Letter from a Corporate Lawyer
Dear newly called advocate and solicitor,
Congratulations. Now that you are called to the Bar, how do you plan to approach your next stage of life as a corporate lawyer?
While law school provides a good foundation for legal research and essential concepts, the practice of law, whether in dispute, corporate or any other areas, requires knowledge and skills way beyond what one learns in law school.
You might recall that in law school, you were tested based on hypothetical cases. In real life, however, the facts are often not clearly written out for you, and more often than not, have to be pieced together from various sources, whether written or verbal, and from multiple parties. As a corporate lawyer, there are many aspects of the job we need to be cognisant of – What does the client want to achieve? What are the risks the client is most concerned about and how can you address them in the contract? What concerns should you, as counsel, highlight to the client? Is the client willing to walk away from the transaction if the price is too high? And to add to the complexity, in order for the corporate lawyer to do a good job, one should also understand the mindset of the counter party. Is the other side rushing to do the deal? Do they have a plan B in place? Is the other side’s lawyer conveying the right messages from their client? Are they sincere about doing the deal? And the list goes on.
In handling the myriad of corporate transactions, there are a number of skills and attributes which are important for new lawyers. What might these be? If we ask any senior partner, I am sure he or she will want a newly qualified lawyer (NQL) to be humble and eager to learn, enthusiastic, hardworking, punctual, understand instructions (and read their mind if possible!), conduct good research, deliver completed work promptly, submit well drafted correspondence and proofread all the documents, able to challenge and question the points raised, anticipate the next steps, manage the transaction well, hand-hold the client throughout the entire process, etc.
In my view, I think NQLs should at the minimum strive to possess the following “GREAT” attributes – Grit, Resilience, EQ, Agility and be a Team Player.
First, Grit. Transitioning from a student to a trainee and then to a qualified lawyer is no easy matter. Once qualified, corporate lawyers are expected to draft legal contracts, ensure they are error-free, make accurate online filings, handle clients’ queries, manage project timelines, among other things. On one hand, you have to manage clients who impose deadlines on your partners who in turn impose deadlines on you. On the other hand, you are trying to learn as fast as you can for each matter you are assigned. At the same time, the concepts of client management and file management are also new to you. Therefore, you might find the initial years of practice challenging, as you are constantly having to adapt and to learn. I would encourage you to be courageous and embrace the changes and the challenges to learn and grow as a lawyer. Be curious and learn any and everything that comes your way. As with any trade or craft, it takes a number of years of training to be a good craftsman. Therefore, take the hard work in your stride and to make it easier, celebrate small successes along the way.
Second, Resilience. What we learn in law school provides us with foundational knowledge. In practice, there are many dimensions that you have not been taught and are learnt whilst on-the-job from partners and seniors. With so much to do and so little time, you may find yourself overwhelmed, you might lose confidence in yourself and you might make mistakes. When a mistake is made, it may be rectified with a simple apology. But, it could also be a serious error, for example, one which causes clients to miss a statutory timeline. The awful feeling of having made a grave mistake is hard to stomach and the reproach by the partner simply aggravates it. In my years of practice, I too have made some mistakes along the way. I will never forget those mistakes and I make sure that I do not make them again. The important thing to do after you have made a mistake is to acknowledge it and to learn from it. Take ownership and apologise to the partner in charge instead of trying to come up with excuses or half-truths to cover up the mistake. By confronting it directly, you and your partner will be able to take immediate remedial action to rectify the mistake and seek the client’s understanding. After the matter has been resolved, it is important to be resilient and to bounce back from the low point. Then, work harder than before and ensure that you do not make the same mistake ever again.
Third, EQ or emotional quotient. There isn’t a consistent definition of EQ but generally it refers to a measurement of a person’s ability to understand their own feelings and the feelings of others. Law is fortunately and unfortunately not just a job. For a lawyer, besides requiring a good grasp of the law, we need to be good at reading people, reading situations, reading the room, etc. Most importantly, you need to put yourself in the client’s shoes and try to understand the situation from the perspective of the client, the counter party, the counter party’s counsel, the bank, the other advisers, the board directors, the shareholders, etc. Famous author Daniel Goleman cites the Harvard Business School research that EQ counts for twice as much as IQ and technical skills combined in determining who will be successful. At work, it is assumed that all trained lawyers have a basic level of knowledge and training about the law. Therefore, if your EQ is strong, it puts you in a better stead in managing your partners and clients.
Fourth, Agility. Agility as defined is the ability to think and understand quickly. At work where client demands are coming in fast and furious, we need associates who think and act pro-actively, with some sense of urgency. Partners are often busy handling multiple matters in the day and once they assign a task to an associate, there is expectation that the associate is able to discharge the task quite independently and is able to think and act in a thoughtful but expeditious manner. Unlike law school, unfortunately there is not much time to sit around and theorise about concepts. Many years back, a partner came complaining to me that she handed a draft sale and purchase agreement to a trainee to review and he did not revert for some four to five days. When he finally handed back the draft agreement, it came with a four-page memo stating his views on each of the clauses and the pros and cons of each. Unfortunately the framework of sale and purchase agreements all over the world is fairly consistent and the negotiations typically involve specific commercial terms. Perhaps one might say that the partner has not given clear instructions. But if the junior associate had been a bit more agile and self aware, he would have asked the partner for her expectations in terms of the deliverable and the deadline.
Finally, Team Player. Most organisations state that they want team players. While it sounds a bit cliché, it is an important attribute for corporate lawyers, and I believe, it is equally important for our colleagues practising in the dispute teams too. Based on the typical team structure, we work in different combinations of partners, associates and trainees for different matters. Regardless of how the matter is done, the responsibility for the work rests with the partner overseeing that matter. If someone is assigned to handle research or to draft an advice, and the piece of work is badly done, the person who has to “clean up the mess” is the partner. And if the work is handed in late or very close to the deadline, then the partner who holds the last baton in the relay is left with little time to react. Therefore, as an NQL, it is important that you take clear instructions on the task that has been assigned and be clear about the deliverable expected of you. Whenever your partner briefs you, have the habit of writing the instructions on your note pad. As there is a high likelihood that your partner would have handled something similar before, try to ask sensible questions as you are being briefed to tap on their experience and guidance on how you should approach the assignment. Then, use all the resources available to you and exercise your initiative when handling any assignment. Leave no stone unturned.
As a partner, we act like a coach. Our job is to make the best of each associate who works for us. In my view, it is in my interest to train them well. For NQLs, you will be joining different firms or different organisations. Learn as much as possible. As Confucius says, if I am walking with two other men, each of them will serve as my teacher. I will pick out the good points of one and imitate them, and the bad points of the other and correct them in myself.
Wishing you all the best in your journey.