As you emerge from the primordial soup

I was recently watching a documentary on Netflix about the great Wildebeest migration in Africa and I learned that Wildebeest calves learn to walk within minutes of birth and are able to keep up with the herd within days. 

Of course, this made me think of lawyers. Specifically, how becoming a lawyer is really a great analogy for being human. Does that seem odd?

See, the thing is, as a lawyer, you do not emerge from law school fully-formed. As a new lawyer, you are like a human baby, unable to walk. Unable to feed or care for yourself. You are completely dependent on your superiors for your care and upbringing.

As a new lawyer, the habits and skills that you learn in the first few years of practice can make or break you as you become more senior. You hope that you can rely on your superiors, just like parents, to teach you the proper rules and etiquette and lead you on the path to independence. But, of course, it doesn’t always happen that way. We are all fond of saying that lawyers are terrible managers, but what does that really mean? Sometimes it means that they’re just really bad at dealing with HR issues, but sometimes it means that they are incompetent to be supervising other lawyers. Either their own self-interest makes it impossible for them to take the time to teach you how to do something properly, or maybe (and I think this happens more often than not) they never actually learned the proper way and so their bad habits are now your bad habits.

There’s a fundamental difference between lawyers who are “raised” by the likes of June Cleaver and those who are “raised” by Ozzy Osbourne. My personal opinion is that too many Ozzys have been unleashed upon the lawyers of the world and so we can decry the lack of civility in practice and wax eloquent about a “simpler time”, but the reality is that we’re drawn to the bad-boy image. The rockstar personas. The people who just don’t follow the crowd.

However, IMHO, a profession built on the notion of stare decisis cannot be a profession that is filled with rock stars. We need intelligent and hard-working people who are willing to sacrifice their pride in order to get shit done.

Anyway, I’ve gone a bit off topic, but the point is that we all need each other. We do not emerge from law school as a final product. Like a human baby learning to walk, it takes a long time and a lot of practice and a few bumps along the way to figure out how to put one foot in front of the other and not fall down. Make the years and the time that you spend learning worthwhile by spending time with lawyers who hold themselves to the high standards to which they hold everyone else. Ask all of the questions. Learn the rules properly so you can break them with principled conviction. Don’t be a victim of your circumstances. If you work somewhere that is not providing you with meaningful opportunities for practice, then find somewhere else. If you work for people who don’t care about you or your development, then care enough about yourself to seek out people who will guide you.

If we want to be part of a profession that we can all be proud of, we have to take responsibility for ourselves and for those coming after us. Learn. Teach. Repeat.

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Just Do It

It’s easy, sometimes, to believe that other people are responsible for your career development and progression. When you’re at a big firm, especially, there are lots of people dedicated to providing you with training, meeting with you on a semi-annual basis to review where things stand and coaching you to set goals, etc. However, even in those environments, the responsibility for ensuring that you have the career that you want still comes down to just you.

You have to implement the plans and work toward the goals and make sure that you are heading in a direction that fits you rather than just coasting along on other people’s dreams.

This is advice for myself just as much as all of you.

I recently got the opportunity to work closely with a senior lawyer in my area of practice as as an arbitration ‘side-kick’. No, that’s not the technical name for it, but really, the position is to be the arbitrator’s clerk. I’m taking notes, synthesizing information and discussing the day’s events with a lawyer who is not only very well-respected in the practice area, but throughout the bar. It’s a great opportunity and I am really fortunate to have been given this opportunity.

However, when the opportunity first came up, I was hesitant. Why? Because I am also really busy at work and have a husband and dog and, you know, life. It was easy to think, well if I just keep doing what I’m doing, I can still get to where I want to go.

Luckily, that thought hung around for only a split second before I realized what a golden opportunity this was and I jumped at it. I cleared my schedule as much as I could (of course people who are lawyers or friends with lawyers understand the necessity of all plans being subject to change) and I hunkered down to do the work that needed to be done. Both parties in the arbitration are represented by great senior counsel so I’m getting a front-row seat to some excellent advocacy as well as the decision-making side of things. As a litigator – things couldn’t be much better.

But, still, the fact that I hesitated bothered me. I mean, why would I have ever thought to pass up on an opportunity like this? And I soon realized what it was: because I didn’t have enough confidence in myself to ‘take a seat at the table’ as Sheryl Sandberg would say. It felt like I was putting myself out there as someone who was too keen for their own good. But, of course, that’s nonsense. I was afraid to be ambitious for myself because of some amorphous fear of what that might look like to other people.

We no longer live in a legal world where you should feel good about keeping your head down and not making waves. There are too many lawyers and too few jobs to pretend that you can do anything other than be that annoying kid who always raises his/her hand when the teacher asks a question (I admit, I was totally that kid, but I prefer to say that I was just precocious).

Anyway – I’m really glad that I put my hand up and took this opportunity. I’m learning more every day here than I did in the past three months since I started this new job. I am remembering what it feels like to be really, genuinely interested in something.

So, my advice to you is just do it. Put yourself out there. Take control of your career. Don’t rely on other people to direct you to where you need to go and don’t coast on someone else’s dream just because you can’t think of anything else to do.

Set goals.

Go after what you want.

Be ambitious. Be amazing.

Be yourself.

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?

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.