It is common knowledge that you do not learn anything about the business of practicing law in law school.
So, here are ten things that every law student or recent graduate should know:
1. If you are a top student, throughout law school you are likely to have developed an unconscious bias toward practicing with a large law firm. Money has been spent creating a narrative that your path to success lies in a future with big law, and you may have bought into it. Question it. It is not for everyone.
2. Law firms which tout their “hire-back ratio” when encouraging you to accept an articling position, never tout their “fired within the first three years of practice” ratio. Unless a firm is constantly expanding (which is not always the case), someone must be leaving to make room for the hire-backs. Consider the possibility that firms plan on letting people go after a few years so that they can maintain their hire-back ratio.
3. Smaller firms often provide better training opportunities than larger firms. Speak to people who articled at the firm before you and find out how much of the time the students spend pouring over paperwork doing research and due diligence instead of more interesting work which leads to the development of diverse skills. I knew one young lawyer at one of Canada’s largest firms who in his third year as an associate was finally allowed to conduct a small claims court trial on his own, something that the articling students at our medium sized firm did routinely.
4. Take it as a fact that when there is a severe economic downturn and firms start letting lawyers go, they never let go the lawyers who have a good client base of their own. Then ask yourself whether the firm that you will start your career with will support your development of a client base.
5. Here are some things to think about: Assume that you start your career with a large firm, and you do not have family or other connections that will bring in a high volume of very remunerative work. All of the following will likely be true: (a) You will have a very high billable hour requirement which will make it difficult to spend time promoting business; (b) As a new lawyer, it will be difficult to attract the type of sophisticated clients who will be willing to pay the rates of a large firm; and (c) A large firm will not necessarily want you spending time developing business which will distract you from doing the work that has to be done for their existing client base.
6. If you are working for a big firm, it will be many years before you are likely to have the influence over large clients that will allow you to leave the firm and take them with you to another big firm, and it may be almost impossible to take a large client to a much smaller firm. If you have only been working for big clients, you may not have a transportable client base.
7. It is not uncommon for lawyers in private practice to reach an age where it is difficult to find another job unless they have a substantial and transportable client base. You never want to “wake up” after 8 years of practice to realize that you have been let go or you hate your job and want to leave, and you have no client base that will follow you. If you find yourself in that position, you better hope that you have a reputation for being a leading practitioner in your field so that another firm will hire you just to obtain your expertise. If that is not the case, you will find yourself competing with lawyers with less experience who are expecting lower salaries, and employers who hesitate to hire you for those lower salaries because you are “overqualified” and likely to move again when something better comes along.
8. If you join a firm, you want to be supervised and mentored by a senior lawyer who will balance your career development with his or her short-term goals to get “their” work done. You need to learn all the things that you did not learn in law school, and there are many of those things. Simply working on what the senior lawyer needs done will not necessarily provide you with the education that you require.
9. Here are just some of the many things that you need to learn to do: (a) evaluate risk and decide what matters; (b) think strategically; (c) tailor your written and oral communication style to different situations; (d) draft documents that people can understand; (e) review documents and know which comments to make and which are just not that important, so that clients see you as part of the team getting things done and not one of the obstacles that they have to get past; (f) manage your time; (g) communicate effectively with clients; (h) run a meeting; (i) cheerfully support your colleagues so that they will cheerfully support you when you need their help; (j) when taking instructions, have the confidence to take the risk of asking a question of a client or another lawyer even if you may look stupid doing so, rather than not asking the question and looking stupid when your work is wrong because you did not properly understand what was required; (k) relate to your support staff, clerks and eventually juniors so that they feel that they are part of a team and will work harder to make your job easier; (l) docket, bill and collect effectively; (m) quote fees in a manner that makes your client see the value that you bring to the table; (n) provide fee quotes whether or not they are requested; (o) quote fees in a way that your clients will accept increases where unavoidable, and live with your fee quotes when you have not done so; (p) win the confidence of your clients; (q) market your services; and (r) make presentations, whether to a court, in a boardroom or for marketing, without boring the audience.
10. You can learn everything in the preceding list by trial and error, but working for a senior lawyer who has your future career development as one of his or her important goals makes it a whole lot easier. Do not be one of the many, many, lawyers who I have met who only found out that their supervising lawyer was not one of those people after they had been in the job long enough to have lost precious ground.
11. And finally, you need to learn how to do all the above while maintaining your physical and mental health as well as the health of your personal relationships. This is not easily done, and while firms should see these goals as completely compatible with your and their professional goals, many (I would argue most) firms carry on as if these goals are contrary to the goals of the firm.
Law can be a rewarding profession, but it is usually also a very demanding profession and at the end of the day, it is what you make of it. I would suggest that one or both of professional or personal failure is practically guaranteed if you do not take charge of your career path from the beginning and be continually aware of where you want to go and adjust your course as required to get there. Some of you can get there alone. I think that most of you would benefit from a mentor, whether that be someone in in your firm, a friend who has gone before you or someone else with experience who is willing to help you. And keep in mind, that just because a firm promises to assign you a “mentor”, that does not mean that you will necessarily have the type of mentor that you need. In fact, your firm “mentor” may have an agenda which is focused on the firm’s needs, not your personal and professional goals.
For those of you who have read to the end, you will have noticed that there were 11 items to be reviewed in a list of 10 items. Get used to it. The profession is like that. There is always more to think about than you expected.