The essential skills that fall through the gaps in academia

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When you graduate from law school, you’ll no doubt know that the reality of working in a law firm will be very different to the classroom. But trainees and newly qualified associates can still face something of a reality check when it comes to making a successful charge up the first rungs of the legal career ladder.

Just take a look at some of the online profiles of partners in the legal trade press. Asked about their ‘worst day on the job’ a large number cite an experience from their early days in law.

Drafting a contract incorrectly, missing a train to a first client meeting, failing to get the required details from a client or just generally getting blamed for everything that goes wrong – these are the common trials and tribulations of even the most successful law school graduate.

Such trials are unlikely to block your successful career in law, but getting past those first few years of frustration and uncertainty is tough.

Suck it up

So what skills do you need to acquire, and quickly, to survive your initiation into real-life law?

  1. Don’t ever forget your place. It doesn’t matter how brilliant you were at school. You are now at the bottom of the ladder. Partners are never wrong and never make mistakes. Their trainees/associates do. And that only applies all the more, the higher up the scale the partner gets. So if you think you’re being unfairly blamed for a partner’s mistakes, then suck it up. You won’t be the scapegoat forever.
  2. Ask questions. Your law school might have taught you lots about the law, but on joining a firm you’ll basically discover you know nothing. Accept your ignorance, and learn quickly how to ask for clarification on anything and everything you don’t understand – which will be a lot. Better that than to make mistakes in your early days.
  3. Be prepared for anything – including boredom. If you join a big-ticket firm, then you will likely find there is a highly structured development programme for trainees and junior associates. But still assume you might be ordered out to get the coffees. You’re also likely to be given a lot of dull work. Learn to take the ups with the downs, accept that you’ll have more than a few groundhog days, and have the confidence to know that your abilities will eventually shine through.
  4. Don’t ever think it’s too early to network. Take any opportunity to start building client relationships sooner rather than later. At the same time, build your internal networks by finding out quickly who has the most influence in what area, and who is generally on the rise. Your firm may offer formal mentorships, but if not try to ally yourself to a senior lawyer who can help guide you through the ropes.
  5. Acquire some business nous asap. In your first few years, you’ll quickly learn that technical lawyering isn’t enough. The best lawyers are the best business people too. You will find yourself on a steep learning curve, discovering everything from how to bill clients to marketing and relationship management. The sooner you get on board with the business side of lawyering, the quicker you’ll be noticed as a potential future star.

Of course, there is one unmentioned skill here that is essential to success in law: the ability to work hard. However hard you worked in law school may not quite prepare you for the intensity and levels of work expected in a real law firm. But don’t despair.

For every personal sacrifice you have to make to meet your billable targets, there will be one consolation: the promise of an ever-heftier pay cheque. CP

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