Every junior lawyer wants to make a great first impression so it can be soul destroying when you make a silly mistake early on in your career at a new firm that shows you in a bad light. We asked Katherine Cousins, associate at Addleshaw Goddard and author of “Successful Solicitor: Get Ahead of the Game as a Junior Corporate Lawyer”, for her tips on the errors to avoid.
This was number one on the list of stupid mistakes cited when I asked (very scientifically) all my lawyer friends what most annoyed them about instructing trainees and recent NQs. The general gist of the complaint was, “Why put in all the effort to do the work well and then mess it up by not taking five minutes to proof read it?” I get it. You’re on a deadline and you’ve read it through what feels like a thousand times and you just want to send the thing and go home. Don’t. Print it out. Make yourself a tea and then take it somewhere other than your desk (the library, the secretaries bar, wherever) and go through it with a red pen.
You will be surprised how many glaring spelling errors you’ll spot or phrases that sound unclear now you’re reading them again. Try reading the document aloud, or in a funny accent. Again, it’s simply a silly way to trick your brain into seeing it fresh again. It might take another ten minutes, but better ten minutes late and correct than on time and full of careless errors.
2. Drafting memos like they’re law school essays
A memo of advice for a client is not a law school essay. Make it clear. Keep it as simple as possible. Complex language is tempting when you feel unsure of yourself. The best advice I received about this is to think about it like you’re trying to explain the problem and the solution to your Nan (unless your Nan is a Supreme Court judge). Basically, someone with no legal knowledge or background. Always include a summary of your findings and conclusions at the top that the in-house counsel or business manager can easily forward on to their colleagues. Often no one will really care about the complex analysis, they’ll just want to know the ‘answer’.
One partner I worked for used questions as sub-headings. Not everyone will like this style, but it did help to keep the client’s needs at the forefront of my mind while drafting our response. If you’re drafting a research memo for a senior associate/partner, then you can be more technical. But you should still be clear and concise. Keep a record of what sources you consulted and how you arrived at your conclusions. You need to be able to tell them where you looked and what you found in each place so that they can make themselves comfortable you haven’t missed anything vital.
3. Misjudging your workload
This is a tricky one. Really you should aim to say yes to everything. But at the same time, you do not want to end up in the situation where you have too much to do and are either late with everything or do everything badly because you don’t have time to do it well.
Better to have the one person you had to turn away annoyed with you than the multiple people whose work is late or rubbish. It is ok to say to someone who asks you to take on a task when you’re already stretched, “What is the priority here?” Explain that you have x, y, z for so and so and you’re happy to help them but only if it is ok with that other partner. Often the instructing lawyer will realise you really are busy and find someone else, or they’ll support you when you ask for leeway from the other people for whom you’re working.
That said, don’t be the idiot who turns down work but skips out the door at 7:30pm. It doesn’t make the best impression, especially if your colleagues are drowning. If you’re at a loose end, send a short email to the partners and senior associates in your team letting them know you have capacity. They may or may not have anything, but you will look brilliantly keen nonetheless.
4. Working in a vacuum
I confess, I still struggle with this one when it’s not my matter, particularly if it’s a matter you did not have the good fortune to join from the start. You’re given a task, seemingly discrete – a piece of research or a quick piece of drafting – that you complete to the best of your abilities but somehow it’s not what the instructing lawyer wanted. You know what you’re missing? Context. How can you answer the question when you don’t know where your work fits in the grand scheme of the deal?
It seems like this should be very obvious to the person instructing you, but as soon as you’re the one giving instructions you will realise that it’s much harder than you thought to explain the necessary background. So go after it yourself. Help your seniors out by asking questions: who is the client? What are they trying to achieve? How do they usually work/what style do they like their advice in? If it’s research, what specific facts do you need to know to be able to distinguish useful precedent from irrelevant?
I promise, you are not being annoying by asking for extra details. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard more senior lawyers complain that trainees just don’t seem to appreciate the context of their work (I honestly think this is a little unfair – I mean how do you know the context till you’ve done it a few times? But anyway…). They’ll be grateful because your questions will help them shape their instructions. And your work product will be greatly improved to boot! Win.
5. Being entitled
When this came up in our ‘Welcome to the Firm’ presentation back when I was a trainee, I was surprised. Surely no one actually thought they were too good to photocopy things and be polite to the secretaries? How naive I was! A friend of mine told me about asking a trainee to help her with drafting a short letter only for him to pipe back, yes but it’d be much faster if you just did it. Because he didn’t want to miss his dinner plans. She had to explain to him that the client wouldn’t pay her rates to do something so simple, and would he mind just getting the hell on with it.
I recently had dealings with an intern who wouldn’t help me and a senior associate prepare the meeting room for a client meeting because, ‘That’s a secretary’s job.’ Outrageous behaviour. You’re never too good to pitch in. Remember that.
Katherine is an associate at Addleshaw Goddard. This article is adapted from Katherine’s book, ‘Successful Solicitor: Get Ahead of the Game as a Junior Corporate Lawyer‘.