Letter from a Litigation Lawyer
It’s hard to believe that four years of law school and an intense pupillage have flown by. Tomorrow, you will be called to the Bar.
This may feel like just another qualification at this point. But in the years to come, you will learn and appreciate the weight of this title and the privilege that comes with it. You will stand in awe of those who have come before you and have stood before the Court and advanced arguments with wit and flair. You will come to appreciate that being an advocate and solicitor is a vocation, not merely an occupation. And you will join a group of colleagues and confidantes who will see you through some significant milestones.
Your first few years in practice will be challenging. You are acquiring new skills in a short timeframe and working in an intense, highly stressful environment. But if you stay the course, you will gain far more than you can imagine today. Your career will take a trajectory that you would not have anticipated or planned.
I am writing this letter to you to share some of the lessons I have gleaned from more than 20 years of practice. Keep these tenets in mind as you embark on this new and exciting adventure.
Your Reputation is Your Most Valuable Asset
This should underpin every professional relationship that you have, be it with your client, fellow lawyers or the Court. Your reputation is the one thing you will carry with you throughout your career. Make sure it is a good one.
Always be candid with your client on the merits of his case. Over-selling the case (or your abilities) in order to drag out the matter may earn you extra fees, but that client will most likely never come back to you. Worse, you will earn a reputation as an over-promisor, which is not the way to attract clients or build a practice.
Always treat your fellow lawyers with courtesy. You are not a hired gun, but an officer of the Court. Advance your case firmly and robustly, but understand and expect that your opponent will do the same. This may be personal between the clients, but it should always remain courteous and professional between lawyers. Keep that in mind whenever you speak or write to your opponent, and resist the temptation to be rude, condescending or sarcastic. Even if your opponent crosses the line, you should not do the same.
While you owe a duty to your client, always remember that your overriding duty is to the Court. Never blindly act on your client’s instructions without asking whether those instructions conflict with your higher duty to the Court. It is not your role to win at all costs. Ensure that any argument or submission you make is rooted in fact and is accurate. The last thing you want is to be known as someone who plays fast and loose with the facts.
Keep Your Clients’ Perspective in Mind
From tomorrow, you will start dealing with clients with a whole range of problems. You will also receive calls from aunts, uncles and friends of your parents whose “friend” has a legal problem.
Some of these questions may appear frivolous or mundane, and you may be tempted to be dismissive when speaking to them. Resist this temptation. Remember that the matter is important to the client, and probably the first time he has encountered such a problem. He has come to you for counsel, and it is your duty to accord that matter the same degree of importance.
This applies regardless of the number of files you may be managing at that time. There is only one file that matters to each of your clients. Your job is to hear them out, consider the matter carefully and provide your advice. Every client should be treated as though he is the only client you have.
Clients Pay for Your Judgment, Not a Summary of the Law
Having been through the rigour of law school, you will be tempted to think that you are a repository of the law. You are not. When drafting an opinion or providing advice, resist the temptation to explain in excruciating detail what each Judge said in each case. Your client is not interested (and, more importantly, is not paying) for a lesson in the law.
Your client is paying for your judgment, as is the partner who has assigned you that piece of work. Your client has a problem, and he needs a solution. It is for you to apply your knowledge of the law to find him that solution. If a solution cannot be found, then your job is to explain why to your client in simple, uncomplicated English.
In short, you need to make a judgment call. This will be daunting at the start, but it is only by going through this process that you will grow as a lawyer. If you do not practice making judgment calls as an associate when you have the safety net of a supervising partner, you will not be able to do so as a partner.
In order to make judgment calls, you will need to ensure that you fully understand all the facts. In order to ensure that you do have all the facts, you need to ask questions.
As a young lawyer, you might feel the need to avoid looking stupid by asking “silly” questions. After all, you are a lawyer and lawyers are expected to know everything, right? This need will rear its ugly head at the most inopportune times – when a client is trying to explain something difficult to you, when your boss is giving you a piece of work or when opposing counsel (often many years your senior) is trying to get you to agree to something you do not quite understand.
When you find yourself wading into waters that are beginning to feel too deep, stop! Ask questions. Ask as many questions as you need to get comfortable. If you need time to think, take that time. It is often the “silly” questions that need to be asked in order to get the full picture.
Take Ownership of Your Work
Never cut corners. This harks back to the importance of protecting your reputation. Make sure every single piece of work that leaves your desk (whether an e-mail, a letter, an affidavit or draft submissions) is the very best you can do. That applies right down to making sure the document is carefully proofread and properly formatted.
This is especially important when you are a junior associate having to manage several active files at the same time. You will be tempted to simply fire off a draft and rely on the senior associate or partner to clean it up. Do not do so. Your work reflects on you. If it is tardy, that is what people will think of you as well.
As you become more senior, you may have the good fortune of having younger lawyers assisting you. Their work is not yours. Make sure you read the cases cited to ensure that it says what your associate thinks it says. Ultimately, when it leaves your desk, it needs to be the best that you could have done.
Take Ownership of Your Career
The years will fly by. Soon you will be a first year associate drowning in documents to be reviewed, but before you know it you will be close to partnership (or whatever other path you choose). Take charge of your career. Far too often, we end up in a job because that’s where the tide brought us. Do not sit back and rely on your firm or your boss to get you to where you want to be.
Think about where you want to be and take control of what you need to do to get there. Seek out senior lawyers, teachers and friends to understand the skills that you need to equip yourself with to reach your goals. Actively develop these skills. Seek out mentors to guide you. Take stock of where you are in that journey every year and if you are not where you had planned to be, make the necessary changes to get back on track.
Move With the Times
The practice of law will change in ways and at a pace that will bewilder you. There will be terms and acronyms that you will struggle to remember. Technology will feature prominently in a few years. Clients will have a global marketplace to procure legal services and your competitors will come from as far as the US and Europe.
These changes will be stressful. Your mentors and bosses experienced a different world from you and it might feel daunting facing these changes without a blueprint. Have the courage to move with the times. The practice of law, like many other professions, will change and you must change with it.
Change is inevitable – brace yourself and constantly evaluate what you need to do to adapt to changes as they occur. Keep an open mind – focus on how you can use the changes to further your career instead of moping and moaning about having to change.
The law is a small profession. It is also a sociable one.
Your buddies from Law School and those with whom you slogged through your training contract will soon be pulled in different directions. Some will leave the profession, others will leave the country. Make the effort to stay in touch.
Remember to also make new friends. Work must not simply involve spending a day in the office and then heading straight home. Make the effort to join friends for dinner or drinks. The bonds forged over these late night gatherings, commiserating on life as a junior associate, will last a lifetime.
Your friends will celebrate in your successes and be there for you when times are tough. There is something special about looking back fondly with friends over a dinner or after-work drinks. I guarantee that you will have endless hours of laughter, lots of drinks and a lifetime of memories.
One final thing – remember to celebrate this milestone with your family. You may not understand the fuss right now, but indulge them. It is their celebration too. Someday you will understand the pride of your achievements through your parents’ eyes. Until then, let them brag a little and accumulate keepsakes from your career.
All the very best, and welcome to the Bar!