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A friendly piece of advice can go far

Young lawyers should look to cohorts, mentors with questions
By Saul Chernos
March 03 2017 issue

Meriel Jane Waissman / iStockphoto.com

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Early in her career with a large Bay Street firm in Toronto, Sharon Silbert quickly learned to turn to fellow hires from her cohort year or a couple of trusted, slightly more senior associates when she wanted advice or an opinion on a legal or strategic matter.

Newly minted lawyers might feel high as a kite when they’re called to the bar. And with good reason. But then comes performance time and a high-wire act of expectations, responsibilities and challenges.

Rookie mistakes? Pretty well everyone makes them, Silbert concedes. Seven years into her career, she runs her own solo family law practice and has the advantage of time and distance to reflect on her first experience as a junior associate in a demanding, high-intensity environment.

“My problems with time management weren’t so much about being unable to meet deadlines but more about having a hard time knowing when to call it quits, determining how much time really was worth investing in a particular task.”

Silbert says every task seemed important — and no doubt every aspect of a file is important to a client. But as she spent more time with clients — something she deliberately sought out by switching to family law — she’s realized what matters the most at the end of the day is the resolution achieved for the client who is paying for her time and expertise.

“This relates back to new lawyers sometimes making things more complicated than they need to be,” Silbert says. “Thinking that every issue is a huge life or death issue — that may or may not be the case.”

When in doubt, legal experts say, discussing legal and career-related questions with one’s immediate cohorts or someone a little more senior is a smart move.

Anita Lerek of Toronto-based Advocate Placement concurs that peers and slightly more senior associates are the safest to approach with newbie questions.

But Lerek says new hires should immediately assess their new environment and take a triaged, strategic approach, carefully initiating, cultivating and even compartmentalizing relationships where they’re likely to be most appropriate and welcome. And, for everyday questions, foster relationships with mid-level associates who are perhaps just a slight rung up the ladder.

“They’re your bridge,” Lerek explains. “Help them shoulder their burden and then they’ll help you. It’s very much quid pro quo.”

With peers, Lerek recommends a collaborative approach, bonding over shared interests and experience and generally being kind and supportive.

“Socialize, but outside not inside the workplace,” Lerek says. “Give them time. Listen to them. But don’t ever gossip or bad-mouth others to them no matter how tempting. Be collaborative, not competitive.”

Lerek extends similar advice for working with support staff. “Show a personal interest in them as people, listen to them, and be respectful of the work they do, because they’re the glue. I’ve even heard of staff recommending who to hire or keep.”

Perhaps the most critical relationship a new lawyer can establish is landing a mentor.

“If you’re assigned a mentor it doesn’t mean you can’t still pick your own as well,” Lerek says, recommending the new lawyer take time to find someone suitable and then asking them formally.

“There’s got to be a rapport and there’s got to be political functionality,” Lerek says. “This person has to know what’s going on and be in a position to decode the environment if not also facilitate your mobility in it.”

A formal request to the individual ensures they’re not taken by surprise when you need face-time, and Lerek recommends deciding at the outset how often to meet and establishing priorities.

Even with an established friend or mentor, don’t barge in with questions. “Strategize,” Lerek advises. “Frame your behaviour with skillful strategy.”

Warren Bongard of ZSA Legal Recruitment in Toronto, says long-term relationships are vital, and that extends to the firm itself. A lawyer who is hired by the same firm they’ve articled for shows staying power, he explains.

“The only caveat is an exceptional circumstance that where one is hired back in a practice area one has absolutely no interest in,” Bongard says. “But short of that reserve your initial years for training purposes and nothing else.”

It’s also perfectly normal for new lawyers to feel nervous. “If anything, that displays a genuine personality,” Bongard says. “I’d rather that than someone who is arrogant and thinks they know everything and doesn’t take things too seriously.”

In terms of time management skills, Bongard cautions against paralysis by analysis. “Lawyers can get so nervous they’re not sure and they over-edit and over-examine and overanalyze the tasks they’re asked to do. When that happens they can miss deadlines and create more problems than it’s worth.”

Part of the learning curve, Bongard says, is understanding where the task assigned to you fits into the broader picture. “If you’re being asked to write a memo, who’s going to read it — another lawyer or the client?”

If time management or other stress-related issues cannot be resolved, it might be time to consider career options. These could include working outside a firm environment — say in a government or a corporate environment where hours and expectations might be less intense, or finding some other suitable milieu.

In some cases, it might make sense to apply your law smarts in another profession. Bongard vividly recalls leaving his entry-level lawyer’s job to launch his consulting firm and a legal support staffer remarking that his posture suddenly seemed vastly improved.

Cameron MacCarthy, a business lawyer with Shea Nerland in Calgary, says his firm’s strong cultural emphasis on teamwork has helped give him the staying power to navigate his way from summer student to partnership.

But MacCarthy says this is a two-way street. Young lawyers need to tap into the various resources available to them both within their firm and outside in the broader legal community.

“Our legal community in Calgary is very collegial, very tight,” MacCarthy says. “Seeking guidance and mentorship externally from other lawyers at other firms is not very difficult.”

MacCarthy particularly values a mentor within his own firm who told him, metaphorically, that he’d toss him in the deep end of the pool, let him go under a couple of times, but be standing by to rescue him should he keep going under.

“That gave me the confidence to know that if I ever felt I was in over my head all I had to do was go and have a conversation,” MacCarthy says.

“The key, from the junior’s perspective, is to find people you feel comfortable with, whether they’re formal or informal mentors, and be able to have those conversations.”

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