So, you’ve landed your dream graduate job (or the twenty-fifth best option). At the very least you’ve managed to get a paid position, which is more than many recent law graduates can say.
Welcome to full-time work – including all the joys of early starts, lunch meetings, CLE points, figuring out team dynamics, and triple-checking an email before you send it to anyone in the office!
It’s pretty easy to fall into a bit of billable cynicism and weekend-pining when you finally start working at your law gig. So here are a few ideas and insights from those who have gone before you to help make your first years a little easier.
You’re Going To Make Mistakes
Without a doubt, you will make mistakes. It’s not called the “practice of law” for nothing.
But let’s be realistic: as a junior lawyer you’re rarely going to be put in a position where something you do (or don’t do) will lead to an ‘end of the world’ scenario. Regardless, be open to the fact that despite your perfectionism, attention to detail, and fastidious nature, at some point you’re going to make a mistake – and that’s OK. See the next dot point.
It’s How You Handle Mistakes That Matters Most
Okay, so you’re now aware of your error.
If you discovered it, think about what has or hasn’t happened and consider possible ways that you can fix it.
Never try to cover up what has happened. This is not the time for pride. Now, go and see someone more senior and give them the straight run of facts. You don’t need to apologise profusely, but do say that you’re sorry and that you messed up. Suggest ways you think the situation can be fixed and werk, werk, werk, werk, werk until the problem is fixed or the issue is mitigated.
If the mistake has been identified by someone else, then you need to apologise immediately and open a dialogue as to how you think the problem may be solved. Don’t blame anyone else at this point. You need to wear it.
Once the problem is no longer a problem, or the fall-out has been substantially minimised, start a conversation with your manager or partner to figure out why the mistake happened in the first place, and how you can do things differently in future. This conversation is super important.
Senior lawyers know you’re going to make mistakes – they’ve been there before, even if they don’t always seem to remember what it was like. They’re not going to make you feel great about it when the inevitable happens. But the real test of your character, and your resilience, is to do everything you can to fix the problem and to identify strategies to diminish the risk of a repeat scenario.
Communication Is Key
You’re going to work with people at many different stages of their legal careers.
Make sure you are always respectful in your communication – whether it’s via email or in person. If you’re giving a clerk or paralegal a task, remind yourself what it was like to be in their shoes and explain the task slowly and considerately.
If you’re called to anyone’s office to discuss a task ALWAYS take a pen and notepad with you. Write everything down. And always ask questions. If you don’t understand something when you’re receiving initial instructions for a task it’s far easier to ask straight away rather than later that afternoon when you’re trying to recall all the other things that were said!
It’s also essential that you ask when the task is due and how long you should spend on it. This way you can manage your time effectively. It also means you’re likely to be adding value to the file, rather than spending too long on a task with the time later written off.
Dealing With Different Personalities
It’s not always easy working with different people who have unique working styles.
Try not to be disheartened if you feel you don’t “click” with someone. Keep trying, even if you feel like you’re not making progress.
It’s Okay To Say “No”
If your workload is maxed out – don’t be afraid to say “no” to extra work.
It’s important that you manage your tasks so that you can finish the work that has been assigned to you in an achievable timeframe. It’s better to be realistic and say to a Senior Associate:
I’m pretty snowed under this week because of due diligence for the Commercial team, but I will have capacity on Monday.”
This is the preferred approach.
It’s much better to be clear about your existing workload, rather than a) taking on more than you can manage; b) offloading the task to someone else at the 11th hour; or c) giving it a bare minimum crack.
Be honest about your time and manage the expectations of others.
Time Is Important
As cold and callous as it may sound, if you’re working in any kind of firm that makes money you’re probably going to have to bill for your time, meet KPIs, or both.
While things are changing, and some firms are offering alternatives, the vast majority of commercial firms charge by the 6 minute unit.
You have to get good at billing and establish a routine of entering your time as soon as you’ve completed a task. Otherwise, you’ll probably miss time which means you won’t be meeting budget and you won’t be demonstrating your value.
It can be really depressing looking at “the clock” and seeing how many more units need to be done for the day. So try and plan your day around getting short and sharp units on the clock first thing in the morning – like firing off emails and telephone calls. When you start the bigger tasks a little later in the day, it’s not so daunting and you have already posted some good time.
Figure out what works for you – but make sure you bill, and bill honestly. If a three-page letter took you three hours, you’ve got to bill for it. This is also the partners’ way of seeing how you spend your time, so that if you’re spending too long on something they can help you.
Get Involved And Give Back
Young Lawyers and the various Law Society Committees are a great way to meet other people and attend cool (often free! open bar!) events in the law.
If you’re in a big graduate program, it’s important to be involved with the other graduates and participate in your firm activities and events. However, don’t let this limit you to the world outside your firm. There are lots of interesting law and other speaking events, competitions and networking opportunities that are great for meeting other people and growing your personal brand. You just need to be aware of what is available and tap into it.
Once you have become settled into the full-time routine, you may wish to think about volunteering your time at a community legal centre.
As a lawyer, you’re in a pretty privileged position and giving something back is a nice way to recognise this.
Take Time For Yourself And Your Health
It’s no doubt been drummed into you all the way through law school, and sounds like such a textbook suggestion, but it’s really important that you have a life outside work.
Take time for yourself, your friends and family and continue to enjoy the things you like doing in your spare time. Whether this takes the form of enjoying weekend sleep-ins, competing in Iron Man events, having dinner with friends or relaxing with Netflix and wine, it’s crucial that you carve out some dedicated “you” time.
Working in law can be high-pressure and competitive. To perform at your best during work hours, it is critical to take time for yourself and pursue interests outside the office.
This gives you a bit more balance in your life and means that you will be in a better position to cope with work-related stress when it arises.
Get Yourself A Mentor
This doesn’t necessarily need to be someone working in law.
Find a person who can give you guidance and support, especially in your early years working as a solicitor.
There are many unforeseeable challenges that come with full-time professional work, not to mention the challenges that are specific to law. It’s nice to be able to soundboard problems or ideas with someone who has a few years on you and has literally “been there, done that” before.
You might already have someone like this in your life, which is great. Use them as a resource to fast track your professional development!
Otherwise, Young Lawyer Mentoring Programs can assist. LinkedIn is another great networking resource. Don’t be afraid to reach out to people you admire, or would like to get to know better, and seek out their time and advice.
Just remember to always be very grateful and respectful of their time!
What are some of the main challenges you face as a young legal professional in Australia? What strategies have you found are the most effective in helping you cope? Let us know in the comments section below!
For light-hearted guides and resources on how to survive law school and beyond visit:
To find out more about young mentoring programs get in touch with:
- NSW Young Lawyers Mentoring Program
- Law Society of NSW Womens Mentoring Program
- Womens Lawyers Association Mentoring Program
- Victorian Womens Lawyers Mentoring Program
- Law Society of South Australia Womens Mentoring Program
- Australian Corporate Lawyers Mentoring Program
- AICD Coach and Mentor Connect
- ACT Law Society Young Lawyers Mentoring Program
- Adelaide Law School Young Lawyers Mentoring Program
- Law Institute of Victoria Mentoring Program
Universities run Alumni Mentoring Programs twice per year:
For support coping with work-related psychological or emotional distress contact:
- Lifeline for Lawyers – telephone crisis support every night between 8pm to 4am (AEST).
Call 1800 085 062; or start a live chat.
- Lawyers Assistance Program – Open 9am – 5pm Monday to Friday.
Call 1800 777 662 or email to access support.
- LawCare – a professional and confidential counselling service for solicitors and their immediate family members. Counsellors are practising GPs experienced in dealing with unique difficulties faced by legal professionals. Initial phone assessment and referrals are free. Costs only incurred for face-to-face consultations and much of this can be claimed back through Medicare or private health cover for clinically relevant medical conditions.
Call 0416 200 788.
- Vic Lawyer’s Health – LIV members and their families have complimentary 24-hour access to the Vic Lawyers’ Health line. Up to three face-to-face counselling sessions are free.
- The Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation Psychological Wellbeing – Best practice guidelines for the legal profession are intended to support the profession in raising awareness of mental health issues.
- R U OK? – Helpful tips for having a conversation about mental health openly and respectfully with those around you.
- R U OK At Work? – Workplace resources to educate and inform managers and employees to ask for help and manage difficult situations.