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Sage advice

It is easily forgotten that law firm leaders were once junior lawyers. Their advice can be instructive.

Sharing wisdom concept

Senior and junior lawyers may not always see eye to eye, and their differences can have important implications on the ways firms and law departments motivate their younger cohort. But generational differences aside, all lawyers share some core experiences. Fortunately, having survived the trials and tribulations of the profession, veteran lawyers have acquired their fair share of wisdom along the way. We spoke to five lawyers who were kind enough to share their lessons learned from their years of practice.

Choose your first firm wisely

The first firm that a junior lawyer joins can have a profound impact on their entire career.

“Choose a reputable firm with experienced lawyers who are also experienced mentors, who are interested in teaching and training a young lawyer, and who support shadowing, networking and professional development,” says Katherine Cooligan, regional managing partner of BLG’s Ottawa office. “Ensure that you are given a diverse task experience so that you can develop a fulsome set of skills to enable you to represent clients from beginning to end.”

That’s not all: Beyond the usual concerns of size, location, salary, and benefits, junior lawyers need to consider how well they truly fit into the firm. “The lawyer should think about which firm has the commercial environment in which they feel most comfortable being their authentic selves,” says Linc Rogers, a partner with Blakes in Toronto. “If you have to pretend you are someone you are not in order to ‘fit’ into a firm, you’ll be forever distracted and quickly exhausted.

Make being new an advantage

Many senior lawyers remember how nerve-wracking it was being a junior lawyer at their first firm.

“Anyone starting any new profession can suffer from imposter’s syndrome,” says Robert Miedema, a partner and member of the executive committee at BoyneClarke in Halifax. “They can also underestimate the value that they have as a young person, in terms of the fresh ideas and perspectives that they can bring to the job.

“And their ideas do have value: it was young lawyers coming to us with their experience of interacting with social media that brought these advances to our firm. So being new can be an advantage.”

Play well with others

Working in a law firm, or a legal department of any kind, junior lawyers have to work with both colleagues and clients. How they go about it will have a profound impact on their reputation and career advancement.

When it comes to playing well with others, “diligently practice the golden rule,’’ says David Hooley, senior counsel at Cox & Palmer in Charlottetown. “Always treat others as you would want to be treated yourself… It sounds simple enough, but it takes discipline to put into your daily practice. Examples include being respectful with your words and in your actions and demeanor toward colleagues and clients, being punctual with meetings and appointments, and keeping your promises and meeting deadlines.”

When conflicts do arise, try resolving them by listening to what others are saying and strive to listen to their point of view. “So many conflicts in any profession arise from misunderstandings,” says Miedema. “Doing your best to clear up misunderstandings by hearing other people is a constructive response; even if it takes time and practice to do it right.”

Strike a realistic work-life balance

Senior lawyers are well aware that a junior’s life is a busy one. “Private practice is generally not a 9 to 5 job, particularly in your early years,” says Hooley. It’s up to the junior lawyer to take responsibility for managing their work/life balance as best they can. “I suggest reading up on and also taking time management courses so that you learn to efficiently and effectively manage your time,” he says.

Junior lawyers need to accept they managing work will be a challenge in the early stages of their career, says Ken Dhaliwal, a partner in Dentons’ Toronto office. “That said, it does get somewhat easier as you become more senior and have more control of your workflow.”

Deal with mistakes

Making a mistake, a big one especially, may be unpleasant but it can be useful .

When it happens – and it will happen – the best response is “to be honest and straightforward,” says Alan L. Ross, managing partner of BLG’s Calgary office. “It’s usually the coverup, and rarely the crime, that gets you into trouble. So, own your mistake, get help in remedying it, and learn from it.”

“Always consult with someone immediately and do not try to fix it yourself,” says Cooligan “You will learn that everyone makes mistakes, and the collective experience of others will help you manage the next steps after the mistake.”

“Take a deep breath and remember that we aren’t saving lives here, so nobody will die as a result of the error,” observes Dhaliwal.

“Don’t freeze up,” says Rogers, “and work doubly hard to atone for it.”

Handling a mistake with calm and maturity can significantly boost a junior lawyer’s standing with their more senior peers. A person who acts in a rational, measured manner, whatever their inner turmoil, will get credit for their composure. After all, it’s in the face of adversity that people reveal their true nature.

Guard your good name

Another key piece of advice that junior lawyers would be wise to heed is to guard one’s reputation for integrity, hard work, and reliability.

“Your reputation is all you have,” says Cooligan. “Never compromise on your integrity and work quality. Always be prepared, always give it your all, and always be civil and respectful.”