Top 20 Things I Wish I Knew When I Was A Junior Lawyer

Top 20 Things I Wish I Knew When I Was A Junior Lawyer

Author: Ian Aldridge, Progressive Legal

20 things I wish I knew as a junior lawyer (not in any particular order):


1.  It is a long road, a marathon, not a sprint.

There is a lot to learn and it generally takes 10 years to be really good at something. Be patient.

You want to avoid burn-out. That means taking care of your mind, your spirit and your body.

There are going to be a lot of challenges and you are going to be tested daily. It is fully expected that you will on a daily basis feel either out of your depth and comfort zone, sometimes feel out of control. That’s normal. You get used to it.

Partners and senior associates are going to expect a lot from you and they are under a lot of pressure – you have no idea. They’re really good at putting on a poker face. Sometimes they will explode and unfortunately, you may cop the brunt of it.

Law is generally renowned at being an extremely tough profession. Your mettle is going to be tested. Juniors have a particularly hard time as they are trying to find their feet, work out what they want to do, operate in an extremely competitive environment, have high self-expectations, are generally “A-type” personalities, are tougher on themselves than anyone else can be – until they meet a corporate psychopath partner and then they realise those beings actually exist.

Generally, I’ve found the bigger the building and the bigger the clients, the worse the job.

2.  Learn how to write a really good letter/email of advice to a client as soon as possible in your career.

Look/ask for really good examples so you can learn and learn fast. It’s a great skill.

Once you master an extremely good email or advice (which usually takes at least 1 year with extreme dedication), that makes it so much easier on seniors to settle your work. Happy seniors means that you’re more likely to impress them.

If you can work out particular styles of individual senior associates / partners and how they like to communicate – bonus points to you.

Remember, your seniors are likely to be extremely busy. Think about it from their perspective, they want to see you learning and adopting the changes they recommend. They don’t want to have to say things twice. If they are saying things over and over again, that gets very tiring. Especially when they have to mentor, manage and make a lot of decisions.

The easier you can make it on them, the better you will do.

For Pete’s sake, make sure you have a pen and paper at every meeting – without fail. If you are not making notes, the SA or partner will think you’re not taking it seriously.

When a senior gives you directions or talks to you about a matter, make notes! Don’t rely on your memory. You haven’t trained it yet. Your memory is supposed to suck at this point. Do not trust it. Write it down.

3.  You will never make as much money in law as your friends in finance etc.

Learn the power of investing, start small, often and the power of compound interest/reinvesting profits. No successful lawyer I know said they made their money in Law, it was all in investing/property etc. The power of the parabola.

You’ll be surprised how things can add up over time, you won’t make a lot of money so be frugal, don’t live outside your means. Get some auto-direct debits happening to savings accounts and get a rainy-day fund organised. About 6 months worth of your salary is a good start, just in case there’s a financial meltdown.

If you’re on 60K for instance, live like you’re on 50K.

Regularly investing in shares, small investment properties that have positive cash-flow. Low risk. Get some financial advice and tax advice.

4.  Really try to think about solutions to problems hard first before bringing it up the chain to superiors.

It’s great to come with the options and what solutions you think the client should go with and why. Not just the problem and expect your senior to solve it. Take the time to try think. Work out a way forward to bring to your senior. Go through all the options. Generally there’s about 5 different ways the client could go, pick them out. Start with “do nothing”, then up to the most aggressive approach and the rest in between and why.

We are problem solvers at the end of the day. Get thrilled about being a problem solver. In most cases, we’re solving problems that clients can’t solve themselves.

This is a unique job where we can make a big difference to the outcome of people’s lives.

Seniors get sick of having to come up with the solutions all the time and they get decision fatigue on a daily basis. If you show the initiative, you’re way more likely for seniors to spend more time with you going through that – they can see that you’ve given it a go and are keen to help you if you try. They don’t want to have to spoon feed you.

Find some good and friendly seniors to run things past before you take it up to the “prickly boss”. Then you can say to the boss that you’ve had a go, come up with a few alternatives and that it’s been run past someone that the boss trusts and you’ll find your prospects improve.

5.  Do not leave things to the last minute.

Get onto things as early as possible so you give yourself plenty of time with it to think (even overnight) and before you submit anything, check, check and re-check (run it past a colleague at the firm first).

Remember, the senior associate/partner won’t be able to review it straight away, it may need to go to barrister and/or client first for approval, amendments, factor in that time.

Manage your time, use block time, do whatever it takes to focus your attention to what is urgent. Competing priorities will come about all the time and you have to switch gears quickly, especially if you’re working on a number of matters.

Be respectful of other people’s time – especially your seniors. Whatever you can do not to waste their time, is best. Don’t go down a rabbit hole and waste time and then the senior asks what have you been doing when they expected the answer already.

Self-impose deadlines so that you’ve got plenty of time to have a think about things before you escalate or deliver to a senior. Nothing like being able to sleep on a piece of work and then having better ideas overnight rather than providing something half-baked.

6.  Be conscientious, really apply yourself – exercise the brain like a muscle.

You can get your mind “ripped”, super sharp, get extremely good at memory recall.

Be all over your matters where someone can ask you about the matter at any time and you can say very quickly this was done, sent 3 days ago, deadline x, any steps in the meantime, in who’s court is the ball etc.

Practice, practice, practice. Try and remember conversations verbatim. At least start with trying to remember the top 5 things or top 10 things out of a conversation so that if a senior asks you what were they, you can rattle them off with ease and show them you were paying attention and are all over the matters.

If you think a senior might be interested in how a conversation went on a matter if they weren’t able to attend, give it a go. Let them know the top 5 things that came out of it. Watch how much that will impress them.

7.  Even if you’re not in a particular area of Law but really enjoy another area

Read up on it, get really familiar, you never know when that opportunity might come.

You’ve got to find passions in Law and in life. Having particular interests will mean you get inspiration in what you do.

Of course, don’t let this substitute for being all over as much as you can in the areas that you’re in, but I’m just saying that just because you might be pigeon-holed now, doesn’t mean you only have to know that – there is nothing stopping you for reading up on other areas that you’re interested in. Could be some really interesting cases that have come out in that area that gets you more interested. Get fascinated.

8.  Volunteer, say yes, get involved, be a contributor.

Get motivated to help your colleagues and superiors. Ask them if there’s anything you can do for them.

It’s not sucking up, you’re just showing that you want to help out. Even the offer goes a long way.

Don’t leave without asking whether there’s anything you can do. If they’re staying late, it means they’re working. Ask them whether they are sure? Be happy to help. It means a lot. Imagine yourself in their position. I’m sure they’d rather be doing something else or with their family/friends.

9.  If you’re in a toxic environment, get the f out asap.

Trust your gut. Find somewhere better. You can have crap work but the best boss/colleagues and work is great.

Equally, you can have the best files/clients and a horrible boss/colleagues and it’s a living hell. Don’t just do it for the CV.

I’m not saying quit if it’s too hard, but if it’s a toxic environment – you won’t be able to do much about that.

In the words of an ex-managing director, “Law is all about the people, if you don’t like the people, get the f out”.

10.  Manage expectations.

Presume that small tasks are urgent and get them out of the way, if they will take longer, ask them if there is a deadline they would like it back by so you don’t delay and get in trouble.

If you need clarification on anything, don’t mess about.

If something is taking longer than expected, update your senior. They don’t want to be having to ask you where something is at…

If they are asking you or a client is asking you where something is at, it means you’re not meeting their expectations or you’re not managing them properly.

11.  Find a few mentors with differing skill sets and experience, ideally 2 of them at least outside your organisation.

Ethical considerations come up all the time. Chances are, they’ve been there before.

Find incredible role models and try to emulate them.

Search out and ask them if they would be able to have a chat as you’re interested in finding out how to become a great lawyer and one day achieving what they have done. It’s very flattering. If you don’t ask, you don’t get.

12.  If you’re organised, you’ve won half the battle.

Organise your file, have a clean desk and workspace, clean your Outlook, organise your life.

If you’re disorganised, you’re bound to make mistakes, miss key documents or important facts. Don’t go there.

File all your emails/documents. If a senior finds even one document missing, they will think that the entire file is disorganised. Unfortunately, that’s just the truth. That’s because, usually they’re right.

13.  Be hard on your work, not on yourself.

Be really critical of your work and the product of advice you create. But try not to take it personally.

Any criticism you receive, try not take it personally. You’re only human, and humans can learn from their mistakes. Fall fast and fall forward.

Take pride in your work, take pride in your appearance. Shine your shoes.

14.  Everyone makes mistakes.

That’s how we learn. It’s what you do afterwards that counts.

On a scale of 1-10, how bad is it? Put your hand up and let your superior know that you messed up ASAP.

Trust me, they would much rather know now than find out if you tried to cover it up. Don’t lie about it!

In this age of entitlement, be different. Own it. Take responsibility for everything, even if it wasn’t your fault. There are lessons you can learn from it. Learn from others mistakes. Learn from your own.

15.  Before you send any email (whether internal or external doesn’t matter), check, check and re-check.

Re-read it carefully to make sure it makes sense.

Is there anything you’ve missed?

Check correct email recipients.

What questions might the reader have that you can anticipate and deal with now?

Any legal privilege/confidentiality/commercial-in-confidence/without prejudice marking that needs to be applied?

Check email trail to make sure you’re not sending something that shouldn’t be sent.

Make sure you attach the right documents, open them and double check them first!

16.   Remember, reputation is everything.

Law is a small world. Don’t burn your bridges. If you do decide to leave a firm, do the right thing.

Give them as much notice as possible and continue to do right by the clients.

A strong reference from a previous employer goes a long way.

17.   Do whatever you need to do to look after your mental, physical and emotional health.

Law is largely a thankless task.

Praise, thanks and gifts from clients are few-and-far between. Treasure those ones – worth their weight in gold.

See psychologists just like you do a doctor/physio/nutritionist etc. If you’re having a tough time, talk to someone. If you’re having a really tough time, talk to a professional. They are experienced in helping professionals like you, they can’t tell you but you are not alone and you are certainly one of hundreds and thousands out there going through same, similar, better and worse.

Your brain doesn’t come with a map. Someone qualified and experienced in helping you to understand and train it, is vital.

Meditate, do yoga, go to spin class, run, walk, get some sun, give your brain the rest it needs. Your brain is your biggest asset. Look after it.

18.   If in doubt, create a chronology.

By knowing the sequence of events, it will start to make more sense and it’s great for the file anyway, briefing seniors or counsel.

Something magical happens when you do a chronology. At least you have all the facts and timings so you can put the sequence of events together. If you get asked a question about when something happened by a Judge, you’ve got it. You won’t melt into a pile of hot chocolate.

19.  Learn how to touch-type.

Fortunately my mum threw me into typing school in year 9. One of the best things she ever did. Thanks mum.

Don’t forget to proof-read though, even if you are fast.

20.  Try and find inspiration, delight, and positivity in your work.

It can be anything.

Producing a fantastic research memo, writing a kick-ass letter to opposing lawyers, comprehensive but easy to read email after a call.

Get excited about this. Not many people get to do this. How many students finished law school that started, what is that percentage. Sometimes, success is hanging on where others have let go. Be proud of what you have achieved, but remember, that is in the past. Now it is really time to learn. The practice of law is very different to what is in the text book. Make the transition.

Develop your soft skills. Be personable. Be kind and have a smile on your face. People will generally like you more if you smile and want to talk to you.

21.  Bonus tip – show me your 5 best friends, and I will show you your future…

Birds of a feather, flock together.

If you fly with the crows, you can get shot. If you roll with the dogs, you get fleas.

Hang around with great people that are going places. Move away from bad influencers.

*NB// The contents of this article are information only and should not be relied on as legal advice. Please seek specialist legal advice in relation to your particular situation.

(c) Progressive Legal Pty Ltd – All legal rights reserved (2023)

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