The Junior in the Firm: Working with Partners and Senior Colleagues
Salut, dear juniors. A warm welcome to the legal fraternity of Singapore.
You would have experienced legal practice to a certain extent, as trainees. You would have worked with fellow lawyers in a firm, and in all likelihood, you have encountered various issues working with them. Some issues may have been resolved, and others not. In the circumstances, some of you have still chosen to commence practice with the firm you trained at, and others at a different firm.
The reality is that any working relationship – with partners and senior colleagues at any firm – will never be clear of kinks. This is because they are perfectly imperfect human beings, as you are.
By its very nature, legal practice places a heavy emphasis on teamwork in order to achieve the successful management of multiple files by a firm. It is therefore crucial that juniors progress quickly towards becoming an integral member of the firm by working well with their partners and seniors.
Progress is not only dependent on the proficiency of your legal skills. It is also largely dependent on how well you understand your partners and seniors, how well you communicate with them and how well you can deal with them.
Understand Your Team Members, and Yourself
The fact is that no one is admitted to the Bar perfectly equipped to deal with the realities of legal practice, including working with others. The best form of preparation is to first understand your partners’ and seniors’ individual personalities, skill sets, strengths and weaknesses. As aptly set out by Sun Tzu in The Art of War (save that your partners and seniors really shouldn’t be seen as your “enemies”):
“… If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
Observe your partners and seniors. Try to map out their individual blueprints. In social settings, how do they present themselves and how do they interact with others? In relation to legal practice, how do they prefer tasks to be carried out, what is their style of drafting and what do they have an aptitude for? In any given situation, how do they react to it and when do they react upon it?
Of equal importance, start mapping out your own blueprint vis-à-vis legal practice. Be honest: how proficient are you with respect to the skills required in legal practice? For example, managing clients, drafting, legal research, advocacy, performing administrative tasks. In addition, how good are you at dealing with the firm’s culture and managing your partners and seniors? Acknowledge your shortcomings, not just your strengths.
Having the blueprints in mind, think about how you can communicate effectively with your partners and seniors, i.e. what is the most effective way to get your points across to them? Learn to be adept at this. Effective communication on your part ensures that your partners and seniors hear you.
Communicate through their preferred mode; some prefer e-mail, and others prefer personal discussions. Consider the manner of delivery of the content; some will only want you to make your points sharp and sweet, and others will additionally want to have the entire backstory set out. Communicate respectfully. A disrespectful attitude will cause your partners and seniors to dismiss you and your points quicker than the blink of an eye.
Undoubtedly, the content of your communication is important. Facts must be accurate and opinions must be highlighted as such. Expect to be cross-examined on the veracity of the content on the spot (well, this is the legal profession). Under any line of questioning, be truthful. If the truth is that you do not know the answer, then simply say that you do not know the answer. Your partners and seniors are experienced enough to catch a whiff of any lie, and nothing obstructs the advancement of your career more than a lack of trust in you. If your partners and seniors are satisfied that you have done the necessary due diligence to ensure the veracity of the content, you will have earned a measure of their trust and your value as a team member increases.
Dealing Well with Your Team Members
Next (again with the blueprints in mind), think about how you can deal well with your partners and seniors, i.e. how you can work with them to achieve the best teamwork in order to reach the various goals set for the files. In all honesty, I think that this is the hardest challenge that juniors face in legal practice, because it overarches all other challenges (for example, dealing with difficult clients) and continues for as long as you stay in the firm.
Be aware of your partners’ and seniors’ expectations of you. In reality, it is unlikely that they will explicitly list their expectations out, so read between the lines of their words and actions towards you. Work on fulfilling their expectations of you. In general, this involves executing their instructions well, delivering your work products accurately and in a timely manner. Some general practical tips are as follows:
- Before you embark on any task assigned to you, confirm when you have to deliver the work. Once you have the confirmation, think about whether you can realistically abide by the timeline. If you are unable to do so, try asking for more time.
- If you realise that you are unable to abide by the given timeline after some time has passed, highlight your difficulties to your partners and/or seniors as soon as possible. Avoid waiting until the timeline looms near.
- Be acutely aware of all timelines, set internally within the team or set by external stakeholders, that tasks/work products are to be completed/delivered by. Take the lead in reminding your partners and seniors of upcoming timelines – the bigger the tasks, the earlier the reminders.
- If you need to clarify any aspects of the task assigned to you and/or instructions, seek clarification as soon as practically possible. Embarking on the task/instructions without being sure of what is required of you is not the wisest. You will end up wasting the team’s time if you deliver something wrong or unnecessary.
- When it comes to drafting, juniors like to follow precedents in order to be afforded a sense of security that they are “doing it right”. However, many forget that precedents merely function as a guide to crafting tailored legal arguments/writings for the particular matter at hand. Precedents are effective to the extent that they make your work easier by informing you of the partner’s preferred style of drafting and providing legal points and arguments that you may wish to consider. Do not copy and paste extracts of precedents into your drafts if they do not promote your case (in other words, apply your mind).
- Clear every draft with your partners and/or seniors, unless they emphatically state that you do not have to do so for the particular draft.
- Proofread every draft carefully. For example, check for grammatical and typographical errors, ensure formatting consistency, check that references are accurate and properly done, ensure that all facts are accurate and that any law referred to is current.
Curate your words and actions appropriately towards your partners and seniors. Bluntly put, they are not your friends to whom you can express yourself unreservedly. Some partners and seniors need to be handled more sensitively than others. However, great friendships do develop apart from just being colleagues. When friendships are made, treasure them. In all circumstances, treat your partners and seniors with respect, and your working relationships with them will go a long way.
- If a partner and/or senior places an unrealistic expectation on you, explain truthfully and politely why you are unable to fulfil it. In addition, work out and propose an alternative that is acceptable to them. Never assume that they understand the difficulties you face.
- If a partner and/or senior treats you disrespectfully, do not reciprocate the disrespect. For example, yelling rudely at you, taking credit for your work or blaming you for mistakes which you did not commit. It is not easy, but take the high road.
- Learn not to take any criticisms from your partners and seniors personally. Listen carefully to their words; accept those which can help you improve yourself and/or your legal skills and let the rest bounce off your hide. Anyway, be conscious that some partners and seniors may not be the best in expressing themselves and/or their well-meaning intentions for you.
However, treating someone respectfully does not mean you refrain from drawing proper boundaries with them. For example, any form of sexual harassment should not be tolerated.
On one hand, perhaps the ultimate determination of how quickly you will progress towards being an integral team member depends on you. How resolute are you in overcoming issues with your partners and seniors in order to work well with them? On the other hand, it is unrealistic to assume that kinks can be smoothened out solely by the efforts of one party.
Something that I have observed over the years is that there is usually no “right” or “wrong” party when a working relationship breaks down between juniors and their partners or seniors. Both sides are often well-meaning in their intentions towards each other; the partners and/or seniors want the juniors to improve in all aspects of legal practice, and the juniors additionally want to work well with the former. However, because of miscommunication or misunderstandings between them, the intentions of both parties are hindered from coming to fruition. This is why, as a junior, try your best to learn to understand your partners and seniors, communicate effectively with them and “manage” them well.
Wishing you all the best in your legal career!