What to expect when you start out as a lawyer
From difficult clients to billing targets and ‘the sometimes mind-numbing drudgery that can be part of a legal career’, former City partner Nicky Richmond shares advice with readers
The good people at Legal Cheek suggested I write about what you can expect when you start your job as a lawyer, basing it on my own experience.
I remember it well. Feeling stressed and out of my depth; spending a lot of time navigating internal politics; being anxious that I wasn’t going to get a job after the end of my training contract and wondering whether I had made the right decision to go into law in the first place.
Spoiler: it got better.
I trained at a medium-sized London firm, in prehistoric times. That firm kept merging, finally becoming a global firm, where I was an equity partner. I left in 2006 to join a smaller firm, where I was managing partner for 14 years before retiring in 2021.
I used to run regular workshops for junior lawyers. These workshops were designed not to deal with “black letter” law, but rather to help the lawyers navigate some of the practical and emotional challenges they regularly encountered in their working lives. I also interviewed numerous junior lawyers from all types of firm, listening to the issues that they found challenging in their firms and causing them to be sitting opposite me.
In the (s)hit parade from junior lawyers I interviewed, these were issues that kept recurring:
Dealing with difficult people
They were often blindsided by impossibly rude or difficult clients and/or senior lawyers. They were sometimes surprised by the rigidly hierarchical nature of the law firm environment (however much this was denied in any given firm) and the sharp elbows they encountered.
Many a firm heralds its “open door policy’ but quite a lot of senior lawyers don’t appear to have got the memo. This has been exacerbated by WFH and open-plan.
How to get better quality work
There was often a tricky emotional journey from the high of scoring a training contract to the low of the sometimes mind-numbing drudgery that can be part of a legal career, particularly at the start.
Some people struggle with feeling that they are being treated like a child, or an idiot, rather than the functioning adult that they actually are in their outside life.
You might be lucky enough to work only on large, interesting and high-profile matters. Even so, all of them have aspects which are boring and will involve re-checking that thing you’ve just checked for the thousandth time. Or collating huge amounts of information which you suspect no-one will ever read. The pressure lies in the combination of deeply boring and highly stressful. One tiny mistake could cost millions. So…
Does it have to be perfect?
This is a huge stressor for juniors. In life outside law, perfect is the enemy of done. In the law, “done” not only means perfect (so it seems) but also completed within the deadline.
But even in law, perfect means no such thing and this is something younger lawyers find hard to grasp. It has to be good enough. Experience will help you judge when it is good enough. And one person’s good enough will be another’s sloppy. Confused? You will be. One size does not fit all. Lawyers are often upset when their work is rejected or amended. Some take it personally.
Time recording and hours targets
Time recording. Who really wants to live their life in six-minute chunks? There is a massive tension between the setting of chargeable hours targets and the fact that junior lawyers are not in charge of their own workloads. Too little work and there is pressure to time dump. Too much and time gets lost. Everyone loses. Firms rarely explain how they use time recording in their business model and this opacity often leads to confusion and resentment.
This is an enormous subject and one that causes much stress for new lawyers, especially in firms where timesheets are subject to approval by senior lawyers who may “adjust” them, or where lawyers feel pressure to alter/reduce their time to fit into a fixed fee quote rather than having to face the writing-it-off conversation.
Because juniors are generally measured by their chargeable time, any lack of clarity or timesheet jiggery-pokery is seen as toxic.
And hours targets? Some lawyers end up working very long hours regularly. It can be endemic in the culture of some firms. It’s more prevalent in areas such as corporate and finance, obviously. The challenge is working out whether it’s normal for your firm or something about the way you are approaching your workload. Logging off at 11:30pm should never be normalised, whatever the firm.
And regularly throwing an all-nighter might make you feel like you have BDE for a while, but it might just mean that you are working for a BD. Of course there are times when it’s necessary and it can be a bonding experience. Behaviour which seems bizarre in the outside world can quickly become routine. New lawyers struggle with knowing what’s normal and what’s simply dysfunctional.
When the going gets tough
There are numerous issues which may face new lawyers. There will be personal ones, such as individual feedback, pay and career advancement and the pandemic created a whole raft of new concerns, the ramifications of which are still playing out.
The law is not easy. It’s a tough business which can take it out of you. Many of you will relish that and want to bring it on. Good luck to you. Others will not understand what they are getting into until it’s too late.
Some will need extra support. Quite a lot of you, according to the most recent surveys on burnout. That support needs to be tempered with both realism from the lawyer (law firms are demanding businesses and the pay reflects that) and compassion from the firm (no-one deserves to be mistreated or feel overwhelmed as matter of course). And of course, it makes good business sense for firms to keep their lawyers happy. It’s a fine line to tread.
Nicky Richmond was formerly the managing partner of a boutique law firm. Prior to that she was a partner in the London office of a global law firm, and is now starting a new career as a coach.
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This really is a very good article.
This in particular applies to the Bar too: “But even in law, perfect means no such thing and this is something younger lawyers find hard to grasp. It has to be good enough. Experience will help you judge when it is good enough.”
Sometimes, in my line of work, you can advise from pre-issue right up until trial and you know the case inside out. Other times, you’ve been handed papers late in the day, or you simply cannot give the amount of time ideally needed to a particular piece of work due to other professional (or indeed personal, and that shouldn’t be a dirty word) commitment.
It is a rare case that needs to be perfect in order to be won – it more often than not only needs to be better than the other side’s.
Fair enough, sometimes a case will demand the very best of you, and in those cases it is about ensuring that you have the time around you to prepare. If you don’t, however, for reasons outside of your control, and you lose, then you cannot let that eat you up otherwise you’ll never survive in this profession.
This article is absolutely right when it says that judging what is required comes with experience. To any pupils/trainees/junior associates/junior juniors reading this, I can assure you that that particular side of the job does get better. And do remember, it is just that – a job, not your life or your identity.