New Lawyer Series: Think Like A Lawyer

“Think like a lawyer” is a common, if not commonly-explained, phrase that all law students and new lawyers are familiar with. It’s easy to believe that attending three years of school, participating in various hands-on clinics and working in law offices for a couple months of the year will prepare you for what it takes to be a good lawyer, but it takes more than just perfecting your drafting techniques and learning the office politics to succeed as an advocate.

In “The Sweet Science of Shifting Your Mental Venue” in the Summer 2015 edition of the ABA’s TYL magazine, Tracey Lesetar-Smith drills down on what it takes to think like a good lawyer. Here are her suggestions:

  1. Take Time to Think Even Under the Gun: “Pressure to have all the answers. . .at our fingertips can obscure a lawyer’s ability to retreat into thought, and the necessity of quality thinking time is rarely understood by clients.” So how do you take the tim you need to really think about the issues you’re being presented with? Tracey recommends getting rid of as many distractions as possible: cell phone, email, open door. Sit and think through the issue and, when you think you’re done, ask yourself what could be missing. And keep thinking about the issue.
  2. Don’t Go Through Life With a Red Pen In Your Hand: Not every potential legal issue is one that your client cares about. Know how to spot all of the issues, but learn which ones will actually matter to your client.
  3. Take Stock of Your Resources: Use your resources (time, relationships, etc) wisely.
  4. Don’t Forget the Narrative: You need to create a narrative for your client’s side of the story that makes sense to people. It’s great to be clever and come up with new legal arguments, but ultimately, if the other side’s story just makes more sense, then the time and energy you put into those clever arguments is worthless.
  5. Sweat the Details, then Don’t Sweat the Details: Do the best work you can – double and triple check everything – but don’t flip out if there’s an inconsequential typo on page 39. Young lawyers are often tasked with worrying about everything, and rightfully so. However, there is marginal utility to continuing to beat yourself up over some small errors that will ultimately change nothing.

Once you’ve mastered the fundamental skills of lawyering, you must begin to refine your thought processes so that you are able to provide the most value to your client.

The concept of providing value to clients is somewhat new to lawyers, but it is no less important than all of the things that you learn in law school. Any one could spend countless hours and dollars researching a minor point of law, but the truly great lawyers will identify the top issues that make a material difference to their clients and spend the time advocating for those things. It’s not enough to just think like a lawyer – you have to think like your client and act accordingly. That’s how you become a great lawyer.

Do you think this list is complete or is there something else you would have included?


New Lawyer Series: When You Are Called

If you missed the article titled “Letter to a Young Advocate” in the Fall 2015 Advocates’ Journal, you should try to find a copy (or check out the online version, if it’s available.)

There is never a moment when you are ready; there is only the moment when you are called.

In it, Harry Underwood recounts the time when he had to step up to the plate during a trial and gives some advice for young lawyers on how to prepare themselves to make sure that they’re ready when the time comes. Notably, he says that “there is never a moment when you are ready; there is only the moment when you are called.” I think that’s an important lesson to learn because there is no amount of sitting in your office or even attending CLEs/CPDs that will prepare you for what it takes to get up in front of a judge or jury and present your case.

The opportunities to do so are, of course, becoming fewer and farther between, but if you are a litigator, more likely than not, you will be called. Naturally, the question is – will you be able to answer the call?

Mr. Underwood gives a few tips to prepare yourself as best you can:

  1. Make it a rule to assume that from the moment you take on a case that it is bound to proceed to trial. His reasons for doing so are (1) so you won’t be afraid to try the case if it does go to trial and (2) so you will be ready to try it.
  2. Take the time at the outset of a case to develop a theory of the case and a plan to win it. Avoid seeing each stage of litigation as a battle to be won. You want to win the war and you need to have a long-term, strategic plan if you hope to do so. (of course you must continue to hone your theory and test it as things progress, but thinking in this way is what is important).
  3. “Always press on.” Keep the case moving forward. Set deadlines for yourself and your opponents, if necessary. There will always be a reason for delay, but be aware of the need to advance your client’s interests and keep things moving forward.

There are some other suggestions as well, but I thought these were the best. At the end of the article, Mr. Underwood says, simply, that developing good habits is a way to take responsibility for yourself and having those habits is ultimately what makes you a good advocate.

I couldn’t agree more. What habits do you think are important for young lawyers to master in order to become great advocates?

Take Your Time

I can’t believe that January is nearly over! I was on vacation for the first two weeks of the month and, as much as it felt weird to be away from the hustle and bustle for the first couple of days, I eased into the easy-going way of life pretty quickly. Which brings me to the topic of today’s post.

Take your time.

And by that I mean your vacation time.

Take as much of it as you possibly can (in fact, all) and if for some reason you can’t help but have some roll over to the next day – make sure you take it all the next year. I wish I had some wonderful platitudes about life passing by so quickly and slowing down, blah blah blah (those are all true), but you need to take your vacation time because you will be a better lawyer if you stop and rest every once in awhile.

The people who burn out are the people who go go go, non stop, pedal to the floor and then look up five years later and have no idea how they got to where they are and become overwhelmed with the thought of continuing in the same vein for the next 30 to 40 years. I mean, wouldn’t we all get pretty bummed out if that was the only option?

Personally, it had been far too long since I had been on a real vacation. My family lives in the U.S. and we visit them a couple times a year, which is always nice, but let’s be real – it’s not a vacation. It’s trying to cram nine months of memories into 5 or 6 days. I had honestly forgotten what it was like to just be….away.

It was wonderful.

When I got back and started work (remind me to tell you about my new job!), I was so relaxed and refreshed and ready to make an impact. To help people. To learn. To take on my new role with vim and vigor. I’m not lying when I say that work actually feels different. Undoubtedly, some of it is the new job smell that has yet to wear off, but I had a really stressful fall filled with job searching and uncertainty. I think that if I had gone straight from that period into a new job, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to essentially hit the reset button on stress and anxiety.

Starting a new job brings its own stresses and if I had not taken a break, my mind would have already been close to full. But, after the break, I wasn’t already maxed out on stress. I am able to deal with the relatively minor stresses of being the new kid on the block and keep perspective on what’s really important.

I know it can be very difficult sometimes to let go of the stress and anxiety because when you’ve been hyper-vigilant for so long, it can be very difficult to let go. Even when it feels bad, it’s the familiar thing so you hold on as tight as you can. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Take your vacation time. Be kind to yourself. You’ll be a better lawyer for it.

New Lawyer Series: Lawyer Bullies

You will at one time or another deal with a lawyer bully. It may be opposing senior counsel or it may be someone you work with directly. It is an issue that is, unfortunately, not dealt with in law schools given the general lack of focus on practical lawyering skills. Lawyer bullies can not only make your practice difficult, but they may even lead you to conclude that you’re not cut out to be a lawyer. It’s easy to say that you shouldn’t let a lawyer bully push you around, but it’s much more difficult to put theory into practice when you have someone screaming at you, constantly berating you or generally just making you feel like you’re incompetent.

There may be very little you can do to change the lawyer bully’s behaviour, but there are some things you can do to minimize the impact that it has on your life and, ultimately, your career.

  1. Do not respond in-kind. Screaming, yelling and flying off the handle may feel good in the moment and there are, no doubt, plenty of perfectly good reasons why you might feel justified in giving someone a “taste of their own medicine”, but as a young lawyer you cannot give in to these temptations. Senior Lawyer X may be known to be horrible to people, but usually people only put up with that stuff because they’re also known to be a great advocate. That’s not an excuse, it’s just life. As a junior lawyer, you have not established yourself and cannot expect others to give you the same latitude. It goes without saying that this also means that you should not, under any circumstances, take out your frustrations with senior lawyers on administrative staff. You don’t have a right to turn into a bully yourself.
  2. Develop patience. As an ambitious person, you may not be used to waiting or biding your time. You want what you want and you will get it when you want it, right? Well, it just doesn’t work that way in the legal profession. It will take at least 20 years before you’re really considered to be competent, so you might as well start developing a patient mindset early on in your career. Now, this doesn’t mean that you should become meek or docile in the face of egregious behaviour. What you should do is keep your client in the forefront of your mind and accept that you may have to deal with this person now in order to advance your client’s interests, but it won’t last forever. Develop coping mechanisms to limit the amount of interaction you have. This leads me to my next point:
  3. Practice Defensively. The principle here is the same as driving defensively. You don’t know what those other idiots on the road are going to do and you can’t control them anyway, so maintain your distance and speed at a reasonable level and steer clear of drivers who are distracted or otherwise don’t seem to know what they’re doing. In legal practice, this takes the form of having clear records of your interactions with someone (e.g. letters, emails , etc.). If someone insists on calling you and they shout abuse over the phone, take notes immediately after to document the time, date and nature of the call. If necessary, write down quotes of what they said that you found offensive. The Law Society of Upper Canada (and I would imagine most state bar associations) take civility very seriously and, while it would be improper to try to change someone’s behaviour by threatening to file a complaint, if you feel that someone’s conduct has really gone beyond the bounds of decency there are steps you can take to deal with it. The first step should be speaking with someone more senior in your office, if possible, to determine whether you’re in the right. If you don’t have anyone in your office to speak to, then you should call the Law Society’s confidential practice management helpline to get a professional opinion about the conduct you wish to complain about. Once you’ve got an opinion from the Law Society, you can determine what your next step should be. A word of caution though: civility is not just a requirement for those who you interact with. You also should not rush to file complaints for relatively trivial matters. We all have bad days sometimes and say or do things that we later regret. Look at the totality of the circumstances and try to give the lawyer the benefit of the doubt when possible. If there is no justifiable reason for continued harassment or abusive behaviour then you should not hesitate to take advantage of the resources available to you.

Obviously, these tips won’t shield you from ever working with or for someone who is completely unreasonable and difficult. However, they will help you build a reputation for being reasonable and for having integrity, and that is the best reputation any lawyer can hope to have among their colleagues.

NOTE: If you are being subjected to harassment of any kind and you find that it is impacting your ability to do your job well due to heightened emotional and mental stress, the Law Society has numerous, confidential resources to help you. You can speak with someone over the phone, in person or through email and it’s free. Do not let someone else’s bad behaviour end your career. Ask for help. It’s there for the taking.

New Lawyer Series: Set goals to succeed

‘Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’
‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat.
‘I don’t much care where —’ said Alice.
‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat

Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Many of us begin our legal careers like Alice – asking someone else to give us the directions to our legal career. Unfortunately, for new lawyers who don’t know what they want to get out of their legal career, the Cheshire Cat’s answer is all too familiar.

Developing long-term career goals is an iterative process and one that requires much thought and deliberate action.

That’s not to say that you need to have everything figured out on day 1. Au contraire, mon ami. There are some lucky few who have a clear plan in place and are able to begin executing it as soon as they’re called to the bar, but for most people, the road to success (however you define) is rarely linear. Long-term career goals are developed with the benefit of time and experience. For instance, you may begin at a large law firm doing commercial work and realize that you need more client contact to continue developing as a lawyer, so you move to a smaller firm or even in-house to develop those skills. Then maybe you find that you’re not wild about the industry you’re in so you find a position in another industry that is aligned with your interests. Developing long-term career goals is an iterative process and one that requires much thought and deliberate action to ensure that you become a well-rounded lawyer (and person).

For new lawyers, the more important goal-setting task you need to undertake is to determine what you’re going to accomplish in your current position or the position that you hope to secure after your call to the bar. Naturally, your first question may be – how do I do that if I don’t know what is expected of me? Let me put your mind somewhat at ease: you’re expected to become a good lawyer, preferably a great one. Of course, that begs the question of what does being a good or great lawyer mean? What would that look like?

Well, I can’t tell you exactly what that might mean for you, but the number one thing that new lawyers need to do is develop. Develop their skills, develop their judgment, develop their professional persona. And, I’m going to suggest that the best way to do that is to create a professional development plan. If you’re not sure what areas you need to develop, start with your local bar association. The Law Society of Upper Canada publishes the Entry-Level Barrister and Solicitor Competencies as part of the licensing process. This is the bare minimum of what you should know/be able to demonstrate as a new lawyer. Take a look at those lists and see what areas are unfamiliar to you. Undoubtedly, there are some things on that list that you forgot about as soon as you took the licensing exams, so start creating your development plan with those headings.

Now, if you’ve already been in your job for some time and have received feedback about what areas you need to develop: great! Lawyers are notorious for not providing feedback in a timely or productive manner, so be happy that you have a starting point. Start your development plan with those issues. If you’ve been at your job for awhile and haven’t received any feedback – ASK! What are you waiting for? The BIGGEST MISTAKE you can make as a new lawyer if to not ask for what you need, be it feedback or any other kind of support. However, don’t feel that you are entitled to these things. With the exception of feedback, there are many reasons why you may not get what you want and they may or may not be good reasons for you to consider other employment options, but the key here is to make sure you feel comfortable asking for what you need to continue to develop your legal skills. As for feedback, there are limits: don’t ask for feedback every time you send an email. Also recognize that in a busy practice, it may take some time to get the feedback you need. Figure out the best way to ask for it and be reasonable in how/when you ask.

As a side note, if you don’t feel comfortable asking or you’re actually scared to ask, think long and hard about why that might be the case and make it your goal to either a) overcome the fear/anxiety of asking for what you want or b) find a firm or company to work for where you feel comfortable and secure (as much as possible) in your employment.

I will go into more detail about development plans in a future post, but for now, just know that developing your skills and judgment are the key goals for every new lawyer and the development plan is the best way to track your progress toward those goals.

What goals do you think young lawyers should try to develop? What are the key skills that a lawyer should be working on in the first 2 to 3 years of practice? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!