Tips for Early Career Lawyers
1. Your first job doesn’t have to be your ideal job
Your first job out of university doesn’t have to be your dream job. It may take years for you to get where you want to be, but if you can learn from each job and workplace along the way, those early years will never be a waste.
Working as a lawyer is very different to what you study at university, and it may take practical experience to show you what area or field you want to work in (or definitely don’t want to work in!).
When I finished university I was fortunate to get a job in a mid-tier graduate program, doing commercial work. I didn’t think I was made for commercial law, but with bills to pay I took the job anyway and worked at the firm for two years. In that two years I was fortunate to have an incredible mentor, meet people who are now some of my best friends, hone my drafting skills, and be exposed to litigation and the court process, amongst other things.
After 2 years, I left to move into family law in a much smaller firm. I have no regrets about taking that graduate job and I am sure I wouldn’t be the lawyer I am today without that experience. It also showed me that the big firm, corporate lawyer lifestyle wasn’t for me and I know I made the right decision when changing roles.
Make the most of all the experiences and job opportunities that come your way. Plus, as they say, it’s always easier to find a job when you already have one.
2. Find a Mentor
I know this advice is handed out to all law students along the way, but I think it’s really important to find someone you can trust and who shares your values to mentor you– they can give advice, be a sounding board, answer questions, support you during rough times and pass on career lessons because they have been there.
This person doesn’t necessarily have to work at the same firm, in the same area of law or even be a lawyer, but they should practice law in a way that you aspire to practice. Use your mentor’s experience, network and skills to help you – chances are they will learn something from you as well.
I have been very fortunate to come across some very inspiring senior female practitioners over the years (including Amy) and continue to rely on them for guidance, a friendly ear and the occasional after work wine buddy.
Stay in touch with people you respect, even if you do leave that workplace, as law is a small world and you never know when you will cross paths again.
3. Ask the stupid questions
I have worked in family law for over 3 years now, and practiced commercial law for 2 years prior, and have learnt that asking questions is vital to your success as a lawyer. Even now, I regularly approach senior practitioners at my firm to ask questions, what I think are stupid questions, but I’ve never regretted asking any of them.
If you don’t know something and you’ve thought about it and can’t find the answer, it is better to ask someone than to assume the answer and get it wrong.
Don’t feel ashamed of seeking out knowledge. Ask for feedback about work you have done, strive to improve constantly and never stop learning.
4. Maintain relationships outside of work
In any job you will spend a lot of time with the people you work with, so those relationships are incredibly important to your overall happiness. It is also really important to maintain supportive relationships outside of the workplace.
We all need to vent sometimes and sometimes those vents need to be outside the work environment (because they may or may not involve the workplace). It’s also important to make sure you are spending time with people that bring you up and support you, no matter what is going on at work.
I would also recommend keeping in touch with a network of friends who work in law, at different firms and different areas, as inevitably you will have questions or referrals for them along the way and vice versa.
It’s also handy to have people around that also work in law who know what it’s like and can provide that extra support when needed, or celebrate with you when you settle a matter or go through your first trial.
The statistics about lawyers and mental health are truly shocking, which is why I believe self-care is so important to starting, and maintaining, a career in law.
Find what self-care means for you – a Sunday bath, wine with friends, movie nights, yoga and prioritise these things as much as you do your career. It’s easy (particularly in the early years when you feel like you have something to prove) to focus so much on work that you let these things go but DON’T.
All the usual suspects are so important – find exercise that you love, eat nutritious food, indulge occasionally and get enough sleep! We hear it constantly but if you can work on these things, you will be much more productive and efficient when you are at work and overall much happier.
If you do find yourself in a job that you truly do hate, start looking for other options. Don’t get fixated on how it will look on your resume if you leave a job within 2 years – if you are truly unhappy then you should look for other options. Speak to your network, get in touch with recruiters and explore the options – something will come up eventually and in the meantime, focus on your mental health outside work.