The advice I wish I was given as a junior lawyer

Personal Injury Lawyer Bree Knoester shares the bare bones advice she wishes she was given as a law student.

You can’t always be the best but you can be the best prepared.  Be kind.  Be humble.  It’s ok to work late – sometimes opportunities arise at those hours.  Find your niche.  Work-life balance is a fiction.  Build your community.

This is the advice I wish I was given as a young lawyer and the advice I now offer.  This edition of Precedent is an excellent collection of articles which will serve as a resource for new lawyers looking for diversity of opinions, representation and experiences. The contributors offer honest and reflective commentary on the good and the bad of legal practice. I was honoured to be asked to share my thoughts on the theme. Let me now unpack my potentially controversial advice.

The law is competitive and adversarial and, with this at its core, it is not surprising that lawyers engage in battles to be the cleverest or write the most caustic correspondence. The desire to be ‘the best’ is an undeniable motivator for many. But, for almost everyone, unachievable.

In 20 years I am yet to see preparation outperform any other trait and preparation is something we can all master. If you have, for example, reviewed the background of the case, prepared a file note ready to record the details of the meeting or asked questions to obtain key pieces of information, this will leave a positive and lasting mark on others.

Be kind. Save feisty letters for last resort. Lawyers have long memories. Good long-term working relationships with your opponents is the best way to obtain positive outcomes. I still remember the mistruthful, the overly aggressive and the keyboard warriors. I also remember the lawyers who treated me with respect and as an equal – even as a new lawyer.

Be humble. And with this, be inquisitive. Ask questions, listen, help, take in all the advice you can, then filter it down to what works for you.

Working late. A controversial topic. Hours can be dictated by outside influences – the court, opponents, time zones.

In private practice, the law is rarely a 9–5 job. Flexibility is necessary for wellbeing but also to ensure that you do not miss out on opportunities.

I am not advocating for unrelenting hours in a dark office. I am suggesting that accepting that this can be necessary at times may be helpful. Some of the best learning experiences come when working with a new lawyer on an urgent asbestos case or in the throes of a trial. It would be disappointing to miss out because of a rigid adherence to working specific hours only.

Let me turn to work-life balance and why this is a fiction. Work can be a big part of your life and that is okay – especially if, like me, you love being a lawyer. To suggest that anything outside of work is your ‘life’ can create a pressure to always have equilibrium.

I propose that we drop the ‘work’ from ‘work-life balance’ and strive for balance, which does not always mean equilibrium. For example, when working with terminally ill clients, my hours can be long. But when those matters settle, I take the time to leave earlier, do the pre-school drop off, watch The Real Housewives of New York City or go for a long walk with a friend. The aim is not for the scales to always be equally balanced, as this can create a sense of failure when work-life and home-life are not perfectly aligned. My suggestion is if your emotional/energy cup is emptying, make time to fill it.

Lastly, build your community – be this in your firm, or out, or a combination. The profession can, at times, be tough. Finding your people to reach out to is the best professional self-care you can do. I find it a great compliment when a lawyer I used to work with reaches out to brainstorm a conundrum, or a barrister answers the phone when I need a second opinion on a case. Be available to colleagues, create opportunities for community building and reach out to those you would like to be in your community. Who knows – that coffee may be the start of a new opportunity.

This article first appeared in Precedent, the journal of the Australian Lawyers Alliance, issue 180, published in February 2024 (Sydney, Australia, ISSN 1449-7719). It has been reproduced with the kind permission of the author and the ALA. For more information about the ALA, please go to: www.lawyersalliance.com.au.

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