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Friday, November 27, 2020
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Should you Just Phone Your Opponent?

Ah yes, the great joy of the litigator: writing unbelievably long-winded letters back and forth for months to set out why your client is right and their client is dumb.

It makes us feel good about ourselves, allows for a certain amount of chest-beating and fist pumping in the office as we click “send” on another series of threats to do things and claim costs for them. And let’s not mention how much time we can bill for it…

But what if a phone call just be a better option?

The Benefits of a Phone Call

Here’s the deal: 2 sensible, trusted advisors for their clients can achieve more in a 5 minute phone call than the 1.5 hours it takes to write letters, format them, get instructions, confirm things, review stuff, settle it and send it.

Why?

Because well-informed lawyers, not given to flights of fancy, can communicate well and frankly with each other. They know their clients and they know what they should or should not say. They can cut through the nonsense and deal with each other as human beings, rather than recipients of correspondence.

That is, after all, our job.

Unfortunately it can go very wrong.

Too Junior?

As you’d expect, very junior lawyers can be nervous about making phone calls to the lawyers on the other side.

It’s easy to get “verballed” or say something foolish. Of course if you’re too concerned about that happening then you might sound aloof and standoffish, or perhaps give the impression to the opposing lawyer that you don’t know what you’re doing.

Of course sometimes the opposite can occur – in an effort to show how great you are, bravado gets the best of you and you alienate any potential for future conversation with your counterpart. In my life I believe I’ve only hung up on another lawyer once – they fell into this category.

None of these things will be good – for you or for them.

The Dark Side of the Law

I hate to admit it, but some lawyers approach the practice of law differently from me (shocking, really).

These are the kinds of lawyers where something like this happens:

  • you have a conversation on the phone – it seems fine and dandy;
  • later you get an email “confirming” your conversation, in which they don’t accurately state what happened in your discussion;
  • perhaps they then swear to the conversation in affidavit, forcing you to check your notes (which hopefully exist) and swear your own affidavit in response;
  • distracting nonsense ensues.

Unfortunately, some lawyers are on the “do not call” list when it comes to litigation. The potential for things to get stupid are just too high, and you’re better of remaining in correspondence only.

That also applies to conversations outside Court, which many might think of as mere “banter”, but those of us who have been burned before know might end up in an affidavit later. Don’t risk it. Don’t make the call.

Of course, sometimes these people call you instead. You’ve got a few options here:

  • take the call, keep meticulous notes of the discussion;
  • don’t take the call – pretend it didn’t happen (not recommended btw);
  • don’t take the call, request all communications in writing.

This last sounds pretty grim I know, but sometimes unfortunately it’s needed.

But Otherwise…

Most lawyers are fairly normal people, wanting to do their best for their client.

A meaningful conversation has the potential propel your client’s dispute far more sensibly forward than constantly writing letters back and forth.

And while I know that our comfort zones are in writing and emails and non-direct communications, that doesn’t mean they’re always the right way to go.

So before you write your next instalment of Homer’s Odyssey consider this: just pick up the phone.

Or… We Could Just Fire You Instead

Recently I took a bit of a shot at law firms trying to pretend that their COVID-related pay cuts came with associated reduced working hours.

I’m all for the realities of business and I understand the need to deliver a message in a palatable way (I’m in marketing if you recall). But I’m also for calling a spade a spade.

That said, I think the natural follow-up to the previous article is to look at it from the business perspective: if I was running a law firm (which, thankfully, I’m not) at the beginning of an anticipated economic downturn, then what’s going through my mind and how would I deal with it?

But First, A Quick Reality Check for Young Lawyers

Most young lawyers I’ve had the pleasure of working with have been fairly grounded, hard-working individuals with an appropriate balance of humility and chutzpah.

That said, from time to time someone comes along who seems to think that the world owes them something, or that their natural brilliance (in their own eyes) should propel them immediately into high salaries and complex client meetings with important people.

So, just in case we’re not quite on the same page, here are a few tiny economic pointers that many young lawyers might do well to remember:

  1. If you don’t own the firm, then you don’t get to profit from it. You get a salary, and that’s it.
  2. If you don’t own the firm, then aside from getting fired your risks are fairly low. You don’t pay the bills, you don’t monitor the finances, and you don’t have to sell your family home in the event that things crash and burn.
  3. If you’re so amazing, then go and open your own firm if you think you can do it better.
  4. Largely as a consequence of (1) – (3), I have absolutely no obligation to put my hand in my pocket if things go south financially. If I choose to keep the money I’ve made in prior years and just fire everybody right now, then that’s 100% something I can do without feeling particularly guilty about it. If I choose to do anything else, then that’s at my complete discretion and will involve weighing up a tonne of factors you don’t even know exist.

With that done, let’s move on. What kinds of things would be going through the mind of a law firm owner looking down the barrel of a year of reducing income?

How Real is the Risk?

The problem with recent events is, in part, that everyone went insane.

As a result, there was no good way to gauge exactly how bad things were going to get, and even now we don’t really know the answer to that question.

But the first thing I’m going to do is try to assess how real the risk of a downturn actually is. Where will it hit and how hard will it do so? Who are my clients and are they going to be impacted? Will it affect current work or work in the pipeline?

While there’s a little bit of crystal ball gazing here, and novel events make it a bit harder, it’s an important step in the process.

How Big are the Potential Losses?

After looking at the nature of the risk we need to look at the size of it.

If the worst projections come true, how bad would that be for my business?

And, of course, if the most optimistic projections come true, what’s the other side of the spectrum look like?

What are My Reserves?

It’s not normally the nature of firms to carry large amounts of cash unless it’s for specific circumstances. Usually, the partners have drawn on the available profits, although of course different firms have different models here.

So this question is two-fold:

  1. What are the firm’s reserves;
  2. What are my reserves (or, more specifically, what would I be prepared to do financially for the firm if needed)?

Naturally, the length of time our reserves will last is going to depend on what action (if any) I take.

How Conservative Am I?

Much like any financial advisor will tell you, humans in business have different tolerance for risk.

Some might through caution to the wind, consciously taking no steps to address any potential concerns about the future.

Others will reflexively want to contract, immediately reducing their long term financial commitments at the sign of any trouble on the horizon.

Now if I’ve started a law firm, the chances are I have some tolerance for risk at least. But how far that tolerance extends is going to impact on what decisions I make next.

Do I have Dead Weight Staff?

Law firms are notoriously bad at dealing with HR issues.

As a result, the chances are that I have some staff who, in truth, shouldn’t still be working for me. Probably I was hoping they would just quit if I buried my head in the sand for long enough. They might be underperforming, bad for the team, or just generally a pain in the neck.

On the less savage side of things, there might be some staff who, for no fault of their own, are not yet significant financial contributors to the firm (which doesn’t just mean billing, if you’re wondering) and therefore represent more of an immediate cost than a potential source of driving revenue.

So (and I’m a little sorry to say it) but I’m going to be considering whether this is a prime opportunity to tighten up the team a bit.

And, of course, I’m also going to be wondering if I’ll get sued for doing it.

And Now… I Try to Make a Decision

There are lots of variables in play.

What will happen, and how long will it happen for?

What can the firm weather in terms of revenue drop, for how long?

Are my predictions realistic, optimistic or pessimistic? Is my appetite for risk aligned with which of those I’m going to pick as “most likely”?

What happens if I’m wrong in one way or another? Do I have a backup plan of any kind, and do I need one?

Can I take proactive steps now to mitigate the risks? Can I market better, expand my practice areas, explore new opportunities for growth? Will reducing expenses make any real difference? Do I cut staff, or hours, or wages, or all of them?

There’s a lot going on inside my head – and I’m doing the best to deal with it.

If I’m just one partner among many, then we’re all then trying to talk about it and figure out what the heck is going on as a group. And, as you know, lawyers struggle to agree about stuff sometimes…

Still Sad about your Firm’s COVID Response?

While an employed solicitor is, to some degree, beholden to the decisions of their employer, it’s also a fairly limited set of anxieties to plague you.

And while I know that many lawyers have been battered and bruised throughout all of this recent debacle, largely from decisions by their employers, it’s important to consider this question: what would you have done, and why?

Because when you’re faced with a situation that has no perfect solutions, you just need to pick one and then hope it pans out OK – and expect that some people won’t like it.

 

40% Pay Cut, 140% Full Time Load

It’s been fascinating watching law firms react (in advance) to what they believed was going to be the horror story of COVID-19.

I get that these kinds of business decisions aren’t easy, and they remain one of the many reasons that pursuing law firm partnership fell off my to-do list a while back.

Faced with the impending doom of a significant downturn of legal demand, law firms responded in a variety of ways:

  • do nothing much
  • fire people
  • “offer” staff a 20-40% pay cut on the basis of a 20-40% reduction in associated hours.

Many of these decisions were made not on the basis of an ACTUAL downturn of work, of course, but the prediction of such a downturn.

Whether or not those predictions were true remains to be seen. Given that most firms don’t actually publish their gross revenue and net profit per partner, it seems unlikely we’ll be finding out precisely how things went any time soon.

It’s been a lean year.

But the real question is: how on earth are lawyers supposed to respond to this literal pay cut when it’s accompanied by a fictitious reduction in work hours?

The Pay Cut is Simple Maths

If you’re earning $100,000 a year and you get a 20% pay cut then you’re now earning $80,000 a year.

Simple, right? You actually receive less actual money in your pocket each payroll.

The Hours Cut is More Like Philosophy

The legal profession has long been an industry where its participants don’t pay close attention to the hours that they work.

This is because, of course, lawyers are:

  • there to do a particular job
  • not paid by the hour (normally)
  • not governed by normal awards which regulate what “full time” hours they should be working
  • generally very dedicated and hard-working individuals
  • sensible enough not to try and keep track of demoralising numbers.

So, in one week a full time lawyer might work 40 hours, only to work 64 the next.

It’s highly variable and nebulous.

So how on Earth is any sensible person going to actually measure the means by which a lawyer should be working 20% less in exchange for their 20% pay cut?

They can’t.

And no lawyer with professional pride (who values their job) is going to turn the tap off once they hit 32 hours a week. Just imagine it:

  • Supervising partner calls: “Hi Joe, do you have a minute?”
  • Lawyer: “Sure do Paul, unfortunately I’ve maxed out my 80% contribution for this week. Can it wait until Monday?”

Never. Going. To. Happen.

Call it What it Is – A Pay Cut

Now it’s true, law firms might have less work on at the moment, and their lawyers might have less work to do.

But if, during these measures, the work amps up (say a large job comes in) are these lawyers going to get put back on their full rates? Are they going to be comfortable clocking off once they hit 80% normal workload (whatever that means)? Probably not.

So in the interests of fairness and good will to all lawyers, why don’t we just call these measures what they are: a pay cut.

Pay cuts are serious business, but life is real and stuff like this happens.

But let’s at least call it what it is, and not dress it up like a pig in a petticoat.

How to Make the Most of Your CLE

Attending any kind of continuing legal education can feel like it was largely a waste of time – even if it came with a free lunch (code for: you didn’t get a lunch break).

While that’s sometimes a problem with the presenter (ergh – I’ve both been the attendee and the presenter at a bad presentation – so I have sympathy for both sides!), the subject matter or the forum, it’s also sometimes a problem with you and how you go about getting the most of the lesson.

So let’s take a look at how you, the attendee, can actually make the most out of your CLE experience.

Attitude

Before going to any CLE presentation, you need the right attitude.

That means: be prepared to learn.

Be prepared to listen.

Acknowledge that you don’t know everything.

And change the mindset that CLE is a necessary evil that is being inflicted upon you by some sort of malevolent overlord who seeks your demise.

It’s an opportunity – grab it!

Go Prepared

Yes I know – you’re busy. Me too!

But in the world of CLE you need to have a vague clue what you’re about to hear, to ensure that you’re going to get the most out of it.

Do a few minutes preparation.

Find out:

  • who’s speaking
  • what their expertise it
  • what their topic is

And beyond that, consider what you already think, know and practise in relation to that particular topic.

What are your skills in the area? What are your gaps? What can you learn? And what will be useful to you?

Go in with expectations – they might not be met, but at least you’ve got them.

Listen

Don’t check your messages during a CLE. For starters it’s insanely rude, but beyond that it’s also going to distract you from learning that one thing – that nugget, that’s going to make your practice all the more successful and excellent.

Pay attention to what the person is saying. Listen to their words, and hear what they’re getting at. You might be tempted to pick holes – good! That means you’re listening.

But as well, you need to be listening for the gold inside the presentation. Because it’s often there, but regularly goes un-noticed by those indifferent participants who have no interest in expanding their legal skills.

Then – Participate

I know for a fact that while most lawyers have questions during CLE presentations, they don’t bother asking them.

Why?

Because they’re keen to:

  • leave
  • text
  • yawn
  • eat
  • work

Basically, they don’t want to be there.

However, there you are (like it or not) and you might as well make the most of the situation.

So ask questions, raise your hand, participate in the process. I realise you don’t want to be the annoying person that holds up everyone from getting back to their lives, but somewhere between silence and aggravating lies an appropriate amount of participation – I suggest you find it.

Finally – Assimilate

There’s always something – something! inside a CLE presentation that’s going to be useful for you.

Don’t ignore it. Don’t put it on the “to do” list or the back-burner, because we all know full well that no change will ever happen from things put in those places.

Change doesn’t happen from consumption alone (although you might get intellectually fat) – change happens when you choose to implement something into your legal practice.

No matter how small it might seem – use the CLE situation to your advantage. Learn. Adapt. Implement. Participate. Assimilate.

Then you’ll be getting the most out of it – plus the free lunch.

Legal Careers Are Awesome

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Recently I mentioned what I thought was a fairly self-evident concept: being a lawyer is actually pretty challenging.

If you missed it, here it is:

TL;DR version: law is high stakes, high stress, high pressure – and unless we find a way to change human nature entirely and the things people tend to care about, it’s probably going to remain that way for the foreseeable future.

That means law is hard. But it doesn’t mean that law is bad, because in fact…

Being a Lawyer is Awesome

Somewhere along the way, the concept of promoting wellness among lawyers has turned into the following messages:

  • being a lawyer will damage you;
  • lawyers are damaged people by nature;
  • working hard as a lawyer is abhorrent and the principal cause of that damage;
  • the only way to avoid that damage is to do less lawyering and more of basically anything else provided it makes you “feel good”.

This, young lawyers, is a load of nonsense.

Yes, of course at the extreme ends of the spectrum there are lawyerholics who are going to work themselves to the bone. And yes, there are some firms who whip their young graduates to work harder while the top dogs laugh maniacally in a mouth-frothing billing frenzy.

But, by and large, that’s not the case.

In fact, by and large, being a lawyer is a deeply satisfying, fulfilling career for the right people.

Why is that? It’s because it’s…

High Stakes, High Stress, High Pressure

Tell me, did you sigh with a deep sense of satisfaction after brushing your teeth this morning? Did completing that mammoth task really help you put a big tick on your day as a job well done?

Of course not, because that would be silly.

Take any person you admire and examine their life. Do you admire them because they strolled through easily, facing no adversity, and because their message in life is “I made it to the top easy peezy”? With rare exceptions, I’m guessing not.

In fact, we admire the grit, the determination, the work, and the ability to overcome challenges and difficulties.

Why is that? It’s because those are the things that show us we are stretching towards our potential and growing as people. Those are the things that demonstrate our capacity to aspire upwards. And because amazing accomplishments demand amazing people with amazing purpose-driven work ethics.

So Stop Demonizing Law

Could some parts of the legal career status quo change for the better? Probably.

But let’s be careful along the way that we don’t demonize lawyers and legal careers, throwing the baby out with the bathwater and convincing everyone that the only path to happiness is to work as little as humanly possible.

The truth is that you get to help people with massive personal and professional concerns, issues, problems and concepts. You are in a privileged and amazing role of trust and confidence with your clients. You have a sharp mind, attention to detail, analytical skills and you get to stretch them and use them every day.

And, generally speaking, you can earn a decent living doing it.

Yes it’s hard work – something that big SHOULD be hard work.

Law is awesome. Deal with it.

Earning the Right to Speak

When I was a younger lawyer, I tended to speak my mind more often than was appropriate. Thankfully, I had (mostly) patient supervisors who didn’t often tell me to shut the hell up. At least… not in a mean way.

with the right attitude you can often make the right decisions

Now that I’m a slightly-less-young lawyer (I’m sub-40 as I right this – that’s young, right?) I start to see a fascinating split among junior lawyers: some are overly demur, refusing even to disclose when they have no clue what you’ve just asked them to do.

Others, though, seem to think that the most important part of any conversation is that they can express their opinions about a matter, drawing on their massive amounts of non-practical academic experience and 2 months as an admitted solicitor.

This article is designed to be a helping hand to the second category.

Listening is More Important than Speaking

You work in a challenging and complex industry. There are difficult questions, unclear answers, and strategic decisions to be made at every step.

And the truth is that, for a time at least, you really have no clue what you’re talking about.

But even once you start to find your sea legs, learning to listening properly remains a critical part of practice.

This means listening to what is said, understanding it properly, and ensuring that you’ve received what is being communicated. That’s usually going to be the case even if:

  • you’ve done the research and they haven’t
  • you think you know what they are going to say
  • you’ve done this before
  • you have an opinion about the subject
  • you’re really busy
  • you want to say something
  • you haven’t had your coffee yet
  • you don’t like the person speaking
  • they’re not making much sense.

Just listen. Practice doing so in a way where you’re not just thinking about what you’re going to say, but in a way where you are taking in what’s being put out.

Ask Questions Rather than Make Statements

Which of these is more respectful if you’re speaking to someone (irrespective of the “pecking order”)?

  • “I think what you just said is wrong because section 497 of [insert act] says so”; or
  • “Do you think that section 497 of [insert act] might be relevant to this issue? I was reading it the other day and it seemed to suggest… [insert suggestion]. Should I check into that?

I know that “being respectful” isn’t a subject at law school, but perhaps it should be. Not out of fear or some kind of religious deference to those with the word “partner” in their title, but because it’s a demonstration of character. In truth, respectful speech shouldn’t be limited to those more senior than you – it should be a habit of every interaction.

And asking questions is almost always a better was to be respectful than making declarations.

Earn the Right to Your Opinion

I’ve written before about unnecessarily large amounts of bravado in the legal profession, and this is connected to the same issue.

It might seem archaic, or ageist, or something else offensive to your sensibilities but the truth is if you haven’t earned the right to express your opinion then perhaps you shouldn’t.

I confess, I probably expressed my opinion many times when I ought not have – it took some time and practice to stop interrupting people (and I still do it sometimes) with my input.

But if the person you’re speaking with hasn’t asked for your informed opinion about something, why would you think they wanted it?

This might be situational – some relationships and cultures certainly exist where a robust exchange of opinions can swiftly achieve a good result. But, unless you’re sure otherwise, perhaps your opinion actually isn’t as important to everyone else as it is to you.

But how can you earn it? The same way as everyone else, in every industry around the world. Through hard work, and a demonstration over time that when you express an opinion it’s worth hearing about.

But When?

This is the million dollar question – at what point, on what day, or with what seniority will this kind of consideration soften, and allow you to express your opinion freely like you see everyone doing on TV.

There’s no answer to that question, because it’s less about seniority and more about relationship and situation.

Here’s the thing: be subjectively sensitive to when it’s a good idea to express yourself, when you should ask questions which might invite further discussion, and when you should just stay quiet.

Make the call as best you can, and learn from the outcomes. Nobody ever said this stuff was easy, but with the right attitude you can often make the right decisions.

Perhaps you ARE an Imposter

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I’ve spoken about imposter syndrome before, but it’s making a bit of a comeback around the place so I thought I’d touch on it again.

The self-help rhetoric would have you believe that you can achieve anything, be anything, do anything, and work as anything provided you have the right mindset and put the work in.

That message is a tightly packed tin of well-intentioned baloney.

Just to become a lawyer in the first place, you achieved grades in the top 1 percent or so of your secondary education, then had to survive the considerable attrition rate of law school (a collection of similarly bright people, many of whom drop out).

So let’s not pretend that “just anyone” could do that. It’s really hard.

But with that mild piece of encouragement out of the way, let’s embark on the more difficult stuff.

What’s the Problem with Imposters?

One of the considerable challenges of the legal profession, and (in my opinion) a significant contributor to the mental health issues we face, is that too many young people are getting into law who shouldn’t be.

They shouldn’t do a law degree. They shouldn’t do their training. And they shouldn’t be working as lawyers.

Some people are just not cut out for it, and they never will be. Persevering in these circumstances is potentially devastating for them, their family and their clients. It’s just bad all around.

I want to stress something – this doesn’t make you weak, this doesn’t mean you’re dumb, this doesn’t mean you are a failure. It just means you shouldn’t be a lawyer.

The challenge for us all is discerning between surmountable career difficulties, and insurmountable ones.

Wanting To Doesn’t Mean you Can

I don’t care what The Secret told you, desire does not result in outcomes.

If a young child genuinely believes they can fly off a building like Superman, the outcome is inevitable – a trip to the hospital.

Similarly, really really wanting to succeed in your career doesn’t by itself mean you will.

Don’t get me wrong – I’d rather you want to succeed than the opposite, but desire is a tiny piece of the puzzle and won’t get you very far. It’s like first gear in a truck with 39 more to go.

Time Doesn’t Heal All Wounds

Perseverance and grit are important characteristics.

As a young lawyer, you are going to face a vast array of challenges that seem incredibly difficult. Later, those challenges could be child’s play to you. Not surprisingly, many things get easier as we do them more often.

But sometimes, perseverance in the face of problems actually leads to further damage.

This might include how you’re dealing with pressure. This might be growing levels of anxiety. This might be intellectual or emotional overload where you simply can’t process what’s going on around you. This might be hyper-workaholism which is affecting your health.

Left unchecked, some of these problems can lead to seriously bad outcomes.

We can’t just barrel on through our careers assuming that everything will get better if we give it enough time.

How to Tell the Difference

This is the hard part. Which issues, concerns or inadequacies will get better given the right kind of attention, and which won’t?

And once you know which won’t be getting better, are they serious enough that you should be looking at a career change?

There’s no one size fits all approach to this of course, and I’d be stretching reality if I tried to magically solve this dilemma in a blog post. Here are some general suggestions.

Take time to develop self-awareness about the issue. What is it exactly that seems to be the problem. Is it internal or external? Is it the kind of thing that requires more training, or is it an internal/emotional type of issue?

Find out and implement some strategies which might help. That might mean research, training, mentoring, professional help, or something else entirely. But dig in to the issue to try and mitigate it, or resolve it. This could take a little time.

Then do another check – are things getting better or not? If so, how much better? Fully or partially? Is it better “enough”? If not, can you try something else or have you exhausted the options? Have you asked somebody else about it or sought counsel from a trusted person?

Don’t Be Quick to Throw your Career In the Bin

You’ll notice that while I think many people should probably leave law, I’m not suggesting they should do it on a whim or as a triggered reaction to something. Be strategic. It was a large investment that got you here, so you want to try and make good decisions about it.

But here’s the thing with imposter syndrome – it can take two forms:

  • the common trope, where you are wrongly convincing yourself that you can’t do the job when, in truth, you can;
  • the less common discussion, when you’re trying to convince yourself that you can do a job which, in fact, you can’t.

I think if more people stopped to think about this rather than blindly sprinting forward in their careers towards a cliff edge, we’d see less personal destruction along the way.

Or everything could be fine. In which case… carry on.

Confidence Meets Humility – The Young Lawyer’s Conundrum

There’s a difficult balance to achieve when you walk into a law firm as a young lawyer.

On the one hand, you want to demonstrate a degree of confidence – at the very least that you’re not utterly terrified, likely to become a quivering wreck in the face of any kind of pressure.

On the other, a certain amount of humility ensures that you don’t rub everyone up the wrong way (in particular since many of them will be your managers and bosses) and keeps you in a state of mind that allows for growth.

Too much of either quality inevitably becomes irritating to people around you. Excesses of bravado make you come across as obnoxious, difficult to deal with and arrogant. Too much humility and you find yourself constantly asking for validation from others (which you probably won’t get), and if you fail to say something that needs to be said you might also fail your clients along the way.

So here are my tips to try and navigate the two big islands and avoid crashing into either.

Fish Size, Pond Size

Let’s take a second to acknowledge where lawyers generally come from.

First, you’ve achieved good grades in school. Alternatively you’ve done another degree already to earn your way into an LLB or a JD. This means, at the very least, you’re somewhat clever, or work hard, or both.

You’re then stuffed into a cohort of similarly bright, hard-working individuals and spread out into another bell curve. Higher achievers of this cohort are particularly bright, or particularly hard working, or (most likely these days) both.

At this point you’d be justified in convincing yourself that you’re the bees knees. But truthfully, you’re a tiny baby about to jump into a massive sea full of thousands of similar people, most of whom have been playing this game longer than you.

So take a self-awareness pill, and brace yourself for the fact that you don’t really know much at all just yet.

Teachable

You’re not at the end of your education yet.

In fact, you’ll never be at the end of your education if you’re doing things right.

If you approach your workplace and your colleagues as amazing sources of things to learn then your life will be much more enjoyable.

Stay teachable.

If you Need to Speak Up… Ask a Question Rather than Make a Statement

So let’s say you’ve just been asked to investigate X. You commence your investigation and realise that, almost certainly, X isn’t what you need to be looking at and instead you need to be looking at Y.

You could do this: change the topic, and deliver a memo dealing with Y rather than X together with an explanation of why X was wrong.

Or you could go back to your instructor and tell them what your concern about X is (and be prepared – be fairly sure you’re right don’t go in there with a half-baked thought or expect to be sent back to work…). And here’s the kicker, you then ask a question: “have I misunderstood what you were after, or do you think I should spend some time looking at Y?”.

This means you are doing your job, but not assuming that your instructor didn’t know what they were talking about. Questions give room for the other party to answer without feeling like they need to defend their position.

And bear in mind… you might be wrong, so asking a question can avoid embarrassing correction as well.

Listen

I can’t begin to describe to you the number of times I give someone detailed instruction, background and information about a task only to have them come and ask me a question that I’d already answered five minutes later.

Or perhaps to come back with an answer to a question I didn’t ask, with information I didn’t need.

This costs the firm money, and me precious time that I can never get back.

Nothing demonstrates that you have too high an opinion of yourself than not listening to someone when they are speaking to you.

This will be true in 20 years when you are a senior lawyer, just as it is now.

But for the time being, learn to listen. Don’t listen to respond, listen to understand. Don’t leap in with your opinions, facts or comments unless you need to. Just listen.

And if you need to say something… ask a question.

Don’t Bug People

One of the things you probably won’t get as much of as you might like in a legal career is positive reinforcement.

After all – we do a lot of work every day.

Just because you did a good job, you probably won’t get a “good job” every time. Many young lawyers find this frustrating, especially since they’re not really sure whether they have done a good job or not.

If you’re lucky, you’ll have a supervisor or mentor who offers regular positive and negative feedback, designed to help you fill in the blanks.

But if not, I strongly suggest NOT constantly asking “how did I go” style questions to everyone around you. It’s pretty annoying.

How is this relevant to the topic? Often large doses of false humility are actually disguising a broader self-esteem issue.

Law firms aren’t social media. Often, no-news is good news, but not always. If you’re concerned about something in particular or you’re getting no feedback of any kind for long stretches of time, then set up a meeting with someone relevant for the purpose of discussing it (rather than wandering into their office randomly and catching them off guard with your questions).

But generally, try and get out of the mindset that you need someone to validate your efforts every hour. If you’re struggling with that, perhaps spend a bit of time figuring out why. Is it actually about your firm and your performance, or is it more about how you feel about yourself?

It could be both, but it’s worth asking the question.

Your Thoughts?

Looking back, I admit I probably had more confidence than was warranted. I’m sure this made me say and do some stupid things that put people off side in my younger days, and I’ve learned from that experience.

How have you learned to walk the tightrope of confidence and humility?

6 Truthful Ways to Deal with Irrational Christmas Demands

It’s Christmas soon (unless this is an accidental repost of this article, in which case it’s probably June) – hooray.

But with Christmas comes a whole lot of crazy. Much of it, of course, makes absolutely no sense and I’m confident that most of the time you hold your tongue in response to stupid demands made in the Christmas season.

But just in case you don’t…* here are a few truthful, but tactless, ways we could approach the more common situations that come up.

*you should

Disclaimer: this article is a little cynical. If you take it seriously then… I honestly don’t know what to do with you.

The Pre-Christmas Trial

It’s the ultimate nightmare. You’ve gone and told the Court that everyone was “ready for trial”, totally sure in the knowledge that it wouldn’t actually be listed for another 6 months.

The Judge, kindly soul that she is, says “as it turns out Mr Hargreaves, we have a 2 day trial slot on 20 and 21 December – we’ll see you then.”

As the colour drains from both your face and that of your tolerably polite opponent of the day, here’s the response you definitely shouldn’t say:

well your Honour, as I and my learned friend both know, the Court is notoriously slow and pathetic at listing trials in a timely fashion, and so a general understanding has been reached between all and sundry that “ready for trial” in fact means “will be ready for trial when hell freezes over and the Court finally manages to get around to setting it down”, and so while my submission made earlier about the readiness of the parties was strictly true, it needs to be interpreted in the context of that generally understood and appreciated proposition that the Court is painfully slow at dealing with matters swiftly… so next May would be fine thank you your Honour.

I Need the Documents Before Christmas

As yes. A last minute instruction has come in, and you need to prepare an advice, a letter, a contract.

Your client, conscious of their own deadlines, asks for it before Christmas.

Well Bruce, you and I both know that if I send them to you before Christmas that you’re going to be more pickled than a cucumber for the next 6 weeks, especially since you’re going on yet another cruise to a place that serves drinks in coconuts with umbrellas in them, so how about I ignore your request since we both know you’re not capable of reading anything until February at the earliest

That’s OK… Just Settle in the First Week Back

Some clients consider your needs, and thinking that perhaps the pre-Christmas period is going to get a bit hectic they offer this kindness – to push it to the first week back.

Thanks Lucy, I really appreciate that. After all, property settlements pretty much just handle themselves, and finalising everything the first day back to settle on day 2 is completely possible, bearing in mind that all the maths will have changed, the banks will be closed and if not they’ll be surly, the other parties will still be hungover from their New Year’s bash and I have 67 other transactions that week. But sure, I’d love to come in on boxing day to do settlement adjustment calculations just so I can pretend that I can pull your entire thing together the minute I turn up in the New Year.

Could You Please Work Over Christmas?

Ah yes – the skeleton staff.

After all, it’s important that urgent things get handled over Christmas and while most are on their break, some few are often left in the office to play cricket in the halls and catch up on their reading. After all, what else would they rather do?

Well Jo, much as I’d love to look after your client while you’re uncontactable in your Tuscan villa, unfortunately I actually have a life of my own and since you’re the idiot who promised your client we’d be here, perhaps it’s you who should rearrange your plans to suit rather than assuming I was going to?

The Long Delay

Email – 23 December. “Hey there Justine – thanks for your advice on 16 August. I’m sorry it’s taken a while to get back to you. We think what you say makes total sense and want to get an offer out ASAP please.”

Really.

ASAP huh?

Yo Drew! Great to hear from you. It took me a minute to remember you, because in fact my auto-archive settings had sent all of your emails to the great “ex-client” facility in the sky. I’ll have to hire someone who was trained in the 80s to figure out how to retrieve your files, and will do so ASAP. Best current estimate is that I’ll have your offer out before the Jetsons become a reality show. Trust that’s OK.

The Urgent Application

Every year.

Every. Single. Year.

“Oh no we’ve just been served with this stuff, what happens now and what are we supposed to do?”

Sigh. Of course, often this isn’t anyone on our side of the fence’s fault, so our natural reaction is a little more sympathetic.

Hey Dennis. Brother I’m sorry for this trouble you’ve found yourself in. It seems really unfair. The problem is that I’ve actually got a string of Christmas functions lined up this week, and it looks like you’re up for an urgent hearing on 24 December. I’d love to help you out, but honestly it’s been a long year and while I’d love to read the 2670 pages you just sent through, I was really looking forward to that salmon eggs benedict they do down the road. Could I refer you to someone I hate?

And Then… There’s What We Really Say

Sure – I can help you out.

What’s the Nature of your Medical Emergency?

Got a war story about a Christmas dilemma? Let us know in the comments!

Newsflash: Making Lawyers Work Obscene Hours is Bad

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Large firm King & Wood Mallesons has managed to attract the attention of a Worksafe investigation.

Why? For “overworking lawyers and staff…” (the phrase used in the Australian).

So far as the news reports it, apparently:

  • KWM acted for a bunch of institutions facing the Royal Commission
  • The Commission had tight deadlines and there was lots of work to do
  • Staff needed to put in obscene hours to meet those demands, which resulted in things like sleeping at the office and other stuff that simply can’t be sustained.

What’s amazing is that this investigation is unprecedented – as if this kind of situation is new.

Sort-of-disclaimer: this isn’t an actual article about KWM, not about the investigation – we don’t really know the details about any of it. But the topic itself is pretty interesting so I thought I’d latch onto the comments in the published articles about it…

Seriously Slow

[click_to_tweet tweet=”Running a 24 hour law office working on high intensity high complexity matters is a terrible idea, and one which can only end up in a terrible firm culture” quote=”Running a 24 hour law office working on high intensity high complexity matters is a terrible idea, and one which can only end up in a terrible firm culture”]

Law is hard. It is high pressure, high stakes and potentially chunky hours. It has demanding clients, demanding principals, demanding shareholders (if you’re lucky enough to have them) plus a bunch of ethical and regulatory stuff to manage on a daily basis.

Large firms around the world for years have taken those already tough conditions and turned their firms into a never-ending scene from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Even KWM’s Australian predecessor, Mallesons Stephen Jaques, had a pretty heavy reputation in this regard.  I remember when speaking to one lawyer who worked there being told that it was common for a good number of people to be working in the office at 10pm after a full day’s work.

Client demands and huge workloads are regularly met by one simple mantra: just work harder.

This has been true for years, probably decades.

But now, for some reason, Worksafe has decided it’s interested? The only word for that (and it isn’t even a word) is LOL.

“The Wellbeing of our Staff is Absolutely Paramount”

This is what Mr Cox, the chief executive partner of KWM, apparently said as part of his response to news of the investigation. In saying it, he said what any managing partner would say in similar circumstances. We hear lots of pleasantries about how much firms love their staff on their websites, marketing materials and in their social media posts showing how much fun everyone’s having.

Paramount is an interesting word though, with a simple meaning: “more important than anything else“.

But when staff are worked so hard that they end up complaining to a governing body, the chances that their wellbeing is “paramount” are pretty low.

We can also look at it logically. Staff wellbeing in this case wasn’t more important than:

  • the clients (could have said no to the job)
  • profits (could have hired more staff)

Therefore: not paramount.

I’m not trying to make the argument that people shouldn’t have to flog their guts out a bit now and then. And we have to accept that if a firm like KWM is struggling to deliver on the Commission’s requirements, then it’s probably a huge workload. Of course, KWM could have just declined to act for a couple of the clients it agreed to represent.

But at least let’s not respond to those situations with political sounding pleasantries that are clearly not true.

But Nobody Said Anything…

Taking on matters that your firm can’t handle without ruining its staff is only good for the owners.

One thing that stood out to me was an observation that nobody had complained internally about the grueling conditions.

This seemed to be so far removed from the reality of work culture that I had to read it a few times to be sure I wasn’t dreaming.

So a high achiever, in a sea of high achievers, surrounded by high pressure and everyone working really hard, in a firm renowned for extremely long hours, in a profession that prides itself on how busy and tired we are, and wondering if they were the only person who couldn’t “hack” it… they didn’t shoot a note over to HR about the working conditions? Really?

In what world does anybody want to be THAT person in a culture where THAT person would quite plausibly kill their future at the firm by speaking up.

No world that I’ve worked in, and certainly not one where everyone seems to be getting on with business.

The sheer blindness that some firms have to the conditions they are putting their staff through is amazing. In truth, firms that run themselves like the ways I’ve described probably operate in a culture that’s the precise opposite of “R U OK Day”. When it comes to whether you’re struggling, it’s closer to “don’t ask, don’t tell”.

Wake Up

It’s time to wake up.

Lawyers cannot work 20 hours a day, sleep at the office, and then get straight back to it after a couple of espressos.

Running a 24 hour law office working on high intensity high complexity matters is a terrible idea, and one which can only end up in a terrible firm culture. Having sleeping arrangements at the office rather than telling people to go home is wrong, and alien to every concept of long term mental health. Taking on matters that your firm can’t handle without ruining its staff is only good for the owners.

These things might seem challenging for a time, or “good intense” for a time, but over more than a couple of days we get wrecked. At best we end up doing a pathetic job. At worst we end up with mental health damage, ruined relationships and a desire to run from the profession entirely.

When it comes to big salaries in big firms with big cases, be careful what you wish for. You might just get it.

Have you Fallen Into a Rut?

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Most people don’t even realise they’re in it, of course. But there it is, high walls on either side, determining your path and instructing your future.

It’s the rut.

You start your career, bright eyed and bushy-tailed, determined to show up, work hard and learn the ropes from those who’ve been there before.

So far – can’t see much wrong with that, right? I agree with you – it’s all completely normal.

But it’s also the gaping maw of a larger problem that’s about to try and consume you, and you don’t really even know it’s there.

What’s About to Happen?

The process of learning how to be a lawyer is a process of looking around at the lawyers near you and learning from them. Sometimes it’s direct mentoring, but not necessarily.

Always though, as we hit the ground in our legal careers we find ourselves learning to:

  • do things a particular way;
  • talk in a particular way;
  • lawyer in a particular way;
  • head in a particular career direction.

This is the rut.

Much like the rut in the road, it’s not inherently evil, provided it’s taking you in a direction that you care to go, with sites along the way that you care about, ending at a destination that you desire.

But what if it isn’t? What if both the journey and the destination are deplorable to you – what happens then if you stay in the rut?

Spotting the Rut

This is pretty easy, really.

You see, the rut is a career path on autopilot. You simply bumble along, turning up day after day, while your career happens around you rather than as a consequence of your decisions.

If you haven’t stopped to decide what you really care about, where you really want to head, and what you’re prepared to put up with to do it – then you’re in the rut.

If you’re lucky, perhaps you’ll make those decisions and find out that the rut is going to take you precisely where you want to go, in the manner that you want to get there.

But more likely you’ll want a few course deviations, and perhaps an entire destination change.

No Baloney…

Let’s avoid the part where I tell you that staying out of the rut is easy because of all the amazing choices you have now in your legal career – because that part is baloney.

In truth, there’s a good chance that the rut is where you’ll start your career, and you’ll stay there for some time. Despite the apparent surge of amazing options for young lawyers (and yes – they do exist) the vast majority of law jobs are still fairly traditional in nature.

That’s OK – most people can be chilled about that. The truth is that as a 20-something-year-old lawyer, you might not know what you actually want out of your career yet. Heck, you might not really know what the options are. Most likely, you’ll want to just work a bit to see what the deal is.

Where this strategy can go off the rails though is that many young lawyers feel like their experience of being a lawyer at their first firm is representative of what law is like everywhere. That perception is a partial truth.

It’s like saying “I’ve tried a granny smith apple and it was yuck, therefore I don’t like apples”. The way law is practised in different types, sizes, cultures and modes of firm is similar – but varied.

So What’s the Deal?

Unsurprisingly, trying to navigate your way towards a legal career that you actually enjoy isn’t the easiest thing in the world – but it’s worth the effort, right?

But here are a few things you can keep in mind as you progress:

  1. letting your career simply happen to you is probably a bad idea;
  2. avoiding #1 involves being honest with yourself about what you actually want out of your life and career;
  3. things can take time – but working consistently towards the career you desire is worth the effort;
  4. keep an eye out for opportunities – don’t be terrified of saying yes to something exciting if it aligns with your career goals;
  5. other than yourself, the biggest variable in your career success is probably going to be the people you hang around with.

Try let those ones sink in, and I reckon that’ll get you a good chunk of the way in the right direction.

Happy Lawyering!

The Poisonous Quest for Work/Life Balance

It’s been a while since I had an inflammatory headline, so I thought I’d give it a go. Here’s the gist of this article: striving for work/life balance is not only a terrible idea, but likely to cause life long dissatisfaction in your legal career.

“But Chris,” I hear you saying, “isn’t work/life balance the ultimate goal of all lawyers in the industry? Isn’t it the pinnacle of success?”.

Nah.

Here’s the basic problem:

  1. Dwelling on work/life balance creates an arbitrary split in your daily functions, some of which are “bad” (work) and some of which are “good” (life);
  2. Many of the things thrown into the “life” category are actually really hard work, thus confusing our poor brains even more;
  3. Using the work/life mindset, we start to resent “work” and feel like it’s something that needs to be constantly rewarded with “life” in some way;
  4. Inevitably we end up striving constantly to do more “life” things, leaving us dissatisfied with and exhausted from everything considered “work”.
  5. The growing rhetoric that work is bad and life/rest is good can be ultimately damaging and unfulfilling.

I’ll show you how.

Work/Life Balance is an Artificial Split

The first massive problem with the concept of work/life balance is that it’s completely arbitrary and subjective.

Is mowing my lawn work or life? What about looking after the kids? Travelling to work? Getting a coffee with colleagues?

You see, life and work don’t really mean life and work – they mean “enjoyable” and “not enjoyable”, or possibly “work” and “recreation”.

Otherwise, work/life balance should be called “job/everything else” balance.

By splitting our lives into these two tiny mal-defined pieces, we inevitably set up a competition.

In the blue corner: work. In the red corner: life.

And then our problems start.

Work/Life Competition

And with the split, we have the competition.

Work becomes a chore – a burden that we are forced to endure in between times of “life”.

We start to feel like our hard work is not something to be enjoyed for itself, but rather something that we must reward ourselves for with a party, a holiday, a rest, or a glass of wine.

Gradually, the work that we might well have enjoyed starts to taste sour in our mouths, leaving a distinctly unfulfilling feeling – because someone told us that working hard wasn’t a good thing.

Working Hard is Good

The headline says it all, but for many it seems a tricky concept to accept.

Work is good. It’s good for you, and you’re supposed to be doing it. I’m not just talking about your job here – I’m talking about work and all its forms. On the house, with the kids, underneath the car, in the garden – work is distinctly satisfying and good for you.

At which point I should say this: rest is good too.

It’s not that rest is bad and work is good, nor that work is bad and rest is good.

They’re both good, taken in the right dosages. But the truth is that many of us have started questing after relaxation far more than we need, and far more than is healthy.

Ask yourself an honest question: is the only reason you work so you can rest as much as possible?

Lawyers Work Hard

#factsmatter

If you Hate your Work

And here we find a confronting truth that needs to be spoken. Many people simply don’t enjoy their work, their careers, or their colleagues.

While there might be many reasons for this, for today’s article let’s open up two possibilities:

  • you’ve embraced the concept that work is actually bad and the only reason to do it is so you can rest; or
  • you are in the wrong career and you should make a significant change.

The first requires an attitude shift, in particular towards your work and the necessary part it plays in your life beyond merely a source of funding.

The second requires some honesty and a lot of bravery on your part, to accept something that has probably been bubbling away under the surface for some time.

The Integration of Work and Life

We cannot foolishly separate work and life, as if the two are somehow even capable of being identified, let alone balanced.

Work is a necessary and beautiful part of life. It fulfills us, sustains us, and helps us use our gifts and fulfill our purposes. It provides our material needs as well as giving us a deep sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.

Our goal should not be to alienate, separate and quarantine work from the rest of our lives, but to accept that work is an inevitable and excellent part of life.

Similarly though, we shouldn’t place false pride into the amount we work by wearing our busy-ness as some kind of ridiculous badge of honour.

Everything else is important too, of course. Rest is valuable, play is valuable, time with friends is valuable. But this article isn’t focused on those – this is focused on trying to identify the positive and excellent qualities of work for our lives.

That way we can go forward in our work without resentment, and without the feeling that somehow we need to feel guilty about working hard.

Work is a part of life, as much as everything else. Don’t treat it like the 3rd cousin twice removed that you’d rather not spend time with.

Happy Lawyering!

The Many Demands of Legal Practice

It’s no secret that practising law is a bit of a tough gig. I’m OK with that, as long as we’re honest and don’t dig ourselves into a ditch along the way.

One of the hardest things to get used to are the competing demands of those who want our time, attention and devotion to themselves.

Some categories of demand are more difficult than others, but inevitably they all tug at us somewhere along the way.

So where are the greatest demands being placed on you?

Clients

This is a no-brainer – of course clients make demands. Often these are perfectly reasonable requests for assistance, and sometimes they are irrational barrages with unachievable deadlines followed by threats to take their business elsewhere.

But they are your clients, and you are here to serve them.

For almost all lawyers, client demands can cause a lot of stress and anxiety – especially when we’re not sure we can deliver on the demand, but have agreed to do it anyway.

Bosses

Of course with client demands come the demands from our superiors.

Boss 1 agrees to Client 1 on the phone that the firm will deliver product X before 4:00 that day.

Boss 1 then speaks with Employee 2 and asks them to deliver on that promise, without having considered that it’s actually not possible, because Employee 2 is doing something urgent for Boss 2 at the moment.

But then, Boss 1 makes that awful comment like “just get it done” and Employee 2 promptly unspools into a mental meltdown, considering taking up a career in flower arranging instead of the current one.

Family and Friends

The expectations of others can be a bit overwhelming, and over define our career path from years before we graduate.

There are too many lawyers out there who took up their careers from the start because of parents’ expectations rather than sound decision making.

Beyond that, we spend our lives catering to the demands and expectations of family, friends and colleagues about:

  1. how we dress
  2. where and when we go out
  3. how much we drink
  4. how we spend our time and money
  5. where we are headed in our career
  6. being a lawyer at all.

Not everything that your family might ask of you is wrong, of course. Sometimes it’s healthy, and right.

If the demands (spoken or not) of people are driving you to actions, decisions, and lifestyles that aren’t working – that’s a problem.

Those demands are ultimately destructive.

Ourselves

Often we’re our own worst enemy. The expectations and demands we place upon ourselves are sometimes irrationally high.

That doesn’t mean I have a problem with aiming high – I aim high every day!

However the question becomes why you’re making demands of yourself, what those demands are accomplishing, and how you respond when you don’t match up to your own expectations.

Sanity is found where you expect much of yourself, diligently strive to achieve it, but accept and appreciate that outcomes aren’t always a function of effort.

What’s Yours?

Take a moment and consider: where to the demands that drive your life come from? Are they good demands, or not? Are they aligned with what you would choose, or not?

And if they’re bad – what are you going to do about it?

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