Following on from her hugely popular guest blog The top 5 mistakes to avoid as a junior lawyer, Katherine Cousins, associate at Addleshaw Goddard and author of “Successful Solicitor: Get Ahead of the Game as a Junior Corporate Lawyer”, shares her insights into making the step up from trainee to NQ solicitor.
Our March NQ’s will be just settling in to their new roles this week, possibly at new firms, too. It’s a strange thing to leave work on Friday as a trainee and start on Monday an Associate. We used to call it the ‘weekend of knowledge’, as if somehow in those three nights of sleep all the information necessary for your change in status would be downloaded from the firm matrix to your brain. Which is sadly untrue. What is true is that there will be a change in the expectations your team will have of you and that you should have of yourself. Qualification is an ideal time to take stock of where you are and where you’d like to be in a year’s time. It’s not as cut and dry as ‘trainee’ and ‘associate’. I prefer to think instead in terms of levels of skill:
Zero to One
Level 1 is about doing your job. Learning your basics. This level encompasses all the things that no one will thank a law firm for, but everyone will complain about if they aren’t in order. No one is really paying you for a perfectly formatted note, they’re paying for the advice it contains. But if that formatting is off, if it looks sloppy, then the client won’t feel as secure about the advice it contains. They’re paying for a professional service and that includes the little things, like perfect spelling and a quick response to their emails.
Some trainee and even NQ basics will include making binders for court, or managing the document system in a transaction. They might feel menial and small but they’re the foundation on which everything else is built. You might not feel it at the time, as you’re trying to fix a jammed photocopier at midnight, or proofreading a memo for the billionth time, but everyone higher up the chain is counting on you to be their foundation. I had no idea how important this was until I had to trust that the intern on my matter had done her job, so that I could do mine. There wasn’t time for me to do hers, too. Saving a document to the system feels like nothing, but everyone working on the wrong version because the last copy wasn’t saved correctly could be catastrophic and at the very least an avoidable mega nuisance. Costing the client an extra £350 because a partner was correcting your formatting errors is not okay. That’s no longer their job; it’s yours.
Level 1 is getting these basics down. It takes time. Maybe longer than you’d like it to. It took me longer than I liked it to!
Level 1 to Level 2
Now it’s time to do the work. The real work. Now you know how to format a memo and save a document, prepare an index and take a note of a call, you can start being truly indispensable. My first mentor said to me in our final meeting, ‘Don’t lose your personality. That’s what will make client’s hire you. Everyone expects that a firm of this calibre will get the law right. Client’s will stay with you because they like you.’ I would go one step further and say that this is why a firm will hire you and keep you and promote you.
Level 2 is getting the law right, but more than that, it’s getting it right and giving it to the client in the most helpful way you can. When you’re just starting out you get props for essentially not screwing up. Now not screwing up does not earn a gold star. It’s simply expected. Instead gold stars are earned for doing the little things no one will remember to tell you to do. For me this often takes the form of digging in a little deeper than I would have thought to before. Reading a new client’s annual reports, finding some academic papers or reports on their industry, building up my background knowledge. It’s time spent at the front end that will pay dividends down the road when you can really understand what’s motivating their actions or concerns.
Level 2 is asking why you’re doing what you’re doing, what the end goal will be. For instance, why are you preparing this note of advice. Practically, who is it going to be sent to or where will the information be used? If it’s the general counsel, but she is then expected to disseminate the information to her commercial colleagues, then make the body of the note technical, but give her a business friendly top end she can copy paste into her email to them. Think, what can I do to make their life easier? This goes for junior associates with senior associates/partners, too. Anything you can take off their plate, do. For instance:
Send advice notes alongside a draft cover email that they can use to send it to the client.
When you’re managing a long project or research tasks, send updates regularly so they don’t have to worry whether things are progressing.
Set reminders of deadlines either internal or client ones and don’t be afraid to nudge the instructing partner as they approach. Things do fall through the cracks sometimes. They’ll feel better knowing you have their back.
Rather than ask, ‘What do you need me to do?’ say, ‘I suggest we do this, do you agree?’
Level 3 and Beyond
I hesitate to sound like too much of an expert at this point, because I am only wobbling along this boundary myself. But it’s here I’m learning to lead as well as be lead. And boy does that ever make it clear where my knowledge gaps lie! At this point it’s about finding your weaknesses and conquering them one by one. It’s about becoming self-reliant. I get asked a question and don’t know the answer – well let’s go away and find out. One more gap filled. This is also a time for finding the people you admire and learning about them. How did they get where they are? What makes them so great? What can you apply to your work? Level 3 to me will be this cycle over and over – spot a gap, learn how to fill it, embed this skill, find another gap, learn to fill it, embed the skill. And repeat. And repeat.