Lessons learned in my first 3.5 months as a Lawyer

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Hello to my new legally inclined followers, thank you so much for signing up. My previous article on this topic took off on Facebook after it was shared by the awesome site, Survive Law. I thought I would continue the theme and follow up with 5 more lessons learned as I make my way up the ‘new lawyer learning curve‘.

1. Unless you appear in court, you don’t need a suit on a daily basis

I’ve noticed that suits in offices are becoming an endangered species. Generally, women can get away with pairing a pencil skirt or suit trousers with a nice top and/or a cardigan. As for men, ties come out for special occasions. I have been on the hunt for a nice suit ever since signing on the dotted line to start this job, but due to the limited options (and the huge cost), I’ve been pretty tardy with my search. This hasn’t affected me at work at all. Although sooner or later I’ll need to take a photograph for the firm website, which is probably the only occasion that will demand a suit jacket. New lawyers may want to check out my post for a capsule corporate wardrobe here.

2. As a rule, don’t send Word documents to clients

As a rule, I PDF everything that I send to clients. If it’s in draft form, I always watermark the document accordingly. If a client then asks me for a Word version, I check that it’s okay with the supervising partner first. Why? There a few obvious reasons, such as losing control of the firm’s intellectual property and potentially losing oversight of changes made to the document. Another reason is that if you have used a precedent to prepare the document, you might accidentally leave track changes/comments in the document. My PA told me that one of my predecessors had used one client’s document to prepare a document for another client. She accidentally sent the document in word, showing track changes where she had replaced the original client’s name with the new client’s name. She was horrified and the client was not impressed, considering the brief was to draft the document from scratch.

Lastly, we recently received complaints from a large corporate client alleging that we made too many mistakes when drafting their documents. It turns out that we had been sending ‘drafts’ to the client’s representative who mistook them for finals. Therefore, she thought the missing information was due to errors rather than a request for further instructions. Watermarking documents as ‘drafts’ and then converting them to PDF reduces the risk of anybody mistaking them for final documents.

3. Make the most of mandatory CPD

I previously considered CPD a chore and somewhat of a box ticking exercise. However, as I’ve progressed I’ve noticed shortcomings that I need to address. For example, besides using Austlii, searching legislation and google, I wouldn’t have the faintest idea of what constitutes sufficient research. Research is such an important component of giving good advice and setting the direction for a client’s legal strategy, yet it is often left to the most junior staff. The partners have advised clients on matters that could have serious consequences based on my research and this makes me very, very nervous. As such, I will be asking to attend a CPD program to develop my research skills. Consider CPD as free learning or an investment in your career.

4. Don’t be disheartened when prospective clients don’t sign up with you

Dealing with prospective clients and not securing the work tends to leave me deflated. As a junior Lawyer, understandably I am asked to deal with individual clients who often are very cost sensitive and shopping around for the lowest price. Due to this, I find that my success rate in converting these prospective clients to actual clients is very low. At first, I took this quite personally and considered it a reflection on my ability to close the deal. Client’s expectations on low cost estimates also tempted me to force down my cost estimates to try and secure their business.

Luckily, my firm has the stance of giving an accurate, honest cost estimate and it is more than happy to pass on clients who are just after the lowest estimate. After all, a firm cannot cater to every type of client. This probably means we lose out to other firms who are willing to do initial work at below cost or firms that quote low and then charge more higher on. I am trying to change my perspective by keeping in mind that clients will shop around and it’s not necessarily my fault when they choose to take their work elsewhere. Mind you, I wasn’t told how to liaise with prospective clients, but rather thrown in the deep end. I highly recommend having a conversation with your supervising partner to discuss the ground rules.

5. Let a client know when they’re pushing up costs 

Sometimes, a Lawyer is only as good as the instructions they’re given. I have a few clients who are notorious for pushing up their bills. They give instructions, we draft documents based on those instructions and then they change their minds. Alternatively, they’re hard to reach, require constant following up, or give instructions in a patchy haphazard manner. It’s important to manage client’s expectations so they aren’t surprised or annoyed when they receive a larger than anticipated bill at the end of the month.

For example, in the scenario where the client has changed their instructions halfway through the work, I would respond with something along the lines of…”Sure I’m happy to now draft xyz, just letting you know that I had already drafted xyz as per your initial instructions and the costs on this matter to date are xyz.  If you’d like me to now do xyz, the costs are likely to be xyz.” If there is any doubt on what a client wants, pick up the phone and call them to clarify. I’ve been in a situation where three lawyers have interpreted a client’s request to mean one thing. When we presented it to the client, they were adamant that their instructions meant something else. Of course, they didn’t care that three lawyers had interpreted their request as something completely different.

If you haven’t already, check out the precursor to this post for 10 more lessons learned in my first 3 months as a Lawyer, and please do share your own learnings!

That Career Girl

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