Most seniors have an opinion on what new or newer lawyers should be considering concerning practice development. Me too. I don’t think there is a comprehensive list and therefor what follows is not pretending to be one. But if we were sitting down and you asked me what I think it is important to know or at least think about at the start of your career, here is what I expect I would say.
I would start by way of overview with the notion of “serendipity”, an interesting but complex term coined in 1754, which refers to the ‘faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident’. While chance and plain good luck will at some points be part of your developing practice, they cannot be counted on. Developing a legal practice is hard work. Successful barristers or solicitors (lawyers from hereon) will attribute their achievements to varying factors. While they will all (and I mean all) be able to point to mentors, circumstances or events that unpredictably assisted their development, they will also acknowledge the trials and tribulations, and the work, that made these “accidents” possible. Count on the rewards that will flow from hard work. Count on the benefits that will come from diligence and effort, from learning as you go, and from using (appropriately) every person and thing you come across to advantage. Seize upon opportunity. Be eclectic in your interests. Be willing to be vulnerable in seeking opportunity or place. (See Brene Brown, Daring Greatly). And think long term. Keep the big picture in view.
You are the Product – Know Your Brand
I would stress the point that modern business development has been marked by brand development and recognition. A simple example of this in the practice of law is the renaming of law firms, the “branding” of the firm.
Do not be shy about recognizing that while it is an honoured and honourable profession, law is also a business.
A point I like to offer is that in developing a legal practice, it is therefore important to appreciate that you are the product. What you are selling is you, which includes of course your strengths, interests and abilities, what you are offering to the market. You must therefore be self-aware and thoughtful as to what it is you want to be selling and how you want to sell it, what is your brand? How do you wish to be seen and remembered- what kind of lawyer do you want to be and where will you fit in the competitive offerings around you. A related point is how you will integrate with your community; what charitable interests will you pursue and how will you ensure you have the time to address them.
And remember that law is a 24/7 business, meaning that you must always protect your brand, by being painfully aware that wherever you are and whatever you are doing, whether at work or at play, you are under a microscope.
Define Your Success – and the Rules
Take note of the old saw that if you do not know where you are going you will not know if you have arrived. It is important in considering or commencing a career in law to work out what success will look like to you. In doing so, I think it prudent to ensure that this is a subjective and not an objective exercise; save yourself future pain and anxiety by appreciating what you want and not what you think you want under the influence of others, including what you heard at law school or what you hear from your colleagues. Consider two self-development tools – a SWOT (Strengths-Weaknesses-Opportunities and Threats) analysis and a modest strategic plan that will flow from it to help you with this.
You must also consider the rules that will govern your practice. This goes back to your brand, and to consideration of law as a profession. Will respect matter to you? Set your own limits, aspire to consistency. In practice, as you enter the bar, consistency in communication and approach is quite important. More to the point, it is absolutely fundamental to your success. Be the same to everyone. Seek your balance, and like early writers who desire a career, consider and find your voice.
Specialize – Align the Product with the Market
I do not think it unfair to suggest that it has become increasingly difficult (but not impossible) to practice as a generalist, whether on your own, with a small group of like-minded practitioners, or with a very large firm. Most general practice firms are of course made up of lawyers practicing as specialists. Most boutiques are made up of the same. And most clients are looking for someone that does more than dabble in the issues important to them.
I would urge you to give careful thought not only to where the market is, but also to what you will enjoy in practice. This will involve your interests, and a careful self-appreciation, perhaps coming out of a SWOT, of what your special strengths and talents are and in what practice area you might exercise them. Align the product – you – with the market. Not only what the practice looks like now, but what the practice may look like 5 years from now.
Top of Your Game – Performance, Mental Health and Wellness
Frankly, I would push this point hard at you. Lawyers have become increasingly aware of the endemic stressors in the practice of law which can lead to anxiety, depression, a sense of unworthiness, and the imposter syndrome. Be vigilant of your own mental health and wellness, but also the mental health and wellness of your colleagues. Take advantage of the wealth of material and specialized services that are available to assist. Lawyers must perform to a high standard in everything they do, there is no question about that, and there never will be. They must stay on top of their area of practice, which involves reading legislation, literature and the developing jurisprudence and carrying an often-burdensome number of files. But you are not invincible, and you must fight the compulsion that you must appear to be. Regardless of practice area or firm, whether a sole practitioner or otherwise, and no matter what you may hear, as a new or newer lawyer you will work long hours, you will have to work independently at times, you will have a target you will be responsible for working, and hours you will be responsible for billing that will become statistics if not collected. In our discussion I would tell you not to believe otherwise. All of this will preoccupy and take time away from other important parts of your life. The burden of satisfying others, the need to perform, is a heavy one.
So, I would insist that you acknowledge this right out of the gate. It is important that you pay attention to your needs and feelings. And it is important that you appreciate the help that is all around you: the willingness of your colleagues to assist in your practice when required, the concern your colleagues and the firm have for your wellbeing, and the assistance available at the LSO and elsewhere. Our profession is well aware of the stigma mental health problems carry and is slowly defeating it. If at any time you are hurting, try to recognize that the inward belief that somehow you must battle on without revealing what YOU are experiencing is your enemy, acting as it does as a potent barrier to your ability to seek help, and to your opportunity to recapture satisfaction and a sense of confidence in your practice. Don’t let this belief prevent you from contributing to your clients and the profession the way your colleagues, family and friends know you want to contribute. Fight it together.
Stay tuned for more practice development tips to come.