The early years following your call to the bar are in some ways the most formative but in others the most stressful. The demands of day to day life can be all-consuming. Long term goals can mean getting through your current legal research assignment rather than considering where you will be in 10 years.
But despite the demands, there is a risk that you get so caught up in it all that you lose perspective. Life can become all about completing one assignment only to move on to the next. Many leave a career in law just to get off the treadmill. Some wake up one day to realize they have simply lived someone else’s dream.
What follows is some personal and professional advice to point you in the right direction. Everyone has a different path and some points will not resonate with everyone, but my hope is there are some nuggets here you can use and share with others in your shoes.
1. Savour your Relationships with Mentors – But Develop Independence
Famed American lawyer Allen Dershowitz recommended having mentors many years ago in his popular book Letters to a Young Lawyer. It remains good advice today. We graduate from law school knowing the law from an academic perspective but not from a practical perspective. We learn how to practice law by learning from others and actually doing it. A mentor can impart good habits and teach us skills that we will use our entire career .
At some point however, your paths will diverge. Your mentor will retire or move on or you will move on. So get the most out of the relationship while you can but develop your own independence because your mentor will not be there for you forever.
2. Treat the Law Firm Staff Well
Far too often I have seen new graduates with a pompous attitude entering a new law firm and making enemies with the law firm staff from day one. Egotistical attitudes create the perception that the young lawyer feels they “better than” the staff simply because of the number of university degrees they have.
My message – give your head a shake. That lady who sits behind a computer each day has forgotten more about the practical aspects of the law that you know. She may not always be friendly as she faces her own challenges: maybe she is going through a tough divorce or has lost a parent. Be patient. Treat her well, earn her respect, make her life easier and eventually you will be the beneficiary of her years of experience.
3. Maintain Relationships with Old Friends
Old friends can give us perspective on ourselves. They knew us when we were walking down the halls of our high school . For me this means they knew me when I sported an afro and black and orange skin tight gym shorts.
Because they have known you for many years, old friends see past your fancy car and university degrees and can give you a helpful reality and perhaps ego check when you need it the most. Likewise, the fact they may not be lawyers gives them a completely different perspective than those who are.
4. Don’t be a Jerk
Many new graduates believe that they have to be a jerk to effectively advocate on behalf of their client.
This just isn’t the case. In fact, the best lawyers are the exact opposite. They are polite and charming and make their points in an even-handed and fair way. The reality is they are successful with judges, juries and other lawyers because they are likeable. And here’s a tip for you: Likeability creates fear in your adversary. I love it when I know I have a jerk on the other side of the case.
5. Eat Well and Exercise
Full disclosure, I am a fitness and nutrition nut. I am at the gym five days a week. I weigh most of the food before I eat. I work with a competitive body builder to optimize my nutrition and workouts.
Working out is my yoga and meditation all thrown into one. When I have a couple hundred pounds hanging over my head I can’t worry about the day to day stresses of life. All I can do is focus on moving the weight.
Most people aren’t like me but, young lawyers should realize they only have one body. As they age, those extra pounds will become harder and harder to shed. Those lunch time cheese burgers add up to extra pounds over the years. Far too many lawyers lose control of their health only to wake up one day to find their physician telling them they have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes or are morbidly obese.
So eat well and exercise – in that order. Many make the mistake of thinking they can eat like crap, jump on the treadmill and maintain a healthy lifestyle. That may work in our 20’s but not in our 40’s. The reality is “we are what we eat” and our nutrition plays a far larger role than many believe.
6. Accept that you will Be Nervous at Times
Everyone gets nervous and anxious and anyone who says they don’t are liars. I have seen some of the most respected lawyers in the country nearly choking due to the anxiety-caused cotton mouth they have before opening to a jury.
Accept that nervousness and anxiety may be constant companions in their early years of practice. When we begin our legal careers everything is new and there is a great deal of the unknown that we have to deal with. It’s only normal to feel anxious and nervous. I promise you that while it will likely never go away, the frequency of your bouts of anxiety and nervousness will reduce over your career as you learn more and get more comfortable with the practising law.
7. Cultivate Referral Sources Early On
If you want a level of control over the direction of your career, and want to practice in the private sector, do yourself a favour and begin to cultivate referral sources early in your career. As you mature in your career, this may become increasingly important as your desire for autonomy increases.
You probably won’t have much pressure from the partners at the firm to cultivate referral relationships. The reality is they benefit more from you keeping your head down and doing their work than you spending time cultivating new referrals. This is not to say you won’t benefit from the experience of doing the work. You will.
But you fail to cultivate referral sources at your own peril. You could find yourself a well trained brilliant lawyer with no clients and no power in your firm. That is, you can do the work well but you are stuck taking handouts from other lawyers in your firm. Some lawyers have no problem with this and have no interest in bringing in business and this may work for them. That said, it wouldn’t work for me.
As you connect with referral sources understand that referral sources are fickle. Your best referral source today, probably will not be your best referral source five years from now. People change, relationships change and it helps to diversify your referral network along the way to protect against the likelihood that a referral source will move on.
As you consider referral sources beware of one-sides relationships. Take a look at your referral sources. Are they really in it for a mutual referral relationship? Or, are they simply accepting your referrals and referring cases to another lawyer who refers them more work or tickets to the hockey game?
8. Understand that Law is a Business
Understand that your boss may be the nicest person in the world but at the end of the day, s/he has a business to run. They benefit from you working for them. They benefit from making you happy. Whether its firm retreats or visits to their cottage or other social events, don’t be disillusioned into thinking you are best buddies. This isn’t a judgment its simply reality.
Look out for yourself. At the end of the day, you are responsible for the trajectory of your career. You know what is best for you. Understand your relationships and make the best decisions for you. You don’t want to wake up one day to find that you have helped someone else achieve their goals and ignored your own.
Author: Bill Teggart
Bill Teggart is a leading Ontario personal injury lawyer and has been included in Best Lawyers in Canada for five consecutive years. He represents people who have suffered severe injuries or lost a loved one in car accidents, snowmobile accidents and boating accidents.