Building your legal career after the pandemic – advice for candidate attorneys and newly qualified lawyers Quarter 2 2022

By DAVID LANCASTER, Published in Top Students 2021

The past two years have been extremely difficult for law students and candidate attorneys who commenced studies and articles at the height of the pandemic. Although technology, flexible working and online learning enabled high levels of productivity to be maintained, much else was lost. Many people experienced isolation and a lack of personal contact whether at university or in the workplace. While some enjoyed the novelty and convenience of working from home, by 2021 signs of stress were appearing, as the important rituals of work life were lost: lunches, coffee with colleagues, face-to-face meetings and the normal day-to-day human interaction that we all took for granted before March 2020.

rgad


It seems that, thankfully, the worst is behind us, and we are returning to normal. While some degree of remote and flexible working will remain – and this is a good thing – we now need to start thinking about how we build our careers now that we are largely back in the office.


I have given some thought to the things that enabled me to build a successful legal career, and I hope that sharing them will be of some value to those embarking on their journeys as attorneys or candidate attorneys. In addition, through my coaching of young lawyers over the past few years, I have identified some issues that are important for them.

There are five areas I would suggest are worth focusing on – learning, being present, building networks, creating structure, and never forgetting your obligations to the wider community.

Learning

Technical proficiency is a given in this profession if you are to be successful, but learning should be lifelong. You should take every opportunity to improve your skills. This includes learning on the job, participating enthusiastically in your firm's training programmes, considering appropriate and relevant post graduate learning opportunities, and taking advantage of any secondment opportunities that come your way – be they with clients or with law firms overseas.

I had some of my most profound learning opportunities years after completing my degrees and articles, and the opportunity to enhance your skills on an ongoing basis is extraordinarily energising. The more you know about your subject, the better you will be at your job, and the more confident and enabled you will be.

Also remember that learning includes acknowledging the things you don't know, and not being afraid to ask questions.

Being present

'Being present' is a state of mind, as well as being physically present in the workplace. Lawyers need two sets of skills to be successful. Firstly, technical skills, and, secondly, what used to be called 'soft skills'. The latter include the ability to build relationships within your firm, knowing how to build client relationships, the ability to develop junior lawyers, understanding when and how delegate effectively, giving valuable and constructive feedback, and the ability to work in a team. These are things you would not necessarily have learnt at university. The way you learn these skills is to be present in the workplace – to attend and participate in meetings, to take the opportunity to attend client events, to closely watch partners and clients in action as they interact with others, and to be visible and engaged in a positive and non-pushy way at all times in your firm.

If you are disengaged, and absent, your ability to learn these soft skills will be significantly inhibited.

Incidentally, you don't have to be an extrovert to be good at these things – some of the most effective lawyers I have met have been introverts!

Building networks

A good lawyer will generally have two sources of work – internal and external. Internal referrals will come from other lawyers in your firm. Work that comes to you directly from clients is what I call external referrals. As you start your career your main source of work will be internal – work given to you by your principal or other lawyers you work with, or from lawyers in other practice areas in your firm. Respond promptly, effectively and efficiently to all internal referrals you receive. In so doing, this work will continue to flow. Learn to assess your capacity to take on new work so that you don't over promise and under deliver. Prepare to go the extra mile if necessary.

Build relationships with your peer groups in your firm, and outside. In time, your peers may become partners or clients and will be in a position to support your career in multiple ways. Start thinking about how you can build relationships with clients. What can you do to support their businesses and add value? This begins by completing all client engagements promptly and efficiently, with attention to detail. As you start interacting with clients it is really important to have a clear understanding of what their expectations are in terms of the services they want from you, and what an appropriate and acceptable fee would be. (How to bill and conversations with clients about value is another whole area of discussion but is a skill you should learn over time from more senior people in your team). In time you can deepen these relationships in other ways – presenting to clients on new developments in the law that are of relevance to them, secondments, attending client functions and seminars, and building relationships with those of your peer group who may be working at the client. You goal in time is to be seen as a trusted adviser to a client.

Building networks is a lifelong process and much of it will happen organically if you get the basics right. However, it is worth reflecting each year on where your work came from in the preceding twelve months. Expressing appreciation to those who have given you work in a professional and appropriate way is not a bad thing!

Creating structure

The practice of law, while immensely rewarding, can be taxing and stressful. It often requires long hours of work under extreme pressure. The work can be demanding and the stakes high. You will face pressure from two sides – client needs, and the requirements of your firm to achieve hourly and financial targets. In addition, you are working in an environment full of highly educated and driven people who often have a low tolerance for mistakes. Sometimes it can be overwhelming.

Your goal is to create a way of working that will give you a long and sustainable career in the face of these pressures. To do this you need structure. Everyone has a different body clock and a way of working, but try to put some basic rules in place. These would include regular working hours – starting and ending work at the same time each day and leaving the physical office at a reasonable and regular time. Some things should be non-negotiable – exercise, proper nutrition (which includes making time for a lunch break each day), down time when you don't look at your phone or email, family time which includes dinner time with your spouse or partner or children or friends, and regular holidays and short breaks where you should generally try to be offline. In this regard, plan your year in advance so that you can schedule away time in consultation with the partner you report to.

In time you and your colleagues should agree communication protocols in your team. How do you communicate when it is urgent? What time of the night would it not be appropriate to send an email on a matter which is not urgent? Will your downtime be respected when you are on holiday, or do you need to monitor emails all day and night?

Having a supportive team around you is critical and that is why your ability to delegate and work effectively in a group of people are such key skills to learn. The toughest jobs are easier to tackle when you have colleagues with you sharing some of the load.

There will be times when the work is so critical and important that regular working hours go out of the window. That's fine; it happens, but try not to make it the norm, and after intense periods of work reward yourself and recharge with some time off – even an afternoon off, or a long weekend can work wonders.

Your obligations to society

In South Africa, with its high levels of poverty and inequality, lawyers are a uniquely privileged group of people. Their earnings are well above the average South African income, and they have higher levels of job security compared with most. They generally work in pleasant surroundings with like-minded and highly educated colleagues. This privileged position, while achieved through hard work and sacrifice in many cases, is something we should be grateful for. It should drive us to want to give back to our community.

Law can be an important instrument in achieving social justice. I would urge you to use your skills to advance the rule of law in the country and find ways to support the most vulnerable members of our society. You can do this through involvement, for example, in pro bono matters, by supporting bursary programmes at your alma mater, by getting involved with NGOs and other community organisations in your area where your legal skills are invaluable, and by being a mentor and role model to others.

It's important for you to make this contribution in whatever way you can, and one day when you look back on your career, these contributions may well be the things you value most.

Conclusion

I often say to the people I coach that a legal career is a marathon, not a sprint. You need to get the basics right to have a sustainable and successful career over a lifetime. There will be ups and downs but paying attention to some of the fundamentals I have outlined will give you a framework for success.

rgad

Lancaster is the former Senior Partner of Webber Wentzel; currently consulting to Webber Wentzel and coaching lawyers.