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Fitting in at a new firm

It’s a different world for new lawyers joining their first law firm. Here are some tips on how to adapt successfully.

Individuality concept, birds on a wire, alone against mass

A young lawyer’s first law firm job is a time of both triumph and terror. The triumph comes from having survived law school, passed the bar exam and completed articling (or the Law Practice Program). The terror lies in taking that first step into a new environment.

“A young lawyer’s first job can be one of the most challenging periods in their professional life,” said Allison Wolf, president of Shift Works Strategic Inc., a Vancouver-based lawyer coaching service. “They’re faced with an intensive learning curve as they move from studying law in theory to actually practising it and doing many things that they’ve never done before.”

Here’s what she and other experts told us about getting up to speed in your first law firm.

Expect to be overwhelmed

Moving from the comparatively sheltered world of a law student to that of a busy entry-level lawyer is a radical shift. “You’re moving from being master of your own schedule to giving over that control to other lawyers who have not necessarily been trained in managing people or projects,” says Paulette Pommells, CEO and principal coach of Creative Choices for the 21st Century Lawyer Inc. in Toronto. “Add to this loss of control the sheer volume of work that new lawyers have to cope with, and it is no wonder that so many of them feel overwhelmed.”

Instead of giving in to overwhelming emotions, a wise young lawyer simply acknowledges them and moves forward. It’s the first step towards achieving control in their new life.

Listen and observe

“Starting your first law firm job can be a lot like being the new kid at school,” says Gary Mitchell, a strategic business coach serving lawyers and founder of BC’s OnTrac Coach. “Everybody else knows each other and which cliques they belong to – and you feel like they’re all looking at you, watching everything you do.”

In both situations, first impressions can be lasting, especially bad ones. This is why a prudent new hire thinks carefully before they speak, while closely studying the personalities and social customs in their new surroundings. “Listen and observe,” says Wolf.

“This is often where young lawyers falter,” notes Carly Crawford, an employment lawyer with HHBG Lawyers in Surrey, BC. “Take time to observe how more senior lawyers deal with clients, ethical situations and other things you can only learn by practicing.”

Make friends and allies

Once a new lawyer has assessed the culture and personalities of their law firm, it is time to build bonds. “Be proactive and approach people who you think you can trust, and could help you,” says Mitchell. “They can help you with the learning curve at your first job and make being the ‘new kid’ easier to deal with.”

At the same time, a young lawyer should show restraint until they really know their new friends and allies. Be mindful when going out for drinks with the associates on week one.

“Young lawyers should remember that your reputation is everything — whether within the firm or outside,” Crawford says. “It can take some time to build up a good reputation, but much less time to build up a bad one.”

Seek all kinds of mentors

Having a senior partner as a mentor can be invaluable to a newly hired lawyer. “But finding mentors in lawyers with just a few years’ more experience can also be helpful; their own journey of being new is not so far from their minds,” says Pommells. “These are people likely in your age group, that you can ask candid questions about the firm’s expectations and business culture. They typically get what you’re going through.”

“Informal mentorship is often the way young students and lawyers figure out cultural norms,” says Catherine Chang, owner of Catherine Chang Coaching & Consulting in Toronto. “It’s so important to feel a sense of belonging and connection in order to do your best work, so curiosity and interest in making connections with staff and lawyers at every level can help.”

Be your own advocate

Newly hired lawyers are typically inundated with work in their first jobs. That’s often because the lawyers assigning work don’t know what the new hires already have on their plates.

In instances like these, avoid suffering in silence, because overwork can lead to burnout. “The key is to find a way to effectively advocate for yourself,” Pommells says. “I had one client who did this successfully because her solution took everyone’s position into consideration. She was also strategic in the concerns she chose to raise and had proven not to be a slacker. The firm wanted to keep her happy. In the end, they gave my client everything she asked for, and they continue to listen and respond to her vocalized needs to this day.”

Get professional support

A young lawyer who cannot find their way at work doesn’t have to suffer alone. There are lawyer coaches who understand what young lawyers go through and can help them cope.

As well, having an ally outside one’s law firm allows a young lawyer to vent their feelings and frustrations in a safe setting, as well as get dispassionate advice.

Learn and go forward

A young lawyer’s first job isn’t likely to be their only job. As they gain skills and knowledge, the time will come for them to seize new opportunities, and to find other firms that may well be a better fit for them.

“In these cases, think of your situation as squeezing the juice out of a lemon,” says Wolf. “After a few years when you’ve learned all you can at your first job – when you’ve squeezed all the juice from that lemon – it may be time to move on.”