Thrown from a Boat

 In Practice Management

I have been reflecting on what it is like for our developing lawyers to undertake something, exhilarated and alone, for the first time, such as a motion or trial, negotiating a deal, or closing a commercial transaction.  As in all firms, our young lawyers covet firsts.  Our principals encourage firsts. We all get that. However, what I have been thinking about is that firsts must be managed.

My grandfather used to tell me the way to learn how to swim is to be thrown from a boat.  We have all heard this old saw at one time or another. If as a child I could not wait to learn how to swim, I might have been prepared to be thrown in.  My grandfather might have been ready to throw me in for the same reason. The problem is, if I managed to survive, I doubt I would have learned much about swimming, and certainly nothing about the technique and grace required to swim well, to swim efficiently and effectively, to swim under pressure or, to appreciate swimming.  My first swim might easily have disillusioned me, or even worse, it might have turned me off swimming forever.

Theorists on the subject of change contemplate firsts in reference to a defining moment. A defining moment has been described as “a point in your life when you are urged to make a pivotal decision, or when you experience something that fundamentally changes you” and that has or could have “a transformative effect on our perceptions and behaviors” (Forbes Coaching Council – my emphasis).  It is the transformative effect that is the cautionary tale.  When we introduce younger lawyers to these solo experiences, on behalf of a real client in a real matter, with real consequences for them and for the client, our obligation is to be alive to the fact that the outcome, coupled with the implicit transformative effect, could be either a positive or a negative one for them. We need to judge the opportunity accordingly.

Way back in 1754 Horace Walpole apparently coined the term serendipity, said to have been suggested to him by a fairy tale titled The Three Princes of Serendip, in which the protagonist Serendipians (now Sri Lanka) were always making discoveries by accident or, put loosely, luck. In setting our younger colleagues free, we ought not to be tolerant of accidents, and we cannot rely on luck.

Young lawyers cannot expand their experiences, professionally or otherwise, without firsts.  Nor can their principals necessarily predict what the outcome of a first will be. However, their principals can enhance the likelihood, through adequate training, counselling and mentorship, that a defining moment will be a positive one.

Our younger colleagues need to get wet. But, as Margaret Atwood has written, “Water is patient.” (The Penelopiad)

This blog post was written by K. Scott McLean,  General Counsel and Director of Practice Management.  He can be reached at (613) 369-0375 or at

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