The care and cultivation of good colleagues

The care and cultivation of good colleagues
Thinking back to this time last year, I’m blown away by all the experience I’ve gained in such a short time. Despite the “trial by fire,” I’ve actually really enjoyed my first year of practice.

I’ve often written about my terrific mentors, and will continue to do so, as they are a major source of support and learning for me. It occurred to me this week, though, that I haven’t mentioned those in my law practice who have, at various times this year, motivated me, educated me, made me laugh, inspired me, and lifted my spirits: my associate colleagues.

I realize not all readers will be as fond of their colleagues as I am. That’s fair, but I hope this article will motivate readers to try to cultivate a supportive, collegial network within your office, or if necessary, with lawyers outside of it. It truly has made all the difference to me.

And so, in the spirit of the holidays, I’m writing about what it means to be a good colleague (and why it’s worth your time to be one).

How can I help?

A great colleague is always willing to offer assistance, even if the task is totally undesirable (staying late, helping to lug boxes with you to court, etc.). I can’t tell you how good it feels to know your colleagues are willing to roll up their sleeves and bail you out when necessary.

I love the phrase “how can I help?” becase it somehow presupposes the person can help, and makes it clear she is willing to help — it’s just a matter of how best to do it. It also tends to remove the possibility of saying “there’s nothing you can do,” which is the usual reflex.

Have fun together

Be willing and available to have some fun with your colleagues. We all spend a lot of time at work. I don’t care if you’re working in a 9-5 environment — that’s still a lot of time to be spending with the same group of people, day in and day out. So have fun. Do something not work-related that makes you laugh, relax, and get to know your colleagues as individuals. That could mean sending them a funny news story, having regular after-work drinks, or planning a social event.

I suspect most firms would actually sponsor a team-building event, so consider putting together a proposal involving dinner and an activity and see if the leadership will pick up the tab! The event need not be expensive or glamorous — probably the most fun I’ve had with my colleagues involved pizza, cheap beer, and (wait for it) axe-throwing at a local sporting club.  I kid you not.

Celebrate wins

As a junior associate, I don’t have splashy, front-page wins. I have small wins — a motion here, a settlement there. I also have victories in other ways, like handling difficult clients, for instance, or bringing in a new client. Your associate-level colleagues can celebrate these wins with you. I have, on more than one occasion, had a 20-second closed-door dance party in a colleague’s office because they totally nailed something and were thrilled about it. This is not something you can really do with partners, am I right?

So maybe your office neighbour submitted a draft pleading that, for the first time, did not come back entirely covered in red ink. Celebrate! This is one of the best ways to bond with your colleagues, in my view, because it recognizes we’re all working really hard to be great lawyers and are making progress toward that goal.

It’s worth your time

Putting aside all the intangible benefits of being a good colleague (which make it all worth it) there are also more concrete pay-offs. You’re scrambling and can’t find time for lunch? If you’ve offered to grab lunch for someone else before, chances are the favour will be returned. It’s 10 p.m. and you can’t find the (insert expletive) manila letter tabs to go in your motion record? Maybe that person you’re friendly with down the hall knows where they are or is willing to search the depths of the supply closet with you.

Need a proofreader? Forget what that case is called? Need a sounding board for your opening statement? Forgot your court tabs and need to borrow some? It’s easy to see the numerous ways a collegial environment can benefit your practice. Pay it forward.

And sometimes, life hits. When I lost a close family member suddenly last year, somehow my work just magically evaporated and little elves took care of everything while I was away. Other colleagues have been supported through illness, pregnancy, house moves, weddings, and stress. It just makes good sense to be there for others when they need it, because we will all need support at some point. Knowing that you’re not flying solo during a difficult time makes it more manageable.

So take the time in 2013 to build relationships with the people you work with. My colleagues have brought a richness to my work life that I am so grateful for. Law is often stressful, overwhelming, and intense. It feels good to know, no matter what your law practice might bring, you have a team alongside you.

And they know how to use an axe.

Happy holidays! I’ve completed my first year of practice, but I’ll be staying on as a regular contributor on associate issues for 2013. I love hearing from you so please keep the feedback coming.

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