By Stafford Mortensen, member of the QLS Future Leaders Committee
Members of the Future Leaders Committee at the 2022 QLS Welcome to the Profession drinks
L-R: Simon Playford (FLC Deputy President), Minnie Hannaford (Immediate Past President), Stafford Mortensen, Matthew Hollings (President), Georgia Athanasellis
If you’re anything like me, you’ll probably spend your first year or so of legal practice feeling like you’re a bit out of your depth. Well, the good news is that feeling goes away eventually, and you come to the realisation that you have a wonderful opportunity to learn and grow as a legal practitioner – you’ll likely learn more in your first year of practice than you will at any other stage in your career.
However, like all new jobs or roles, you may find your first year quite challenging as you adjust to the responsibilities of being a lawyer, managing files, drafting letters and emails and working with other senior lawyers.
So, to help you put your best foot forward, here are five things to keep in mind as you start your first year of legal practice.
1. There is so much to learn
The beauty of this profession is that there is so much to learn. The law is an ever-expanding beast, and the 4 or 5 years you spend in law school only scratches the surface. Thankfully, nobody expects you to know everything right out the gate. Don’t feel as though you’re out of place because you don’t know something – but view it as an opportunity for growth.
There are a few metrics to measure how successful you’ve been in your first year – maybe it’s billables, maybe it’s connections, maybe it’s courtroom victories – but ultimately, so long as you come out of your first year a more knowledgeable lawyer (which you definitely will), it’s hard to see how you could call that an unsuccessful year.
Finally, it’s important to strike a balance between being confident in your abilities and not overestimating yourself. Confidence in yourself and confidence in your knowledge of the law is hugely important, but you don’t want to go about things blindly and make mistakes that could have been prevented with a quick double-check. As Mark Twain said, “It’s not what you don’t know that gets you in trouble, it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
2. A good mentor is invaluable
Depending on where you end up working, you might naturally end up working with a more senior practitioner who takes on a mentor role, or you might have to actively seek one out. Either way, if you find a good mentor – stick to them.
There is only so much we can learn from textbooks and lectures. There is no better teacher than somebody who has been exactly where you are and knows exactly what you are going through.
As practitioners, we have limited time, so you can’t expect to have a mentor on call all day. Your superiors will want to see you show some independence as and when necessary, but whenever a more senior practitioner takes the time to impart some knowledge, listen and listen well.
3. Prepare for high emotions
An important part of the job, perhaps just as important as knowledge of the law, is managing people. You may spend hours each day dealing with clients, other lawyers, and even members of the judiciary.
On many occasions as a lawyer, you will be the first point of call for somebody who is at a very difficult point in their life or who has experienced trauma. Perhaps the contract on their first home has just fallen through, they’ve been charged with a serious offence, or they’ve just recently separated from their spouse. Lawyers are seen as problem solvers, and the people with the problems can often, quite understandably, be emotional.
Sometimes you’ll experience other lawyers dealing with situations of high stress or emotion, whether that be lawyers from other firms or colleagues within your firm. High emotions beget high emotions, and when that happens, things can quickly spiral without healthy strategies to deal with those moments and stressors. It is important to keep a level head and offer support where you can, and it is appropriate to do so.
With that said, it’s important to have the courage to stand up and say something or ask for support if you are struggling. Some days the stress will get the better of you, and that’s fine. Your mental health is vital, and finding strategies to manage the toll the challenges we face can take is just as important as all your other professional skills.
4. It’s a Small Town
The legal profession is made up of a diverse mixture of solicitors, barristers, and judicial officers. Everyone talks. On the one hand, this is a great element of our profession. It can lead to lasting and meaningful relationships and contacts, both professionally and personally. It shows that even when we’re fiercely competing (and fiercely compete we do), the majority of the profession understands that we’re all in the same boat and that being supportive of your fellow colleagues is vital in maintaining the health of the profession.
On the other hand, news of untoward behaviour can spread especially fast within the profession. Not only this, but the Australian Solicitor Conduct Rules actually require us to act courteously to our colleagues and other members of our profession. You’ve probably heard it all before, and it is especially true in this digital age – you don’t want something said in the heat of the moment to come back to haunt you. Don’t write or say something to a colleague that you can’t take back. There’s every chance that one day you’ll end up sharing a hallway with them, sitting at opposite ends of the bar table, or worse, calling them “your Honour”.
5. There are winners, and there are losers
You will always, naturally, want to do the best for your client. In some fields, such as criminal, family, or litigation, you’ll want to win or obtain the best possible outcome for your client. But the reality with an adversarial role is that it can be pretty black and white – you either win or you don’t. And for you to win, somebody else has to lose.
Not everyone can always walk away happy, and you have a duty to do the best for your client – even if it means the worst for somebody else. This is part of the nature of our legal system, and you have an important part to play in it.
It’s also important to realise that you can’t always win. It’s your job to do the best for your client, and sometimes the best outcome still feels like a loss at the end of the day – you can only play the cards you’re dealt. Losing is not a failure in and of itself, so long as you did the best with what you were given for your client.
The law is a hugely complex thing, and your journey into what is likely to be a fascinating – and hopefully rewarding – career is really just beginning. When times become tough, remember how far you have come and how far you still have to go. At this point in your career, you represent the future of the profession; the next generation. It is up to you and your colleagues to continue shaping and refining the profession into something that the people trust and that we as lawyers can all be proud of. Because if you don’t, who will?