by James Howie and Melissa Miller
The novelty and stress that come along with the first five years of a new lawyer’s practice can provide a perfect breeding ground for simple mistakes. Bad habits and practices can grow to haunt you as you continue to develop as a lawyer. As most lawyers know, reputation is everything – among judges and masters, opposing counsel, and potential new clients and co-workers. The following are some common mistakes made by lawyers in their first five years of practice, along with some tips on how, and why, to avoid them.
Some things are obvious so we will not spend much time on them. Actively avoid lying. Fight hard but fight fair. Don’t promise what you cannot, or won’t, deliver. Enjoy your life outside the law, and if you don’t have a life, get one!
1. Not Knowing When to Ask for Help
A failure to communicate limits and availability regarding work load can lead to missed deadlines and a failure to meet expectations of colleagues and clients. This can, in turn, create a reputation of poor work ethic and unreliability. It is perfectly acceptable to ask further and more probing questions of the person who assigned the work (lawyer or client) to determine how to prioritize files and assignments. You may find that the deadline can be extended if you simply ask! You may find yourself in a situation where you cannot complete the task within the deadline in any event. This gives the assignor an opportunity to seek out alternative arrangements or allow an opportunity for you to delegate different tasks.
Learn from those who have come before you. Senior lawyers, both in and outside of your firm, often offer a wealth of knowledge. It is, therefore, important to make relationships with senior lawyers within your own firm and out of the office by way of list serves, mentorship and involvement in law-related organizations. The important tip here is to be a part of a team. No one can be a great lawyer from early in their career with nothing else to learn. It is also incredibly inefficient and costly to try to re-invent the wheel for each and every issue you may come across. Most often, someone in your office will have dealt with the same or a similar issue before, and can at least give you some direction.
2. Being Afraid to Admit a Mistake
Everyone makes mistakes. It is your ability to handle those mistakes that determines your ability to be a good lawyer. Most mistakes can be fixed, but many can become bigger problems if left too long out of embarrassment or fear. Attempts to hide a mistake can potentially negate your LawPro coverage! Even if you fear disappointing one of the partners or another colleague, being upfront and honest about your error is the way to go. That allows the partner or colleague to decide how best to handle the situation. It may be that you can easily fix the mistake yourself. You can still demonstrate competence and a responsible attitude by displaying an ability to solve problems.
If the mistake made is one where a client needs to be informed, again, it is best to tell the client sooner rather than later in order to preserve their rights. Your client may need to obtain independent legal advice. If this is the case, advise LawPro right away of any potential claim. A failure to do so can result in LawPro denying coverage of the claim.
3. Relying Too Heavily on Your Firm
Tickler systems and firm staff are not infallible. Be sure to diarize your own deadlines in addition to whatever tickler system the firm has in place. Those ticklers are meant to be a failsafe in addition to other business methods. Be sure to diarize any deadlines, from limitation periods, to service of materials, to setting an action down for trial.
Try to adopt a “buck stops here” attitude. Your support staff is there to support you in your practice, not run your practice. Often new lawyers place blame on staff, whether it is a clerk or an articling student, when something goes wrong. If the error is administrative in nature, often times a discussion with the staff member to explain context, or a change in procedure, helps to prevent future errors. If the error is substantive in nature, such as a clerk’s inclusion of a privileged document in an Affidavit of Documents, or failure to serve an expert report within the required timeframe, remember it is your obligation to review all documents that leave your office. It really is the lawyer’s error for any mistakes emerging from your office, so blaming staff will not improve your ‘out of office’ image.
4. Inappropriate Behaviour Outside of Work
We have all heard the urban legends about new lawyers doing crazy and inappropriate things at functions in and outside of work. They make good stories and most of us do not think of ourselves as being capable of such things. Nevertheless, even the most well-behaved person can come undone with one glass of wine too many. Sticking to a maximum of one or two drinks is usually a safe way to go.
Always remember you are a lawyer, and boundaries are important. Try not to get too informal with staff and colleagues at social functions, which are, inherently, more casual an environment than an office or a courtroom. Harassment can be anything from an inappropriate comment to touching. Also be aware of content and whom you ‘friend’ on social networking sites. Be sure to have high privacy settings and avoiding any content that could make a potential client or colleague question your level of professionalism. There is a fine balance between allowing staff and colleagues to know who you are as a person, while maintaining appropriate professionalism. You are, like it or not, almost always in someone’s view, and an unfortunately timed cell phone video, later broadcast, can easily damage a career.
The legal world is a small one and you never know when you will meet someone in a different context later on in your career. Assistants can become lawyers and lawyers can move firms. Gossip is toxic and can burn bridges fast. It is easy to get wrapped up in gossipy discussions when you are trying to fit in as a new lawyer. Simply be careful that the subject of the conversation does not revolve around another’s expense.
Sharing “war stories” about clients can be entertaining, but you must not breach solicitor-client confidentiality. My own personal rule is to listen to all gossip, but not to be the one who moves the gossip along.
6. Unwillingness to Accept Criticism
This frequent mistake is related to not knowing when to ask for help. All of us as new lawyers yearn to prove ourselves as lawyers, and receiving criticism can seem harsh and discouraging. A failure to accept constructive criticism can make you appear unwilling to learn to be better. That being said, not every senior lawyer, or client for that matter, knows how to best hand out criticisms. Try to take the kernel of direction contained in any critique to improve, and ignore the more superfluous negative comments. If some criticism is weighing on you, discuss how to handle the situation with a mentor.
7. Ignoring Business Development
Business development is for partners – False. Business development is for any lawyer who wants to make partner – True.
Yes, the partners bring in the most business and files. However, the skills that partners use to bring in business and files do not spontaneously develop the day you become a partner. Sustaining relationships with alumni, networking, following-up and “putting yourself out there,” are important skills to learn and practice right from the beginning. It can take years to build a solid client or referral base. Being a good lawyer is not worth very much if you do not have any clients to work for.
8. Not Reading the Law
Keep up to date with the ORs (Ontario Reports) and newsletters from various organizations. Aside from the obvious reasons for keeping up to date with new caselaw and updates (a.k.a. smart lawyering), sending around that quick update to your colleagues or using updates as conversation starters at events, puts you ahead of the game.
Read the legislation every time you are working with it on a matter. You may use the same section or regulation day in and day out in your practice. However, aside from updates to the legislation, there are nuances in the wording of the legislation you may not pick up on if you do not review the actual words on the page. Basically knowing what the legislation says does not replace examining the exact wording of the legislation. This seems obvious, but many new lawyers forget this very simple thing. You may not know what you do not know unless you go back to the basics. You will be surprised what you can pick up simply by reading the legislation, and important cases which have interpreted the actual words of each section.
9. Inaccurate Docketing
Whether you render an account on a monthly basis or charge contingency rates to clients, docketing your time is a most effective way of evaluating your own efficiency, both in relation to a specific file and your overall practice.
Docket everything. Keep accurate time on your dockets and be detailed in your description. Dockets are a tracking system in the event that you are ever audited by the law society, your account is assessed, or you are sued by a client. You can rely on your dockets if you have been careful in your recording practices, and know months and years later exactly what you did.
All-nighters cramming for exams may work for some in law school, but this never works well in practice. The longer you leave something, the more panic-inducing it can become. In a career that carries inherent stress along with it, minimizing that stress is key to longevity, and affects personal as well as professional success.
As discussed above, it is important to communicate with your colleagues, your client and your staff about prioritizing tasks and files. In doing so, it is helpful to abide by the chart on the right to sort the stacks of paper on your desk (or the growing inbox in your email or electronic mailbox):
Many lawyers practice in the first quadrant. This leads to high stress and burn out. It is preferable to always be dealing with the second quadrant – important, but not urgent. This is not reality, but is at least something to strive towards. It is at least helpful to prioritize, which makes the to-do list a little more manageable. The biggest waste of time is spending too much effort in the third quadrant. These unimportant items end up on our short list, but could have been dealt with either by delegating, setting up time slots in advance to deal with emails, phone calls, etc., or failing to prioritize tasks at an earlier stage.
The first five years of practice mold who you are as a lawyer. It is, therefore, important to ensure that you develop good habits that carry you forward into the future. The first step in developing these good habits could be realizing which of the above mistakes you may be making, and taking steps to avoid those errors. Your clients and colleagues will thank you, and your future will be much better for it.