Today marks the end of my first three months in private practise so I thought I’d mark the occasion by reflecting on some lessons I’ve picked up during this time. Despite probably having been taught some of these concepts during my practical legal training, it wasn’t until I had experienced working in a law firm myself that these lessons revealed themselves to be so critical.
1. Be proactive
During the first three months in any role, let alone a role that you’ve never done before, your employer spends more time, effort and resources training you. Being proactive can ensure that you make a good impression, hit the ground running and alleviate the burden on colleagues who have their own jobs to do, in addition to showing you the ropes.
After my first week of recording time, I sent the summary to my supervising partner and asked her for feedback. Luckily she spotted that I hadn’t been using the correct codes when entering time and I was able to correct this in the first week, rather than the next month when billing would become due. Correct time recording was a part of the induction process that had fallen through as the HR Manager was away, so luckily I had followed up on this.
When given a file to work on for the first time, rather than relying on my supervising partner to walk me through the requirements, I searched the document management system for similar transactions and read the files from end to end. I also looked at similar documents to get a grasp of the firm’s drafting style. When my partner corrects my work, I make sure to analyse all of her changes so I can improve. If your partner hasn’t used track changes, you can use the ‘compare documents’ function in Word.
Other ways of being proactive in a law firm include letting the partners know when you have capacity (however ensure that your supervising partner is okay with this), drafting articles or case summaries for publication when things are quiet and introducing quicker, easier ways to do things. After all, a fresh perspective can be invaluable. Particularly as a young lawyer, I find that I’m often showing the PAs faster ways of doing things on the computer, which benefits the whole team.
2. Manage the partners
All partners have different styles, so don’t fall into the trap of thinking what works well for one will work well for all. I’m lucky that my supervising partner is great to work with. She’s methodical, has an exceptionally keen eye for detail and a no-nonsense approach to everything, from dealing with clients, to billing, to giving me feedback. When I started working for other partners, I quickly learned that I would need to adjust my working style for each partner. Some partners prefer you to stand by your work, and won’t even bother reading through it.
Where I’ve found that partners show the most disparity is when it comes to billing. Some prefer fixed fees, some prefer time costing and everyone’s idea of a ‘reasonable estimate’ is different. Before providing a cost estimate to a client, double check with the supervising partner. Clients will try to put you on the spot, think of a few lines to use to avoid having to give an immediate cost estimate.
When a partner gives you a work task, clarify the time frame involved so that you can manage your other deadlines. It’s important to establish good working relationships with partners because if they trust you to get the job done, they will send more work your way. Another thing I’ve learned with partners is to come to them with the answer, or at least potential answers. Have an opinion. I recently asked our litigation partner a question that I already suspected the answer to, when he reaffirmed my suspicions, I wanted to blurt out that I had reached the same conclusion, but by then it was too late. It’s better to have an opinion, even if it’s wrong at least you’ll get a good discussion from it.
3. Master your billings
Once you know what your annual billing target is, break it down to a monthly target so it’s easy to track. It seems like common sense but if you’re not meeting your monthly target most of the time, what chance have you got in meeting your annual target? Ask the office/administration manager to show you how to run billing reports. Because there are so many components to your time recording, i.e. the amount written up, written down and time that is not billable at all, it can be hard to tell if you are actually meeting your targets.
I went for almost 2.5 months before I asked the office manager to show me how to tell if I’m meeting my targets. Lo and behold, he had customised some very easy to read billing reports which showed not only my billings, broken down into whatever time period required, but every other lawyer’s billings too. This is perfect for seeing if I’m on the right track compared to other lawyers in my position. I also looked at the historical billings of the lawyer that I replaced, to make sure I was billing at least to that level.
If the firm doesn’t already have a process for generating new bills, set one up yourself. At the end of every month, my PA gives me a list of all the WIP that I currently have against each file. I then review the list to determine what can be billed. However, I also bill during the month, when I work on short matters that clearly come to an end.
4. Develop time recording habits
Whether we like it or not, recording time is an unavoidable and significant part of life in private practise. Don’t be tempted to shave time off of your entries because you think you took too long on something. It will just look like you spent a lot of the day doing nothing, and then you won’t have any data to benchmark against when you actually become faster at the work. It’s up to your supervising partner to write off any time that they don’t think should be billed.
I like to use the timer function on the system’s time entry sheet. It’s much more accurate than I could ever be just estimating the amount of time I spent on something. When recording the time entries, use full names (even for colleagues), don’t use abbreviations and record all entries as if the client is going to be reading them. If you worked on a matter intermittently throughout the day, it may look better to combine the entries. I have just received these pointers from my partner who reviewed my entries for this month.
At the end of each day, I review the time that I entered. I generally aim for half an hour to an hour more than my billings target, as I know that some of my time will be written off. If I haven’t met my target, I make it up the next day. Billing and time recording are a lot like saving money, they’re much more manageable when you break the targets down into achievable increments.
5. Make file management work for you
I keep a separate spreadsheet that lists all of the matters I’m working on. The columns include the matter number, the client, the matter description and a short status, including whether I’m waiting on a reply or whether I need to action something.
There are three tabs, work in progress, ready for invoicing and closed. As the matter progresses, I move it to the correct tab. That way, I can quickly ascertain the status of a file, which makes clearing out my filing cabinet less painful for my PA. I also find the spreadsheet handy compared to just using the law firm’s system, because often I’m working on matters where I’m not listed as the matter owner or author in the system. Therefore, I need a separate way to remind myself of what I’m working on.
6. Triple check everything
There is a certain ‘high stakes’ feeling about working in a law firm compared to working in risk and compliance. I have a client who purchased a business however due to a dispute with the vendor, he is trying to avoid the contract. After half a day poring over his documents, I found 3 loopholes/technicalities due to mistakes in the documents and we rescinded the contract. I’m glad I worked on this matter early in my legal career, because it has hammered home to me the importance of triple checking documents. I draft a lot of agreements, and the odds are one day down the track, a lawyer will be trying to poke holes in my drafting. Personally, I don’t care if I’m going to have to write my time off because of the peace of mind I get in knowing that my documents don’t contain errors. Triple check documents. Don’t rely on precedents. Don’t rely on the referencing or numbering to be correct.
Never become complacent. A good example of this is where I had served many notices based on a template agreement that one client used regularly. The notices were served by express post. I was asked to draft and serve similar notices for a different client. I checked the documents at least 6 times to make sure they were all correct and put the documents into express post envelopes. Luckily, before the mail was collected, the Senior Associate I was working with pointed out to me that the documents could only be served by registered post (pursuant to the service clause in the agreement). Had I sent them by express post they would have been void. We had billed $6,000.00 for these documents. Needless to say, these close calls are the best lessons of all, but scary as hell.
7. Zealously record-keep
Since we’re already on the theme of covering one’s (and the firm’s) butt, note taking is also critical. It doesn’t matter if it was a 5 second call, it doesn’t matter if it seemingly didn’t seem material at all. It doesn’t matter if it was simply an ‘out of office’ email you received back from a client. Record it. Save it to the file. What if one day, you need to rely on that ‘out of office’ email to prove that the client actually received your email? You just never know so don’t take the risk. Inadequate note taking also makes you, and your firm, look very unprofessional. One of my first tasks at this firm was to review some advice that the previous lawyer had given a client. The previous lawyer hadn’t kept either a hard or soft copy of the document she had reviewed. It didn’t look great for the firm when we had to ask the client to provide the document again.
8. Work smarter with a PA
I definitely found it bizarre having a PA twice my age. At first, I wasn’t very busy and I felt awkward asking her to help me with things I could do myself. However, at the suggestion of my supervising partner, my PA and I went out for a coffee so we could talk about the different tasks she could help me with. Unfortunately she didn’t elaborate much so I learned more from witnessing the tasks that she did from day to day. Soon, it wasn’t possible to do my own filing, photocopying, scanning, document distribution, follow ups, etc. It was simply too busy and I was doing the client a disservice by spending time on things that could be done at half my rate. Luckily, my PA is really efficient, friendly and easy to get along with. A good relationship with the PA’s really makes your job much easier.
The worst type of PA is one who only treats the partner well however intimidates graduates and junior lawyers into not asking for help. If you have one of those, you’re just going to have to fight through the awkwardness and directly ask for the work to be done.
9. Be yourself with clients
It can be hard when a lot of my client contact is via email or Skype, however I find that my most rewarding client relationships are the ones where I’ve felt comfortable having a laugh with them and show a little personality. For example, a client had asked me to draft a particularly tricky special condition involving a lot of algebra. I joked with him that asking a lawyer to do maths must be his entertainment for the week. This became an ongoing joke and when the agreement was finished, he said to me that out of all the lawyers he had worked with at the firm, he would give me a 5 out of 5. Pretty great feedback! Despite what some of the more jaded may think, relationships are still important between lawyers and their clients.
10. Get involved
My firm has a guiding criteria for promotions and one of them is ‘that a partner would be comfortable inviting you to their family BBQ’. More and more these days, firms are looking for more than your output. They’re interested in you as a whole package, your personality, your work output and your contribution to the firm. Get involved in social activities, particularly where there is a marketing or business development focus. Not only is it beneficial for your career to be a team player, but it will just make being at work everyday way more enjoyable as well. Don’t get too buried in your work and billables that you forget to have a conversation with your colleagues.
Lastly, probably one of the most significant things that I now know is that, private practise law is not as intimidating or stuffy as I thought it was going to be. Partners are not intimidating, all knowing, infallible creatures. It’s all rather normal really, ah TV, you’ve let me down.
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