I’ve lamented the lack of university teaching before, but today I’m going to do something a little more constructive and provide you with 5 specific habits that all new lawyers must develop in order to get their careers on the right track.
I know that your law degree probably seemed like it was a big step away from your school years, but I’m sorry to tell you that you were still spoon fed the vast majority of what was required to get from the start to the finish. Not so with the legal profession – once you’re in it, you need to start thinking for yourself about what needs to be done, and what doesn’t.
Showing appropriate initiative is a great way to get noticed quickly, but can obviously backfire dramatically. So try and strike a nice balance between total coward (ie – the person who asks permission to wipe their nose in case they do it wrong) and crazy lunatic (the person who calls up the large institutional client’s CEO on their first day and tells them that the boss can’t spell).
Showing initiative might take the form of fixing errors as they are noticed, actively looking for work when you have run out. There are lots of options but really the habit is this: don’t be an automaton. Demonstrate that you can think for yourself while still being respectful of those around you.
Proof Reading, Even When Rushed
For the love of everything that is holy, please read your work before you submit it to a senior person for review. Nothing says “I don’t care” more than a draft littered with spelling errors. This includes internal file notes by the way – just get in the habit of taking care with your work.
Sure – despite how much you try, some will slip through. However habitual errors mean you’re just not taking the time to do it properly. A firm of any worth whatsoever will not let an obvious error go out the door, so the only outcome of your submitting bad work is that it costs somebody money.
There is a balancing act, because you can’t spend an entire day on a 1 page letter – so as part of your habit develop a process that allows you to be thorough but efficient.
Stating Things that Seem Obvious
I can’t begin to count the number of times that assumptions about so called “obvious” things have lead to problems. “I assumed Joe was doing that” or “I assumed my secretary made all the changes accurately despite my atrocious handwriting” or “I assumed you were going to Court this morning so I wore jeans”.
Assumptions are bad. Don’t make them.
There is no practical downside to stating the obvious – then there’s no risk of assumptions being made, expectations are clear, and everyone wins with a clear direction.
Thinking Like the Client
Your firm relies on its clients. Without them, it cannot survive. That means that every conversation, call, letter, submission, contract and initiative is ultimately focused on providing better results for the client. Your team building exercise? Yes – that is designed to develop a better team who will work well together who will SERVE CLIENTS better. It all ends up there eventually.
To date you have probably gotten away with doing things the way you want. You’ve written letters how you think sound good, done assignments as a data-dump of information, and really not worried too much about what perceptions the recipient was going to have. That’s got to change now.
For everything you do, produce or say get in the habit of thinking to yourself: how would my client read/receive/react to this?
That vantage will put you in good stead. This doesn’t mean that you don’t sometimes have to tell clients bad news – it does mean you need to consider how to deliver it.
Valuing Your Time
You might think I’m only talking about time recording and billable units when I talk about this, but I’m not. You need to understand now that as a professional your time has a significant dollar value attached to it. On the one hand it’s what you are paid by your employer. On the other it’s what you bill to your client. But what about your leisure time? Do you value that too?
For me, the greatest productivity arises out of a sense that my personal time is valuable, and that I can be doing valuable things with it. That can include entertainment or relaxation, but I know when doing those things the costs versus benefits.
Your time is valuable – use it well, and use it productively.
What habits do you think young lawyers could do well to develop? Got any of your own? Share them in the comments below (we could all use the help!)