The Truth About Practice
If you are reading this fresh out of university, or just after getting called, I would not recommend that you continue reading. This article may change the way you see practice, and how you think the next few years of your life is going to be.
Or maybe you should. You could see the truth about practice and prepare yourself mentally of what to expect.
I did not write this article to discourage you from practice. I also did not write this article to give the profession a bad name. I think it is important for you to understand what you are getting yourself into and to prepare yourself for what is ahead. This industry is tough. And you’re going to need to have tough skin and a lion’s heart if you are to survive the next few years ahead of you.
You may have heard this by now, but being a lawyer is not the glamorous profession you imagined it to be. If you have joined this profession purely for money, then I can tell you straight off the bat that you are not going to last long in this industry. You will not be driving sports cars, playing poker and dating models in your first few years of practice (consider yourself lucky if you are!). Neither will you be donning designer clothing and attending parties all the time.
What you will be doing, is pulling constant all-nighters, dealing with difficult bosses and having meals at odd hours of the day. You will also become heavily reliant on coffee or energy drinks, and drink copious amounts of alcohol on nights off to combat the stress and calm the nerves. Your social life will suffer. And trust me, you are going to be cancelling on a lot of lunch and dinner appointments. If you do actually make them, you’re likely to arrive an hour and a half late. Much of that appointment will also be spent on your phone, responding to never-ending e-mails and text messages from clients and demanding bosses. Having a relationship will be difficult but not impossible. If you are a female, you may have to spend a fair amount of time fending off advances from colleagues or clients, and have to work extra hard to prove yourself.
But if you manage to persevere through all that for the next few years and still want to practice after, then you will be part of the minority that do. This was noted by former Law Society President Lok Vi Ming, SC back in 2014: “By the first decade of practice, three out of every four local lawyers would have opted to leave practice”.
I hope you make it past these trying first few years. This profession is tough, but I can assure you, it has its good days too. Those good days will make it worth your while.
These are the hard truths about practice, the things they never prepare you for in law school:
Truth #1 – You don’t have to be vocal, or aggressive to be a lawyer
This is a common misconception.
“You are so shy/quiet. How to be a lawyer?”
Trust me, it is not necessary to be vocal or extroverted for that matter. You just need to be vocal at the right times.
Channel your aggression wisely. In areas of law such as family law, being aggressive can actually be a disservice to the client given the sensitive nature of the matter at hand as well as the Court’s encouragement for parties to resolve their differences through the mediation process. You will also have to accept that there is no “winning” in family law. Sometimes, you must “lose” to help preserve what’s left of parties’ relationship, especially for the sake of the children involved.
Truth #2 – Support is limited – you will have to find strength from within you, and comfort from loved ones
Good support is hard to find. Reliable support is even harder to come by. Early on in practice, I remember panicking one evening as I was preparing for trial the next day and discovered that bundles that my secretary had promised to put together were not done. She had left for the day promptly at 6.00pm and did not inform that the job was not done. My ex-boss calmly responded when I recounted what happened to him: “they are not paid enough to care”. He had not meant any ill intent in saying that. But I have come to agree with what he said. The truth is, salaries for support staff are not great. Our support staff also have families that they have to get home to (not that we don’t). They are also not the ones facing the firing squad (that is the Court, or maybe even your boss) and for the most part, don’t always realise the severity of how something as trivial as filing a document late can be. That liability that you take on with every case is yours and yours only. Chances are (and especially in a small set up), you are alone in the office when pulling an all-nighter and you must learn to rely on yourself. I cannot stress how important this is. A helping hand is always great, but you never want to be stuck in a situation when a colleague is on leave and you don’t know how to use e-Litigation!
Make nice with your opposing counsel, even the security guards in court – they will help you, and provide encouragement and support more often than you can imagine.
Truth #3 – “You’re killing yourself for a job that will replace you within a week if you dropped dead”
Don’t kill yourself over a job that will replace you within a week if you dropped dead. Enough said.
Work is never-ending and you will never be able to finish everything. Things get a little easier to manage once you come to terms with that.
Truth #4 – Being a lawyer isn’t just about knowing the law. You need to pick up business skills along the way to survive
Practising is not all about knowing the law. By the second and third year in practice, you start becoming an increasing expense to the firm and you are expected to help alleviate that expense along with the rest of the overheads incurred by the firm.
You will need to learn:
- How to bring in and maintain a steady flow of clients.
- How to manage an effective and efficient team.
- To network and market yourself.
- Basic accounting to deal with invoices and billing.
- To manage your time. Your day will involve: attendance in court (if you’re a litigator), dealing with administrative matters (signing cheques, firm-related matters), meeting with clients. Just when you think you’re done for the day, you’ll have to get started on actual work like drafting court documents and correspondences, updates to your clients.