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.

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To the New Year…and Beyond!

Hello there, friend.

I’m just writing to check in and let you know some of the plans for the New Year and the blog. Don’t worry. Things have been going well so we are, of course, going to keep this going. I just wanted to let you know what I’m thinking and get some feedback if there are certain things that you are interested in/changes that you would like to see.

I started this blog with the goal to help new/young lawyers and therefore started a “New Lawyer Series” to address some of the topics that I felt would be most helpful for young lawyers. I think it would also be helpful to address other types of lawyers and I plan to work on two more series in the new year directed at 1) foreign-trained lawyers (since I am one) and 2) ‘alternative’ career paths for lawyers. I put alternative in quotes as I really just mean any career that is not practicing law. (I’m hoping that that series will take the form of interviews, so if you or anyone you know is not practicing and would be amenable to either an in-person or email interview, please let me know!)

I hope you’re as excited about reading about those things as I am to start working on them. There will of course be other posts aimed at just general concerns/observations about the legal profession, but I think it’s nice to have something to anchor it all by.

I hope you all have a great new year and I will be back here mid-January! Follow me on Twitter and Instagram for more frequent updates and a view of the daily comings and goings.

My Holiday Wish List

Where has all the time gone? Like, seriously. I am not even remotely prepared for the next couple of weeks. Hopefully, the rest of you have managed to complete any holiday shopping (or made it through your respective holidays relatively unscathed). I will be one of those sad people in the mall this weekend praying for a small miracle. Also – Amazon Prime saves lives. It’s for real.

Now that I’ve gotten my holiday shopping anxiety out of the way – let’s get down to the real business of the season: career planning. It’s easy to get caught up in the rush of the holiday season and develop tunnel vision at it relates to the end of the year. “I just need to close this one deal”, you may think to yourself, or “If I can collect the past due accounts from these three clients then everything will balance for the year.”

Any path will do if you don’t know where you’re going

Those are legitimate and important concerns, but if you don’t take some time to focus on your career path and direction then chances are you’ll find yourself in basically the same place this time next year…and the year after…and the year after. Until, eventually, you burn out and you just give it all up anyway because really what’s being a lawyer ever gotten you, right?!

Well, I’ll tell you what it could get you if you go about it the right way:

  1. Amazing clients
  2. Smart colleagues
  3. A satisfying career where you are challenged and feel that you’re able to make a valuable contribution
  4. An appreciation for just how fortunate you are to be able to help people with their problems

That may sound a bit pie-in-the-sky, but, as I’ve said before, you have to start with some goals in mind to develop a career plan. Maybe you don’t want any of those things that I’ve listed above, but you must want something. Start there.

Next, figure out what steps you need to take to get there. Do you need to develop new relationships with people? Do you need to develop a particular expertise? Do you need to learn etiquette or how to play golf? It doesn’t matter what it is, but figure out the steps required to get to that end goal.

Now, think about what specific thing you can do in 2016 to execute on that goal. For some of the far-reaching, pie-in-the-sky stuff, perhaps you break it into small steps and set a specific timeframe for achieving each step. Or maybe there’s one thing that you can do to set yourself up for success like attending a conference that you’ve always wanted to go to. Signing up for the conference is great, but, of course, you don’t just attend and hang out by the drink table: figure out who else is going or speaking on a panel that would be of interest to you and start building a relationship with them beforehand so that you can really make the most of the conference.

I just want to make it clear that this is a really important process to go through and that you shouldn’t expect to have it all done overnight. You may want to just set an hour or two aside here and there to begin working on this and set a goal of having a completed career plan for the end of January. The point of the process is to provide guidance and structure to the work that you do throughout the year because it’s just too easy in this profession to feel as though everything is urgent and that you’ve lost control. And once you feel as though you’ve lost control, you really have and it’s just a matter of time before you stop caring about your clients, about your work and about yourself.

So, my wish for all the lawyers this holiday season is simple: Make the time. Take control of your career.

Happy Holidays!

Note: The holidays are often the time of year when work and family stresses pile on top of each other. If find it difficult to deal with the stress of the holidays and are turning to alcohol or other substances during this time, there is help. The law societies in Canada and most state bar associations have counseling and other confidential resources available to help you through difficult times. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

LSUC Member Assistance Program

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!