Uni was one thing. Corporate foxing requires a new kind of nouse
Getting the job was just one gruelling hurdle after another. You passed law school. You suited up for the interview process. Tried to maintain intelligent conversation at cocktail parties. Spent 4 weeks anxiety-ridden and eager to impress during the vacation summer program. Tried to maintain some decorum at Friday night drinks. Waited in near-death panic on offer day. And then you got that call! You have been offered a position as a graduate lawyer.
Thank God! you feel like screaming. But it is not time to discard the guise yet. You discuss the position with restrained enthusiasm and ask for time to consider the offer. Really you’ve already spent your first month’s pay in your head. You’ve bought a round of cocktails for your friends. You have the peculiar sensation that this is the culmination of something. It’s not.
You’re on a different kind of path now. And it’s just the beginning.
Below are some things that it pays to remember. Practical stuff that is made to seem unimportant when you sign on the dotted line and are buoyed by promises of work-life balance, the importance of pro-bono projects, and the sense of pride and satisfaction you will gain from telling the world at large: you are a lawyer. You have an identity and a place in the world.
You are spared from the truth of what it actually means to be a graduate lawyer for 10 - 12 hours a day, 5 days a week. And more if you’re asked to, or need to. That is the first golden rule: never say no. At least in the beginning. Sure, your life and everything in it apart from work is important. And outside interests and activities (read sport, drinking and timely overseas holidays) are encouraged and appreciated. But for the first few months: show your commitment with enthusiasm to help out and stay late whenever necessary. Yes, you will need to cancel dinners and skip the gym. But before you can start prioritising when you need to slog it out or when you can slip out relatively unnoticed, you will need to prove yourself. Do this by showing you are willing to place your work above everything else. Your sense of duty will be duly lauded.
1. Mirror the office hours of the colleagues you work closely with
Some people are morning people. Some people are night owls. Some skip lunch. And some relish the 9:30am coffee run. Forget your preferred schedule and mirror that of your colleagues. It will allow you to approach them when they’re in the best frame of mind and have the most time to interact with you. You’ll be rewarded with feedback, the opportunity to gain valuable insight in to the matters you’re working on or - better still - the chance for a bit of banter.
If I ever wanted my work reviewed, or to discuss a question I had, I would go in to work as early as possible to catch my boss as soon as she walked into the office. Before she was barraged by other people and more important matters to attend to (which there always were). It was when I received the best feedback and she delegated me the most interesting tasks. These moments in the morning were our chance to bond. They made me respect her and realise how much we shared in common - she was just under a lot more pressure than I was. Understanding this made it easier for me to cope with her outbursts and gauge when urgent was really urgent.
In another team I worked with everyone tended to stay late. Milling about past 6pm was abhorrent to me. Yet I realised I couldn’t leave while everyone else stayed, even if I was doing it merely for the face time. Depending on what was going on by about 8pm a few of us would generally go for a beer (oh how I longed to be at yoga). But, these were the times when we really got to know each other. They began to trust and like me. They showed me short cuts. Our camaraderie made my life easier and it paid to be part of the team.
2. Be a good secretary
You were lured here with promises of real work. Seeing transactions through from start to finish. Gaining varied experience and clear direction form supervisors who would ensure you had a working understanding of the matter. Firstly, if you want a working understanding of the matter, you can find it yourself - go through the file or recent correspondence so you are abreast of things. Initiative is noticed and appreciated.
Secondly, on all this ‘exciting’, ‘real’ work. High value transactions. Fast paced litigation. It will come. And you certainly will see the big deals and ugly court fights. But those matters require a lot of grunt work to keep running.
You are the cheapest member of the team. You will do the grunt work. Understand that and offer to assist accordingly. Grunt work means photocopying or paginating court documents. Sprinting to the relevant court to ensure (because your boss won’t trust a courier) that a document is filed on time. Catching a cab to a witness’ house so they can sign their statement. It is boring and tedious, yes. But when a supporting affidavit needs to be filed by 4pm, your deft and speedy numbering of its pages is a life or death matter. When a barrister wants 5 fresh copies of the book of pleadings immediately you will want to have it to them 5 minutes ago. And although it might seem trivial these tasks are integral to your firm’s ability to successfully run these big matters. Your colleagues will begin to trust you if you complete the grunt work efficiently. When they know they can rely on you, more meaty tasks will start coming your way.
3. Somebody’s already done it before. Try and find the precedent and make it sound like your boss wants to hear it.
Asked to draft an agreement? Write a letter? An email? Research memorandum? The person who has asked you to do this has undoubtedly done one before or asked someone else to do something similar. They’ll have a style. Casual or formal. Perhaps a penchant for tables. Dot points or sentences. Look up the previous memos that have been written for or by them to find out.
Making the extra effort to find out what people prefer and preparing your work accordingly is an easy way to win brownie points. People will respect and appreciate it, even if the content of what you submit is way off track. Before creating an agreement, deed or any kind of court document check the firm’s precedent stash unless you have been told it is out of date, or no longer used. Precedents are used to encourage consistency and halve workload. Be sure to work through them meticulously so you don’t carelessly leave an ill placed he/she or it, which could expose the sausage-factory truth behind the document you have produced to your client. Despite this danger precedents are still your best friend.
4. Make other people’s lives easier.
This is harder than you think. Because you are inexperienced. You need to ask questions. Clarify instructions. And you SHOULD do this. Because you’re making no one’s life easier by churning out unusable work based on incorrect information.
But think about the time you choose to ask your questions. The kind of questions you want to ask. Can they answered by your secretary or another more junior colleague?
Also consider the way you present the information you find. This was hard for me. Often my findings seemed entirely, perfectly comprehensible to me but as soon as I needed to explain them to someone else I realised how confusing it was for other people to understand. Gather and collate information in the way that makes sense to you and then present it in a way that a lecture room of people could understand. The simpler the better. You should not have to explain why you have written something or placed something somewhere. It should be self-evident.
5. Get the business proposition of a law firm.
A law firm is a business. As a graduate you might not be expected to meet your billable targets, and you’re not expected to generate revenue because you’re just learning. But, the sooner you realise you will need to make money and start doing it - the happier your boss will be and the easier your life will become.
Think about the big picture when you’re given a task. Don’t just try and complete it satisfactorily to the best of your ability. Realise that - whatever it is - it must inform, or be a part of, a piece of work your boss has been instructed to complete by a client. Other than ensuring the work is accurate your boss must also justify the exorbitant fees charged for the work to be completed. He/she will also hope to complete that work to a standard which guarantees return business from the client, even at that hefty price point. This is a big ask, and it will require you to be aware of your charge out rate and how best to complete your tasks to compliment this bigger picture.
6. Don’t sweat the small stuff
I learnt this lesson gently, from a colleague and then dear friend who was only one year my senior. She bore the brunt of my highly emotional state when I was reprimanded for being careless or interrupting our boss at the wrong time. Sometimes the experiences seemed so horrible to me that I sobbed. It was unprofessional and inappropriate. And I couldn’t help it. I am a tough young woman who will conquer the world. But sometimes, when under so much stress, being looked at and spoken to like an imbecile, I could not help but break down at the little, stupid person I was made to feel like. Of course, crying only makes things worse and in the simplest expression my folly: it meant my boss had won and I had lost.
One day my friend said to me: “don’t sweat the small stuff”. She was right. My boss’ disdain and passive aggressive comments were minute misgivings in the scheme of things. If I could manage to control my stress and anxiety over what he may or may not say I could let whatever happened in the moment-of-truth when he reviewed my work wash over me like rain. No one was dying. If I learned not to covet his opinion or be so affected by his unpredictable moods I could better handle my reaction to them. And in the process ensure I did not sweat the small stuff. A simple but refreshing mantra for me when I was somewhere on the brink.
7. Above all, know when the circus is not for you
I never followed the advice above perfectly. And for much of my graduate year I operated in ignorance of it. My colleagues liked me, but I was not thorough enough. Sometimes, when I should have stayed late to finish my tasks, I ran out the door at 6pm. I cried in front of my boss, lip trembling, tears falling helplessly like a child. I drank heavily and partied hard on the weekends. Sunday blues started at 2pm Sunday afternoon and did not abate until I entered the office on Monday and resigned myself to my fate.
I had a beautiful view from the 31st floor and found myself gazing longingly at the world outside the glass. And kind of hating myself a little. I ate too much of everyone’s birthday cake. Reprimanded myself for not doing enough exercise. Tried hard to impress at client functions and bore the sexist remarks of clients with the practised ease of a placated zombie. I hated myself a little more. For giving in and feeling out of control. I bought pretty clothes and expensive shoes. I dined out. I lived luxuriously. But there was always something missing. And I was always a little lost. My self esteem plummeted and everything suffered. Outwardly I was doing well. Inside I was confused and unhappy. Looking for an out.
So one day, without any warning I booked myself a one way ticket to Africa. I quit the lawyer-job I had coveted so dearly once. It was an experience I’m grateful for. And I learnt a lot about myself and the world. But it was not for me.