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Transitioning from Law School to Law Firm: Q&A with Chris Hargreaves, Senior Associate

Chris Hargreaves

Chris Hargreaves started his legal career as a clerk in a small law firm, before being admitted as a lawyer in 2005. He now works as a Senior Associate at McInnes Wilson Lawyers, practicing in commercial litigation, tax litigation and insolvency. In his free time, Chris also runs the website Tips for Lawyers.

Chris chatted with Survive Law about how he started his career and how law students can make a smooth transition from law school to law firm life…

Why did you decide study law?

For most of my time at secondary school I was headed towards engineering. As a result in my senior years I chose to do Maths B, Maths C, Physics and Chemistry (and Music to help buffer me from the pure nerd regimen).

A few things started to become clear about half way through grade 12. As my brother was already an engineer I wasn't entirely convinced that our family needed another one. I wanted a degree that would lead me towards a challenging and stimulating profession. Although in retrospect I was really ignorant of what legal practice involved, it seemed to me to fit the bill, and Boston Legal made law look like a blast. Intellectually I knew that it was a complete fabrication, but in my own personal fairyland that didn't matter too much.

What was your first job after law school, and what was the hardest thing about making the transition from study to practice?

Because I got married before finishing my degree, I needed a job pretty early on and managed to nab one in a fantastic small law firm in 2001 as a general dog's body (a.k.a. an outside clerk).

I scored the position through no fault of my own - basically my "interview" was to go in for a day and help them catch up on their loose-leaf filing (for those of the pure computer age, paper resources are updated by somebody replacing them page by page as updates come out - it is a tedious and mind-numbing task which can be completely stuffed up if you stop paying attention for a few seconds). I was then offered the job because I was available to work on a Thursday.

Over the next few years I remained at that firm and transitioned from outside clerk, to articled clerk shortly before I graduated, and then to solicitor. Ultimately I worked at that firm until the end of 2005, and the people I worked with there (in particular my "master" under whom I did my articles) remain to this day some of the most positive influences on my legal career.

For me the hardest thing in transitioning from study to practice was the change in writing style that was required. As a student my task, mostly, was to dump the entire contents of my brain on the page so far as it related to the topic. As a practitioner, however, I needed to start using less words for more effect. The related transition was to start writing with the client in mind. That involves use of language, structure and vocabulary that are appropriate to the client, not just what I felt like.

What important lawyering skills do new graduates often struggle with?

There are two main skills that I think new graduates don't appreciate or, if they do, have trouble understanding the practical impact of.

The first is professional relationship building. All legal skills revolve around one fundamental axis: relationships. Legal studies are most frequently done in isolation, and so graduates become dependant on their own skills, abilities and diligence in order to accomplish tasks. Legal practice, however, occurs within a sea of professional interpersonal relationships.

Graduates are generally adept at developing social relationships, but often struggle to transition into developing professional relationships. Professional relationships are founded on trust, and new graduates need to learn how to foster trust in their peers, colleagues and clients as one of their first focus points in practice.

The next "skill" is really more of an appreciation: that law firms are businesses. Graduates are nearly always unaware of how law firms operate in a business sense. Law firms either grow or die on their ability to function as a profitable business, and new graduates should take the time to learn what that means…With the knowledge of how things work, a graduate can more effectively ensure that they are, as best they can, contributing value to their firm and improving the bottom line. The practical result of that is that they can hopefully hold on to their jobs in a tough market, and grow in favour and responsibility with their firm.

If you could give one piece of career advice to law students, what would it be?

Never stop learning.

What you love most about working in the law?

I love almost every aspect of legal practice (I'm not a big fan of time recording, I admit). That said, two components stand out as my personal favourites:

  1. Solving complex problems. I get a huge buzz from bringing tendrils from A, B and C, weaving them together to understand an issue and bring a solution to the table.

  2. Training. So many senior lawyers I know are ambivalent towards training younger lawyers in their careers…For my part I really enjoy assisting younger lawyers so that they can produce work more effectively, efficiently and comprehensively. That might be through internal presentations, formal mentoring, or (most commonly) the random "drop-ins" to my office on topics ranging from PLT questions to inter-office politics to the Income Tax Assessment Act 1936.

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