Hand holding question mark
23 May 2018

Five ways to make your mark as the new lawyer in the office

Published on 23 May 2018

It is never easy being the new person in the office, especially when you might also be the most junior. Everything is unknown – from client interaction to billing systems and effective time management. To help new lawyers make the most of their first experience of the legal profession, Insights has compiled a few tips to ease the transition from law school to practising lawyer.

Ask good questions (and do your research first)

It’s important to ask the questions right from the start, lest you find yourself spending hours researching the wrong area, delaying the matter, and failing to provide value to a client. These hours are the bane of senior lawyers who know they will need to write these hours off to training, rather than pass them on to the client.

“There may be times when a more senior lawyer has readily available information that would take you more time to track down,” said Grover E. Cleveland, a lawyer and author of Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: The Essential Guide to Thriving as a New Lawyer, in an interview to Above the Law.  “In those situations, first try to find the information. If you don’t find it right away, ask yourself what is in the best interest of the client? In other words, will asking the other person save the client money – even though the other person may have a higher billing rate?”

However, Grover encourages new lawyers to be mindful of when they ask, who they ask, and how they ask questions. For example, asking questions early on will set you on the right track from the beginning. Going straight to a partner is rarely advisable; senior lawyers usually have access to the same information.

“The higher you go, the more critical your question needs to be. Be mindful of the hierarchy. If you are supposed to direct questions to a particular lawyer and you head first to someone higher, ruffled feathers may result,” warned Grover.

“Organise your thoughts so you can ask precise, logical questions. The other lawyer needs to know that you respect her time.”

Learn the business

“Law is a profession, and law is a business,” lawyer Matt Hoffman observed to Legal Underground. Understand what motivates your clients, why your firm offers the areas of practice it does, and what points of difference competitors might have over your firm – and how you can gain an advantage. A business-minded lawyer who understands what clients really need – and want - is a rare commodity. Learning to be more than merely an impressive technical lawyer can ensure your long-term value to the firm.

Master time management now

“As a young lawyer, there’s nothing worse than frantically flicking through bits of paper on your desk while your boss waits for you to find that all important document she needs,” said Melissa Lirosi, Professional Development Consultant for the Law Institute of Victoria. “Schedule time to organise your files. A well prioritised to-do list helps you manage what needs to be done by when and avoid the temptation to drop everything when something new arises.”

Think of yourself as self-employed

“All new lawyers must think of themselves as being self-employed,” encouraged Grover. “That puts them in the mindset of taking ownership of their work and being proactive about their careers. New lawyers must remember to work in a way that will earn them new work. In law, second chances can be scarce.”

This also means developing your own career plan and keeping to it.

“Having a plan helps enhance skills and build relationships in an organised way – to ensure you are always increasing your value. The plan should include specific steps that new lawyers can take to build their practices, at least in some small way, every single day.”

Find your niche

Whatever your area of practice, look to specialise – especially in a new area of law, or an area being challenged by technological change, such as AirBnB and strata law.

“The best thing a young lawyer can do is find a niche area of law as a specialty,” said Lawrence Buckfire of Buckfire & Buckfire, P.C. in an interview with Forbes.

“This will make you significantly more valuable to a law firm and a commodity for potential clients. For example, become an expert on a certain type of tax law, like overseas investments, or an area of real estate law, like construction defect litigation. This will greatly increase your value.”