Since commencing my career at the ANU College of Law, I frequently reflect upon my first few years of legal practice. It was such an exciting, exhilarating and at times, exhausting time. The following are a few things I wish I had been told when commencing my legal career and some tips I’ve learnt along the way.
1. You are not expected to know everything
One of the biggest challenges faced by newly admitted solicitors is that ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’. That is, many new solicitors commence their legal careers in unfamiliar areas of practice and become increasingly concerned that they don’t know an area of law well enough to be able to comfortably represent a client or address a particular legal issue.
In most cases, when starting out in legal practice, you are not expected to have an intimate knowledge of a particular area of law. What you should be prepared for, is a steep learning curve and come with a willingness to learn. Ask questions of the more experienced practitioners around you, and draw on their knowledge and skills.
2. Be yourself
Many of us have colleagues or mentors to whom we look up to and admire. These practitioners often exhibit the qualities we wish to emulate and aspire to. Similarly, there may be times where we observe the way in which another solicitor conducts themselves and note that this is not the kind of practitioner we want to become.
Whilst it’s important to observe others, and learn from the way in which they run their practice, it’s important to remain true to who you are. Don’t try to be something you’re not. For example, if you are naturally an easy going and friendly person, you can still vigorously represent your client’s interests without the need to resort to argumentativeness or hostility with your opponent. Use your own strengths to your advantage and forge a career and reputation that is unique to you.
3. Courtesy, respect and professionalism are vital
A positive professional reputation is vital in legal practice. Whilst it might be relatively easy to change the firm or agency in which you work, you cannot easily change your professional reputation. For this reason, it is absolutely vital that you conduct yourself with integrity and that you treat all members of the legal community with the respect and courtesy that they deserve. This is true for members of the judiciary, court staff, your opponent, clients and colleagues.
Conducting yourself in such a manner will not only establish your reputation as a diligent and ethical professional, but is also likely to yield better results. We’ve all heard of the term ‘you catch more flies with honey’. This also applies to legal practice.
4. Back yourself
When commencing your legal career, it is inevitable that you will be working with (and against) more experienced solicitors. However, just because you are a newly admitted solicitor, does not mean that these more experienced professionals are always right. If you have thoroughly researched an area of law, and come prepared with a well reasoned argument, be prepared to hold your ground and put forward your case. This is especially so when coming up against a more experienced opponent in court. Of course they will tell you and the court that your arguments are flawed. However, hold your ground (and your nerve!) and back yourself. Present your arguments firmly and confidently.
5. Work it!
Us lawyers can be a very social bunch. The Law Societies in all of the jurisdictions regularly host young lawyers functions, networking events, professional and social functions. Try to attend these events and develop positive relationships within the legal profession. The more people you know with the legal profession, the better. You will have a greater network to call on for guidance, mentoring and assistance when you really need it.
Amy joined the ANU Legal Workshop in 2014 and teaches in the fields of Criminal Law, Evidence Law, Advocacy and Ethics. Prior to joining the ANU, Amy worked as a criminal lawyer, predominantly as a prosecutor with the Director of Public Prosecutions.