In case you haven’t noticed, I like to talk a lot about my own personal experiences. Not because I’m special, but on the off chance you might learn something from my mistakes… I’ve sure made a ton of them! My advice to junior lawyers is this: don’t do what I did.
Suffice to say, I’m not big on perfectionism. I’d prefer you to get real. This requires you to put your hand up and acknowledge the need for change. The whole point of being real is that it is authentic to you – it’s no one else’s business if you share it or not. The important thing is being honest with yourself.
When I talk about lessons from my own experience, I do so to help you avoid the stupid stuff I’ve done.
“Wise men learn from the mistakes of others” …or so they say!
So, what can you learn from my mistakes to become wiser?
1. “I want world domination, and I want it now!”
Junior lawyers typically struggle with impatience. It might seem counterintuitive, but patience is a huge part of making change. The problem for many young lawyers is that they can be impatient to achieve. I know I certainly was – and still am many years later.
We want success and we want it yesterday. I’m only a little more patient now, but it’s ok when you’re the boss!
See, I finished law school with all guns blazing, ready to make big, successful waves in the corporate world. This attitude didn’t align particularly well with the day-to-day hard slog when I started. I didn’t have much help, mentoring or feedback, so I became frustrated.
Frustrated at being the junior carrying documents to and from court. Frustrated at menial work like stickering and organising thousands of files. Frustrated that I was getting little intellectual challenge. Frustrated that no one gave me any good work. Frustrated that efficiency came second to deliberacy, precision and thoroughness.
I wanted to do every piece of work well, but I also wanted to do it as fast as possible and move on. My mentors, however, wanted me to take my time and do a thorough job. I thought I could come up with the right answer, where those around me wanted me to learn the right process. It was disheartening, but also completely predictable.
My advice to junior lawyers is that it pays to be patient. To take the foot off the pedal of your own expectations, and adapt to the expectations of your team. Take a step back from dreams of corporate stardom in the short term, so you can learn the skills that will shape you into a great professional in the future.
Looking back, although I would have left practice anyway, my time would have been much more enjoyable if I was patient.
2. I let other people’s expectations cloud my decision making
This one is tough to say out loud. It’s hard to even write it down. In the immortal words of Patrick Bateman, I went to a top tier firm “because I want to fit in!”
I didn’t even enjoy my clerkships – except for the Christmas parties; they were great. But what else could I do to fulfil my potential as a young lawyer, other than go to the best possible firm?
We all do a lot of stuff because of pressure. Social pressure, family pressure, and because of the way we’ve been raised (or brainwashed!). For some lucky people, it ends well. You find your place, you are kicking goals and wondering what the hell is going on with your colleagues who can’t.
I advocate working out how you got to where you are, so you can better decide what to do next. This requires introspection, especially when things are tough. It also means you need to be honest with yourself about what you want to do. It’s more than ok to change your mind; we seem to have this view that what we want will never change. Life can happen, you can want different things at different times.
3. I didn’t have a medium-term plan
Finishing uni felt like an enormous weight had been lifted. It was 5 years of toil, which I then replaced with 40 years of more toil! In hindsight, I should have taken a break before I started work, to refresh and set some new goals. Instead, I rolled from working two jobs over the summer, straight into my grad role.
For those practicing already, you’re no doubt thinking “thanks for the useless advice – where were you two years ago?!”
The point is, I hit my goal, and didn’t replace it with a new goal.
It would have been smart to reflect, reload, and reset my goals. I should have re-focussed on what I could achieve in the next few years. Instead, I started work as a junior lawyer. I hated the idea of doing more study. I felt immediately aimless at a time when I should have been feeling great. By failing to replace the goal I had achieved, I set myself up to fail.
Saying the word “goal” can itself be polarising. I get it; goal setting is for “other people”. In reality, though, whether we mean to or not, we all set ourselves goals of one kind or another. Things we aspire to have, be or do.
If you live for the moment, that’s great. This won’t resonate with you. But for everyone else, sit down and rewrite your career goals, for the short, medium and long term.
Your goals are no one else’s business but your own. The mere act of setting goals can give you real clarity and stop you from getting stuck in terminal.
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