Five top tips for newly qualified lawyers

Simon Ashcroft, a newly qualified in-house lawyer, shares the five things you should know when embarking on your legal career.
Two colleagues sit next to each other, looking at a laptop and talking. One man is a white with short, straight brown hair and a moustache; he wears a white shirt. The second man is Black with short, curly black hair; he wears a black suit and blue shirt.

1. Ask questions – if you don’t know, ask

Although it is often daunting to speak up and ask questions from those who are, in your mind, far superior to you – it is an absolute necessity to do so.

I hear people start a question with the phrase “it may be a stupid question, but…”. I’ve fallen into the trap, too, as I can imagine many have and still do.

Remember this: those you present your questions to have been where you are and have gone through the same process.

The answer to a question which seems simple to you is more often than not integral to ensuring that you have the knowledge to consider and response accordingly to more complex questions, each more difficult than the last, moving forward.

Become comfortable with asking any question you feel is relevant to your development or the task at hand as early as you can.

Don’t avoid or hold off from asking questions as you will instead waste time and prevent your own professional (and personal) growth. This may also set you up for mistakes which you could have otherwise avoided.

2. Say yes to (almost) everything

The best way to learn is to get involved, this I know. A word of caution, though: saying yes without regard to your capacity to take it all on is an immediate ‘no’.

It may be worrying to say yes to something that you feel is perhaps beyond your skill level or is otherwise daunting to take on, but it’s crucial to your learning and development.

Saying yes to the things you know and are comfortable with is fine, although you should say yes to as many varied and challenging things as you can to ensure you are continuously developing and stepping out of your comfort zone.

As above, always consider your capacity to take it all on. Saying yes to multiple tasks at a time in the hope you will get to them all before each deadline is not the way to achieve effective development or efficiency.

Say yes to as many things as reasonably and practicably possible, whilst ensuring you manage each task efficiently and effectively at all times.

3. Step out of your comfort zone

I’ve never enjoyed public speaking, which to me is speaking to more than five people at a time.

I’d often become incredibly anxious before meetings, with my mind filled with thoughts such as “what if I need to speak”, “what if I don’t understand”, and “they will see straight through me, surely”.

The way to combat this is to step out of your comfort zone a little at a time, but as often as possible.

Doing this over the course of the recognised training period allowed me to eventually present to around 140 people, followed by 40 or so people across multiple countries.

Considering I wouldn’t ‘present’ to a small group of people before that, I found this to be an essential turning point in my commitment to continuously step out of my comfort zone a lot but a little at a time.

Consider this: pushing yourself slightly further each time, many times, with the support of those around you, is the simplest act to get yourself to where you want to be.

4. If you don’t know, don’t speak

Always remember the responsibility of a lawyer – each word uttered or written can have an impact far bigger than intended if done incorrectly or without thought.

I know from experience (through observation, thankfully, not personally) the importance of not speaking or commenting when you aren’t absolutely sure.

Historically I’ve been the ‘quiet one’ in meetings, or as I like to say, the ‘observer’. It was very rare for me to speak up unless absolutely required and, most crucially, only when I was sure of what I was speaking about.

This is fine and continues to be fine right up to the point you feel the need to speak, at which point you should always ensure that you are ready, prepared, and confident in what you are saying.

An important point to note is this: if you don’t know, say you don’t and come back to it when you do. This goes for meetings, during conversation, responding to questions and pretty much every other aspect of your role.

5. Reflect

It is given that at some point (or many points) you will receive feedback on some drafting, for example, and the document is a full of red lines. The same goes for any feedback – ‘red-lining’ will happen in each case.

This may demoralise you or otherwise cause you to doubt yourself, it may go so far as to knock your confidence, but it should always be considered in as much detail as possible and reflected upon.

Don’t think: “oh no, this is poor” - think: “okay, where did I go wrong or how could I improve, and why?”.

I am thankful to have been trained by excellent lawyers who would not only provide detailed feedback but would take the time to explain what could be improved and the impact particular mistakes could have had and how to avoid them.

Each time, I’d listen and take extensive notes, I’d ask questions, but most importantly I’d then reflect on it.

Ensure you understand each step that you take and why you take it. Don’t simply take notes and never refer to them again.

Reflection is often key to a concrete understanding moving forward.

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