My heartiest welcome to our newly-called members of the Bar! As full-fledged lawyers, you wield the power to advocate for those who find themselves at the mercy of the Courts and to make a difference in their lives. You should bear this in mind as you embark on the first year of your practice.
Some years have passed since I was at the same place. There are some invaluable lessons that I have learnt in this brief period. I often share them with interns and trainees that I come across and I hope they prove useful to you too.
The 3Rs: Responsibility, Respect, Resilience
I believe that lawyers who desire to remain in this competitive profession for the long haul must possess the following qualities: Responsibility, Respect and Resilience.
Taking Responsibility for one’s work is always appreciated, as does a show of Respect for both clients and peers. But to accomplish both, a measure of Resilience is required. A harmonious marriage of all three qualities would help ensure an enjoyable career in law.
What does each quality entail?
Being a rookie, you are less likely to be tasked to run any case all on your own. You will likely be attached to a mentor who may delegate to you specific tasks that are part of a larger matter. Perhaps an affidavit has to be drafted, or some research has to be undertaken. Whatever it is, each task is likely to come with clear objectives and a firm deadline.
My advice? Don’t purge the matter from your mind once your task is completed. Always ask yourself: what else can I do for this matter?
If you adopt a proactive attitude in assisting your mentor, not only will you facilitate progress in the matter, you will be exhibiting the one quality all employers covet in an employee: Responsibility. Doing so, you not only demonstrate yourself to be a valuable asset to the firm, you will also be acquiring experience under your belt.
The other aspect of responsibility is to step up to the plate when the firm is short on manpower.
Law practices are not only made up of lawyers; support staff such as secretaries, paralegals and Court clerks help ensure that the nitty gritties get done. However, hiccups may occur from time to time. A form that should have been submitted may have been inadvertently overlooked or a document to be delivered may have been kept in abeyance because everyone is otherwise occupied. It is not uncommon for lawyers to delineate their tasks down to the letter. After all, why bother with mundane work when there’s a Court hearing to prepare for? While I agree that job scopes exist for a reason, it is equally important to pick up the slack for the greater good when a situation calls for it. Not only do you help the firm run smoothly, you earn the respect of your colleagues – a point that leads me to the next quality to be discussed.
Giving (and Earning) Respect
Respect is more than just trading niceties in Court. Respect is all about treating others the way you would like them to treat you. Quite apart from showing and earning respect from members of your firm, you should also be respectful to:
1. Your clients. Remember that they came seeking help from you. That in itself is a great honour. Reciprocate their respect for you by being attentive to them and giving them useful advice that meet their needs, not yours. Keep them periodically updated on their matters and not leave them wondering.
2. Your peers. They may be your opponents in Court, but it is not necessary to undermine their work or bear grudges against them. Like you, they are merely carrying out their clients’ instructions. Always strive to be pleasant without being a push-over. Avoid nasty letters. If you have no choice but to send one, give your opponent a heads-up over the telephone. Avoid inconveniencing your opponent with unreasonable requests. If an inconvenient request has to be made, speak to your opponent in advance instead of surprising him in front of a Judge. Protecting your client’s interest does not have to be at the expense of goodwill and professionalism.
3. Yourself. It is easy to lose one’s sense of self-worth in a competitive environment, especially in an adversarial system such as ours. If you are not careful, you may wear yourself out. When the going gets tough, pause and remember that you have to respect yourself, your abilities and your time, otherwise, no one else will.
Being responsible and respectful sound like a lot of work, doesn’t it? While these qualities will become second nature with constant practice, it will be foolish to say that it is easy-peasy. This is when Resilience comes into play.
When I was a practice trainee, my mentor once told me that all young associates should aspire to be … a sponge.
He explained that as the most junior and inexperienced member of a firm, a young associate must expect to put in more hard work and longer hours than their more experienced colleagues. Be that as it may, the associate should remain optimistic; with the energy that comes with youth, coupled with the correct attitude, there is much that can be learnt and “absorbed” from senior, just like a sponge.
This is why I have come to believe that as a newbie, one should be prepared to eat humble pie in one’s quest to become a versatile lawyer. No work should be beneath you, because that is the only way to sharpen and expand your skillset. Not everyone can do it, but with the right mindset and a healthy dose of resilience, you surely can.
Let us assume you have gotten a handle on your workload. Well done! But that is not all. You will also have to contend with other things that may test your mettle, such as:
1. Clients who belittle your abilities, choosing to consult someone else;
2. Support staff who use their relative seniority in the firm to override you;
3. Peers in your firm who see you as competition;
4. Situations where salaries are lower than your initial expectations, etc.
If you are ever beset by such problems, the only advice I can offer is, once again, to be resilient. As you remain faithful to the qualities of Responsibility, Respect and Resilience, your expertise will increase in due course, and so will the respect and confidence that you command. Then, these problems will be a thing of the past.
The Road Ahead …
It is true that the road ahead can be a bumpy one, but if you can stay on the straight and narrow and practise with a passion, it will surely be a rewarding journey.
I have always found solace in the poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling during tough times, as it is a reminder that success is just around the corner, if one is resilient enough.
For all you new kids on the block, I wish you all the very best. May you all have long and fulfilling careers as advocates and solicitors.
If – Rudyard Kipling
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too:
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise;
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same:.
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build'em up with worn-out tools;
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings,
And never breathe a word about your loss:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: 'Hold on!'
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And—which is more—you'll be a Man, my son!