draft, have the assistant format and proof, then have it reviewed, marked up, and given back to the administrative assistant.
Also, let your assistants and paralegals do their own work and establish systems to check in and make sure that they are doing what needs to be done in order that you can do your work and ensure the clients are being properly served, and deadlines, etc., are always being met.
Lesson 10: Beware the Black Dog and the abyss
Practising law is stressful and all-consuming and, as such, lawyers have a higher rate of drug and alcohol dependence, which can also trigger depression.
Be aware of the pitfalls that most often affect lawyers and get in front of them, says Guthrie. “I do a seminar on depression and addiction, which affects lawyers at a surprisingly higher rate than the general populace,” he says. “One session I did for the articling students, I had a woman come in and talk about resilience, about taking criticisms, about setbacks like not being hired. I hope it made a difference.”
Lesson 11: Get some culture
Each firm has its own culture. Get to know it and adapt to it.
Personalities also come into play, says Young. The bigger the firm, the more senior lawyers with different personalities. Learn how to work with their styles.
“You have to adapt your working style to them,” she says. “If you want feedback, some want e-mail, some don’t because they have too many. Some say just drop by the office and talk, others say just call them. Some need to be reminded of things, others are micromanagers.”
Lesson 12: It’s OK to make mistakes
Time management is a big adjustment when people move from law school, though most start to acquire those skills as articling students, adds Guthrie.
“We’re hands off in that we don’t allocate work, they get their own work, and, sometimes, they have to learn by failure or screwing up that there aren’t extensions,” he says.
Take those mistakes and make sure you set up systems or processes to avoid making them in the future. While making mistakes is OK, repeating them is not.
Lesson 13: Learn what resources are available
“What we’re working on this year is being aware of what resources are there,” Legros says, adding tips like cc-ing an assistant on an e-mail is an automatic trigger that you want them to save and archive it in the file. “Communication is often a big hurdle. Sometimes, you have a 26-year-old lawyer working with a 50-year-old assistant and they have trouble clearly expressing what they want. So, it’s important to sit down with the team and understand they have to keep those lines of communications open.”
Also realize your assistant probably knows a lot more than you — not about the law but about how the firm works and how to get things done. Respect that knowledge and you will have a strong ally who can really help you in your role.
Lesson 14: Seek and deal with feedback
Feedback is important for the learning curve, says Legros, and though most firms have formal reviews at least once or twice a year, informal, file-by-file assessments are useful. “We really encourage them to go back to the senior partner when a file is closed and ask for feedback,” says Legros. “But we also find that with junior students if the feedback is negative they take it hard. They take it personally and can get defensive. Those who do well take it in stride and learn from it.”
Her words are born of experience: “I still remember I missed a document on a file as a first-year associate and the senior partner came into me and asked me for it. I didn’t know I needed it. I remember closing the door and crying. But now [when] I have a file like that I’ve never missed that document again, which was a certificate of independent legal advice.”
Lesson 15: Watch out for Catch-22
“Sometimes, you’re the project manager and you have to make sure everyone is in line to get step one through 10 down by Friday and today is Monday,” says Erika Young. “You also have to keep in mind your conduct, whatever you draft will be scrutinized by the court, the client, a senior partner — so you have to stand by it and you have to catch everything. But as a junior you don’t know what you’re supposed to catch.”
Lesson 16: Adapt quickly
Law firms are hierarchical and filled with Type A professionals dedicated to their careers and jobs. It’s tough. Learn to roll with it. “You’re going to get called into high-stress situations and it can be daunting, but you need to adapt quickly,” says Young.
Being flexible and understanding how to work with different personalities are important skills that will serve you well throughout your career.
Lesson 17: It’s not a life sentence
Some lawyers start at firms either as articling students or associates and it doesn’t work out. That’s OK, says Pascale Daigneault at Fleck Law in Sarnia, Ont.
For some, it’s the workload, some want more challenge, others want less stress. Others live in another city or town and the commute is too much after a long day. The list goes on. It’s all OK. There are all kind of lawyers working in all kinds of settings. Move on and find what works for you.
Still, she cautions, take your time before you make that decision: “There are many changes to accept and some you will need to grow in to, and you should give yourself time to change and adjust.”
Lesson 18: Learn to juggle and keep your head up
Balancing competing demands, understanding how long something will take to complete, and anticipating what’s in the pipeline are things people struggle with and, thus, Bennett Jones’ in-house training sessions tend to focus on those basics, says Legros. “When you have your Tuesday planned and you have to change everything, some people struggle with that,” she says.
Unforeseen issues and problems come up all the time. Being both flexible and responsive, without letting other work slide, is imperative to success.
Lesson 19: No matter what, be civil
No firm tolerates incivility whether it’s directed at staff, colleagues, opposing counsel, or — definitely not — clients. “We’ve had to fire a client for being rude to staff,” says Daigneault. “Ours is a family firm, so it’s a much more friendly atmosphere.”
Young lawyers often struggle in this area, Grant agrees. It can be a lack of anger management, or being unable to balance their work and life and adjust to the realities of the entry level into a career in law. For some, it’s a struggle coming from what he called the “very structured world of law school” to the shock of having 50 files on their desk all seemingly screaming for immediate action. “The culture here [is] of people treating people courteously, despite that we’re all in conflict in litigation. There’s no tolerance for yelling and swearing.”
Just don’t be rude. Take a deep breath before you respond, particularly over e-email, where your tone can easily be taken the wrong way.
Lesson 20: Learn fast, or fall back
“It’s a very steep learning curve. Law school teaches you how to think about the law and ways of approaching problems and issues and analyzing. And when you enter practice, you are confronted with needing the skills of the real world,” says Young. “I’m a litigator and it’s adversarial and you have to learn to deal with clients and other counsel. You’re dealing with people charged with emotion, either angry or defensive.”
Here’s an area where having a more senior ally in the firm — a mentor, friend, long-time assistant — can really help you manage. Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for guidance.
Lesson 21: It really is a meritocracy, so work hard
Being willing to load up on files will pay off because those who work hardest advance further, notes Daigneault. “They will also get extra mentorship,” she says. “The reality is the principals are also working long hours.”
You also have to help yourself. While the senior partners and associates are a safety net because they, too, are responsible for your work, make sure you’ve made the effort and checked and proofread before submitting anything. It’ll go a long way to winning respect and, more importantly, forgiveness when you do screw up. And you will.
Lesson 22: Mentors are people, too
Yes, you need a mentor. Maybe more than one. But, as Daigneault says, don’t abuse your welcome. “It’s one of my pet peeves,” she says. “I talked to kids and they have three or four mentors, they collect them like baseball cards. It’s not about you. Any relationship is a two-way relationship and it’s always a joy to teach someone who is getting it, and thankful for the time and not cavalier with the time.”
Lesson 23: There’s more to communicating than texting
While Gen Y is enamoured with texting, not everyone wants to keep their face buried in their BlackBerry or iPhone.
“Texting is OK, but many people prefer face time, or even just a phone call,” Salmon says. “You have to learn how they want to communicate.”
Lesson 24: Learn how to network
“I think some of the challenges are around the softer skills coming in,” says Vivene Salmon, corporate counsel at Bank of America Merrill Lynch and part of the OBA’s young lawyers group. “How to network and develop communication skills. I came from a family of non-lawyers, so I had to develop those skills.”
Indeed, she says, an OBA seminar around networking offered tips on how to exit a conversation gracefully. “It was really practical advice.”