Law school is only the start. By now you could be anywhere between your first job as a paralegal or already have made Partner, and what you know by now is that law school didn’t prepare you for everything. Below Lawyer Monthly benefits from expert insight from Susanne Shah, Director of Divorce and Family Law at Vardags, and Head of their Newcastle office.
Law school was an enriching, exciting and academically rigorous experience for me. I learned the underpinnings of modern legal thought, tore my way through thousands of pages of case law and cemented my conviction that I had found my craft. The one thing it didn’t teach me, unfortunately, is how to be an actual lawyer. After 14 years of working in the field, here are five things I’ve found you can only learn on the job.
The importance of empathy
In my line of work, I deal with real people who are quite often going through one of the most emotionally difficult experiences of their lives. They may be mourning the end of a once much-cherished relationship, worried about changes to the time they spend with their children, or facing an uncertain financial future.
When you’re tasked with representing individuals as they work through such intensely personal issues, empathy is a must. Every client is unique, so whether it’s providing a shoulder to cry on, or perhaps some tough love, you learn how to become finely attuned to their needs.
Of course, we’re there for the happier times, too. We meet couples preparing to start their lives together, assisting them in drafting prenuptial agreements as they plan for their shared future. We’ve helped reunite parents with their children. And divorce isn’t always all doom and gloom; often clients come out the other end of their proceedings with an immense feeling of hope and relief as they prepare to embrace the next chapter of their lives, and it’s a real privilege to have played a part in that.
At the heart of the majority of cases I work on is a dispute that needs to be resolved. In order to achieve the very best outcome for your client, you must consider the myriad of ways in which you can approach the conflict.
This choice is, to a degree, instinctual. It also depends on the facts of the case. It may be desirable to adopt a tactful, conciliatory approach if, for example, you are dealing with a divorce involving children and want to protect them from protracted and acrimonious litigation.
Conversely, you may be instructed by a client and find them backed into a corner, being bullied into accepting an outcome that is simply unfair. In these circumstances, your client will need someone who will really fight for them.
Preparing for the unexpected
Law school is fantastic for honing your organisational skills, as you juggle competing deadlines with vast tomes of required reading and revision, but a lawyer’s working life includes a certain element of surprise. In family law, at least, your workflow can be unpredictable—after all, the ups and downs of people’s lives don’t tend to follow a set schedule, so you have to be able react quickly whenever a new issue arises. Luckily, there are some practical measures you can take to make this easier. These can be as simple as stocking your office with snacks in case you end up waving goodbye to your dinner plans, or keeping comfy shoes under your desk when you need to rush to court to file on an urgent basis.
More generally speaking, it’s essential that you know how to keep your cool under pressure. This week alone I have had new instructions to issue an urgent injunction application and an urgent application in relation to a concern relating to child abduction and return of passports. These are intense highly charged situations and require fast thinking and thorough preparation. If you can’t do this, you’re in the wrong business. For some, such composure comes naturally, though if you are anxiety-prone it’s worth exploring techniques to help you keep your emotions in check. Your client will benefit greatly from your calm composure, in what is a very stressful setting for them.
Getting the most out of your day
To find fulfilment in your legal career, it’s crucial that you really nail your time-management. Lawyers work notoriously long hours, but it doesn’t have to be an unbearable slog. Organise your day wisely to ensure you’re maximising the amount of meaningful case work you can get done. This may mean identifying which times of day you have the most brain power and concentrating on your most challenging tasks then, or simply cutting down on your tea breaks.
Equally, it’s important to know how to switch off. This can be difficult when you know that the stakes are high for your clients, but you don’t want to risk burning out. Try to maintain a healthy work/life balance, so you leave the office with a sense of accomplishment and can be truly present when you spend time with your loved ones at home. I’m lucky enough to be working at a firm that believes in flexible working and empowers their employees, particularly parents, to keep all of their various plates spinning. It’s important to find a firm that values you, and enables you to honour your other commitments.
Building professional relationships
The best lawyers know that their work isn’t always confined to the courtroom or office. Attending industry events and connecting with other key players in your field is crucial to improving your practice. Networking with those who could one day benefit from your expertise is also important—the ability to bring in clients becomes ever more vital as you climb the legal ladder. Confidence, approachability and warmth can get you a long way, providing, of course, that you have the expertise to back it up.
No-one graduates from law school with all the answers. Indeed, one of the most exciting things about being a lawyer is that you never stop learning. That said, I’d advise anyone considering a career in law to try to find work experience before they commit, or at least to seek out the insights of those already in the thick of it.