An open letter to the senior members of the profession who aren’t investing into the future generation
I haven’t done the “open letter” thing before, but recently I was inspired to give it a go.
I was scrolling through my LinkedIn feed and came across an open letter to young lawyers setting them straight in a few areas particularly connected with job hunting. I’d give you the link but I can’t find it now – sorry.
The “letter” itself contained some genuinely useful information, and so it’s important to know that this post is not a reaction to that letter.
It did, however, come in a timely fashion as I read it when I was just about to publish a book that consists entirely of letters – from a senior lawyer to a junior.
I’m not a big fan of the concept that law students and young lawyers are 100% of the problem when it comes to the raft of issues that the legal profession is facing about employment, skills training, profitability, mentoring, education and much more. So with the now frequent battering of young lawyers, it’s important to ask ourselves what else in that might warrant some attention. Otherwise, it ends up as just the wealthy, employed senior lawyers who feel like they can bash younger lawyers as being lazy, unskilled and pitifully trained.
In fact, I think that everyone has a role to play in trying to tighten up the legal game: juniors, seniors, firms, HR departments, marketing departments, universities and practical legal training organisations to name a few.
This letter addresses only one of those: the role of senior professionals in the development of young lawyers and the advancement of the profession generally. I have written this from the perspective of a junior lawyer – although I am not one.
The title is deliberately controversial and the letter is fictitious. No – not every senior lawyer is “to blame” here, and nor is every firm – this is general commentary and you should think of this sentence as a gigantic disclaimer to the effect that I’m not bashing anyone here – I’m commenting.
So… on to it:
Dear Senior Lawyers – You are Ruining the Profession
Dear Mr Jones,
I’m grateful for the new position – thank you. I have a few questions, and as my supervisor I hoped you could help me out?
On Law Degrees
As I began the arduous journey of trying to find a job, I started coming across some interesting messages (including yours) which told me that my extremely costly law degree was a waste of time and money. I’m grateful for the position you have offered me, and I hoped you might address some of these questions so I can be better informed.
Apparently, while studying full time, working clerkships in my vacations and volunteering, you also wanted me to get a distinction grade GPA and to have some “life experience” in the “real world”.
Regrettably, stuck as I was in days that consisted only of 24 hours, I found that between part time work, full time study, part time volunteering and occasionally sleeping and eating – this “real world” experience seems to have fallen by the wayside. My diet of cheap noodles and happy hour beer seems to have gotten me through from a nutritional standpoint, but I just didn’t have the “get up and go” to start my own business in all of that spare time.
I do apologise for that, of course. What I can’t help but wonder is why the full time degree I will soon be obliged to repay $50,000 for and spent 4 years of my life obtaining wasn’t, in fact, something that you valued at all? And if the law degree I (and thousands of others) paid good money for is actually useless, why did you only employ people who got extremely high grades? Surely high grades in a useless degree isn’t a good indicator of excellent decision making? I would have thought that the smartest people were those who only devoted limited resources to useless things – and surely you want the smartest people, given how hard this job is?
It looks like you graduated your law degree in 1994. I’m glad you managed to avoid the recession, because it looks like you started Articles at the same time you graduated. I don’t know a lot about Articles, but I can’t see in your profile where you had any practical experience before that started? It almost looks like you had none, and that you learned on the job through that clerkship.
Obviously you did well, because you were made a partner in your firm less than 2 years after you were admitted to practice. That’s quite a feat, as I gather that I’ll be looking around 15 years down the track, unless I decide to start my own firm.
How did you do it, despite having none of the practical experience that I’m supposed to have? I would be grateful for your advice in that area.
I read an interesting article of yours recently where you said that “graduate lawyers were simply not equipped for the workplace anymore”.
I wasn’t entirely sure what you meant.
I mean – I have a suit and tie, and I can catch a bus to turn up to work. I’m clever enough and I work hard. Isn’t that what you did back in the day? I have looked up the law degree as you did it, and it seems to have been shorter, cheaper, and even more theoretical than the one I just finished.
Yet – it seems like you turned into a great lawyer. If those are such significant shortcomings that they render me “not equipped”, then can you tell me how you got past them so quickly?
I noticed that the firm promotes a mentoring program – it sounds great. The other day though I was speaking to another lawyer here, and they said that they never really get time to participate in the program.
Apparently whenever they try and arrange a meeting in the program, their mentor is too busy on client files to take the time to meet them. They haven’t really had a meeting in 10 months they said.
So is there actually a mentoring program?
When I started, the HR team mentioned in my interview that the firm had an “open door” policy.
I admit that I didn’t ask expressly, but I assumed that “open door” was a metaphor for the fact that partners and senior lawyers were approachable and I would be able to seek assistance when required.
Over the last week I have tried to get some guidance on a couple of files about a dozen times, and each time have been waved away with no real indication of what I should do.
I really hate pestering you, but I wasn’t sure what you expected me to do after that.
It’s true, technically, that your door was open.
Did I misunderstand the policy?
Last week you asked me to do a task and I did it to the best of my ability. Then I saw in the bill that you had written off all of my time. You didn’t come and speak to me about it, so I’m not sure why that happened. Did I take too long? Did I get the wrong answer?
I admit that I didn’t really know what I was doing, because I didn’t have any of the information I needed to get you the answer you wanted. You didn’t tell me how much time to spend so I assumed you were fine with my taking as long as was needed.
Please let me know if that’s a problem, as I’d like to make my budget.
Work Life Balance
I think that one of us must be confused about what work/life balance is, at least so far as what the careers page on your website says. Perhaps we could clarify?
Promotions and Equity
You’re an equity partner, right? That’s where I would like to end up some day too.
I was confused though about something. So you became a partner after 2 years and got your equity then. At that time you didn’t pay anything for it – you kind of just “got it” from what I’m told on the grape vine.
But then I heard that Jane left last year because she kept getting knocked back for partner. It seems she was supposed to have a practice that pulled in more than $1m a year to get the green light? Is that what you had when you were made partner? How did you do it?
Also, could you please tell me what Mr Smith actually does? I hear that he has full equity in the firm and has been here forever, but he doesn’t seem to do any work and I’ve never seen him in the office. It seems that everyone likes him and he’s a nice guy. But if he’s not really doing any work anymore, does that mean he still gets paid? How does that work given why Jane left?
Why are there so many senior associates and special counsel?
So you probably already know that we talk about our salaries with each other, right? I know you said not to – but we do anyway.
So Stuart’s been with the firm for 5 years now, and he seem to be pretty well regarded. David started last week in the same team and has the same experience, but he is getting $15k more than Stuart. Why is that? I mean, surely when Stuart finds out he’ll be unhappy about that? I could understand if Stuart wasn’t very good, but everything I have heard suggests that isn’t the case.
What is it you actually want me to do? I turn up and do my work, but I was hoping you might give me a little more insight into what kinds of things you find valuable or not. Am I doing fine? Am I doing badly? I know we have performance reviews, but I’d really like not to wait 11.5 months before I find out that something I’m doing is driving you crazy.
Or is it just a case of “no news is good news”?
That’s all I had for now. Thanks for taking the time to read.
What would Your Letter Be?
Of course, in any given firm, on a given day, for a given situation – any of these issues might have a plausible response, explanation or underlying premise.
But, despite that, on many occasions these are the very things that are running through the minds of young lawyers.
What would you write if you were going to pen a letter like this one?
PS – don’t say anything that might get you fired.