Starting your first job as a newly qualified solicitor is an exciting time, but it can be an anxious one too. In this blog, we offer some practical tips you didn’t learn at law school that can help you get off to the best possible start to your legal career.
Mark Twain had some advice for anyone starting a new job: “All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure.” Unfortunately, ignorance won’t get you far in the law and it’s fair to assume you have a bit of legal knowledge if you have reached this far.
But that doesn’t mean you are expected to be the finished article on day one. The best lawyers are the ones who accept that they don’t know everything and never stop learning. You may have ‘Associate’ written on your business card, but you still have a long way to go.
If your chosen area of law is one you covered in an earlier seat, get up to date with changes to the law that have taken place in the meantime.
Above all, don’t be afraid to ask colleagues and partners for help. The temptation is not to do this for fear of showing yourself up. But it is far better to ask than give the client the wrong advice and make a costly mistake.
Not being scared also goes for clarifying instructions you receive from one of the partners or one of your superiors. One of the biggest challenges for newly qualifieds, especially when joining transactions or cases after they have started, is to understand the background.
What may be obvious to the person asking you to carry out a task may mean nothing to you. Don’t be timid about asking them to explain what the client is trying to achieve and the context of what you are doing. Context can relate to any number of things: where your task fits into the transaction or case as a whole, how time critical it is and how important this task is compared to others you have at hand.
This links to another crucial point. You should be trying to make a positive impression by being hungry to take on new work and making yourself available to help out anyone who asks (even if, or especially if, this may seem menial to someone of your newly elevated status).
Too many masters
The danger is you take on too much. As Homer said: “If you serve too many masters, you’ll soon suffer.” Be cautious about taking on too much as you don’t want to have so much on your plate that you end up doing it poorly or too slowly. Make sure you are organised, clear about deadlines and do the most critical work first even if this isn’t necessarily for the person who shouts the loudest.
Explain it as if to your Nan
Above all, be practical. If someone asks you to do research or you need to write to a client with some advice, don’t present it like a law school essay. As Katherine Cousins said in her blog, The top 5 mistakes to avoid as a junior lawyer, “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)”.
No schoolboy/schoolgirl errors
Being practical also means avoiding silly mistakes such as typos or forgetting enclosures or attachments. If you’ve worked hard on a thorny legal issue you may be so pleased with yourself you forget to spell check a piece of advice or a note for a partner. Sadly (and possibly unfairly), sloppiness can overshadow good work and a reputation for it can be hard to shake off.
Make friends and try to find a mentor
Make friends. You’re going to spend a long time at work, and it will be so much more enjoyable if you are surrounded by people you like and who like you. You can help each other out and share your good and bad experiences. In the first few weeks, it’s a good idea to clear your diary so that you are available for drinks after work, firm events or networking with clients so that you can get to know people in a more relaxed environment.
Also, try to find a mentor, someone senior in your department you look up to and respect. Some firms have formal mentor programmes but if they don’t, try to find your own. It’s invaluable having the ear of someone who has seen and done it all having been in your shoes not so long ago.