A Letter to Young Lawyers
Dear Young Lawyers,
The first two to three years of practice have been quite the journey. It is true that being in practice teaches you lessons you never would have learnt in school. In having this opportunity to write this piece for the Law Gazette as part of the Young Lawyers Committee, it would seem fitting that we share what we know best: how to be a Young Lawyer in this generation.
Make Mornings Your Best Friend
I was never a morning person until I began my Training Contract. When the days were long and the nights were longer, I found that stepping into the office 45 minutes earlier made a big difference in the way I managed my day. Starting off with a structure for the day/week helped me regain control of my schedule (and my sanity!). On days when I did not feel as productive, a cup of coffee before the buzz in the office began, changed the way I viewed my entire day.
When in Doubt, Ask
Whilst the fundamentals of communication may seem obvious, not all young lawyers have mastered that skill. Even after close to two years in practice, I still hear from close friends that they “do not understand” their superiors or “have no idea what is going on”. Strangely, on the same thread, they also shared that they do not address their queries and issues with their superiors.
Working in a small firm meant that I worked directly with my superior on most matters. Establishing an open channel of communication with my superior has helped a great deal in setting my work environment straight. As a result, I spend less time worrying about issues which may seem impossible to solve but turned out to be easily resolved simply by speaking to my superior and voicing out my questions. It also helps to check back with your superior when you are uncertain as to the direction you are taking in your work. It is better to find out that you have been barking up the wrong tree earlier rather than later, and you can only know this by communicating with your superior.
Speak Up If You are Struggling
As young lawyers, we are often driven to learn as much as we can and as fast as we can. Blinded by the thirst to improve, often we find ourselves volunteering to take on voluminous tasks which we may not be able to execute effectively. In the event that you find yourself in such a position, speak to your superior in advance, instead of attempting to move mountains in a short span of time.
No Pain, No Gain, Don’t Pray for Rain
It would not be surprising if young lawyers these days are talked about by the senior lawyers as being part of the “strawberry generation” or that we are a whiny bunch who are incapable of working hard. At some point or other, a young lawyer would have heard the phrase “It used to be worse last time …” or “In those days, Pupil Masters used to … so don’t complain”. The assumption is that our “generation” of lawyers do not work hard.
I do wish, at times, that senior lawyers appreciate that times have changed. Sadly, some senior lawyers do continue to have the mindset that since they had received worse treatment in the past, we ought to be able to deal with the same treatment today. I understand that it can be frustrating to be subjected to such treatment. At the same time, I do not blame the senior lawyers for their perspective based on their own observations.
Regardless of the resistance you may face with the said perception of certain senior lawyers, continue to invest in yourself and your skill set, so long as there is no detriment to your health and well-being. At the end of the day, the grind in the early years will definitely pay off in the long years ahead in your practice. Focus all your energy on working hard.
A fellow young lawyer shared that it is not uncommon to find yourself struggling with time in your earlier years in practice. In the interest of time, it might seem easier to quickly skim through cases to find a few lines to use in your legal submissions, instead of digesting the case to understand the fundamental principles flowing therefrom. To our younger selves, we would say, do not, at all cost, take the shortcut! When you take the shortcut in your earlier years of practice, you end up having to pay back at some point in time. First principles stay with you forever, and it can only benefit you, as it will help you in understanding the nuances of future developments in new case law.
Whenever possible, you should ask questions and clear your doubts with your superiors. However, do not be mistaken to think that you are entitled to all the answers to your questions. Superiors want to know that you have already given thought to your problems, and have made an effort in finding a solution before approaching them. It is from those who seek an easy solution that the senior lawyers start to think that we are an entitled group. As much as many might dread Problem-Based Learning, developing this habit early will assist you in years to come.
If you are faced with an unreasonable or unforgiving superior, take a moment to evaluate your work environment as a whole, including your performance and attitude. Where relevant, it would not do you any good to complain but instead try to accept that such treatment is part of the learning process. As objectively as possible, narrow down the issues you are facing and adopt a solution-oriented mindset in getting past these issues. Where possible, have an honest discussion with your superior.
Be open to criticism. Apart from the harshness that feedback sometimes comes with, seniors who take the time to explain areas of improvement have your interests in mind. Take it with a pinch of salt and assess how you can improve. Take advantage of the leeway given to young lawyers and learn. There will always be plenty of room for improvement in your early years.
Talk to Someone
There will inevitably be certain problems that are not as straightforward and convenient for you to raise with your superiors or colleagues. In fact, there have been countless times where I had felt alone when faced with a problem. That, however, could not be further from the truth. The problem you face today, would have already been faced by another young lawyer. It always helps to talk to someone about your problems.
Friends/Family: I got through my first two years by talking to people close to me (without disclosing any confidential matters). It was through ranting about the stresses of my work that I dealt with matters or circumstances that were out of my control. Maybe you would even surprise yourself by getting answers to your legal problems from picking the brains of your fellow colleagues!
Programmes: It is quite an exciting time to be a young lawyer, given that schemes and task forces are being set up to look into a young lawyer’s life. Set up under the Law Society’s Pastoral Care Support, Relational Mentorship provides young lawyers with the opportunity to be paired up with a senior lawyer to receive tips and advice on stress management, career assistance and guidance, amongst other things. For those who seek guidance and advice on legal issues, the Law Society’s PracMentor is a channel that allows young lawyers to seek mentorship from a senior lawyer who has the expertise in a certain area of law that a young lawyer would be less familiar with. More significantly and widely known is the Young Lawyers’ Task Force, which was set up to look into the various aspects of a young lawyer’s career, in particular the problems commonly faced by this generation of young lawyers.
Take comfort in knowing that the problems we face are heard. As evident from most of us relating to some of the stories that come before the Amicus Agony column, you are not alone!
Be Objective and Do Not be Influenced
Go ahead and talk to your friends in the industry, hear their views, pick their brains, but be objective and do not be easily influenced. It is easy to get carried away when fellow young lawyers speak of the “benefits” they receive. Remember that your work environment would always have its own pros and cons as with any industry and it is up to you to decide what works best for you.
Learn from Your Mistakes
The challenges we face would be pointless if we go through the tough times without knowing what went wrong. Take some time to reflect on what was the mistake made, what could have been done better, and improve from there. It would be helpful to do a weekly/monthly stock check of your personal progress and the goals you wish to achieve for the year. Apart from being a tool to measure your progress, it is useful to look back on as motivation when you face a difficult day.
Good luck fellow Learned Friends, hang in there!
A Fellow Young Lawyer
Member, Young Lawyers’ Committee
The authors are young lawyers, who have been in practice for two to three years. The views and opinions expressed in the article above are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of all young lawyers.