Ed note: This is the latest post in the ‘If I knew then what I know now’ series, where leading members of the legal profession share their wisdom with the next generation of wannabes.
If I knew then what I know now, I’d recognise that everybody makes mistakes but most lawyers pretend they don’t. I was terrified of admitting that I didn’t know what I was doing when I started out and I always thought that everybody knew more than me, writes Brecher managing partner Nicky Richmond as she recalls her days working at a big City law firm…
I’d have realised that I wasn’t the only one to feel out of my depth and not expect to be an expert on all aspects of property law as soon as I qualified. If I’d worked that out earlier, I might have panicked less and enjoyed it more.
If I knew then what I know now, I would have tried to work for as many people as possible within the firm. By only working for one person, you pick up their habits, good and bad. Working with different people gives you a chance to look at different styles of working before you figure out what your own is.
If I knew then what I know now, I would have made sure that I was paid according to the value that I added and the fees that I brought in. I didn’t know my own worth. And because I didn’t come from a “legal” background, I had no one to ask and it was many years before I worked out how the system really worked. I believed, naïvely, that if I performed well, I would be rewarded accordingly. Wrong.
Women are less likely to put their heads above the parapet and demand proper recognition. Same with interviews. It’s more likely for a man to over-promise and under-deliver, and for a woman to do the opposite. That’s my experience of over 20 years’ involvement in the recruitment process, on both sides of the fence.
When I did finally get round to demanding some recognition, it came straight away. It was just that by then I was too disillusioned, not to mention annoyed with myself. You need to be your own advocate in the law, however embarrassing that might be.
If I knew then what I know now, I would have called it a day in biglaw far earlier. It’s very easy to get stuck in a firm that isn’t quite right for you – sometimes working relationships go past their sell by date and you need to be brave enough to admit it to yourself. If you work in the same environment for 20 years, as I did, it becomes very difficult to imagine yourself elsewhere, because you are, by then, so embedded in it.
I stuck at it, with a firm I had fallen out of love with, for way too long, out of a mixture of loyalty and fear. When the managing partner told one of my colleagues that I’d never have the guts to leave, that put a boot up my backside and I handed in my notice that week. I wish I had known how easy it was going to be to make the transition from a large practice to a smaller one and had had the confidence to do it earlier. My clients loved it and I managed to build a bigger practice as a result.
I’ve seen so many candidates at interview who have stayed at their firms for far too long and have damaged their careers as a result. Most often, they are senior associates who just keep hanging on, with the promise of partnership being dangled in front of them every year. Don’t wait until you’re ten years PQE, without any client following, to decide that it isn’t working for you.
If I knew then what I know now, I’d realise that there is no point in working every weekend and that if you don’t set your own boundaries between your work life and your home life, the law will certainly not set them for you. Very few firms will tell you that you’re working too hard, even when you’re clearly driving yourself to the brink of a breakdown. There are years when I never had a full weekend off. That’s time I will never get back.
If I knew then what I know now, I would have realised that the most important thing for me in private practice is to like and trust my colleagues. Part of the enjoyment of being a lawyer is the camaraderie between colleagues and the belief that someone is covering your back. I think that’s often sacrificed, especially where departments compete against each other and billing targets increase every year. You can’t often choose your clients but you can choose your colleagues – and given that you spend much of your life in their company, liking them is a must.
Nicky Richmond is managing partner of leading specialist property law firm Brecher. She was previously a partner at the London office of US firm K&L Gates.