Common First Job Problems and How to Solve Them

You're a bright and shiny new law graduate, about to start your first job, and you're pretty sure the hard work is over. After all, you just spent years learning this law thing! What else could there possibly be for you to learn?

It turns out, a lot. It's your first week. You've been working on a research project for three days with no success, had a two-paragraph draft letter you wrote heavily redlined and sent an email you thought your partner wanted you to, only to be told you should have run a draft by them first. Come Friday, you're feeling like you have no business being a lawyer.

Take a deep breath. You're not a terrible lawyer – you're just new at this, and everyone faces steep learning curves in their first jobs. Here are some pointers on how to handle some of them:

The old "it'll take an hour of research" ploy

Partners often tell you a research project won't take a lot of time, when in fact either the question is more complicated than they thought, or they don't require the kind of in-depth research you're used to doing at law school. Fast forward a week later, and you've gotten nowhere, and you're ready to throw your computer out the window and call it a day.

When this happens, if you've been researching for a good three hours with no or little success, you should tell the partner what avenues you have looked at, what you've found so far and why you think you may need to do more research (and what additional research you think you can do, if any). This way, you won't be lost in a rabbit hole of obscure research for three days when all the partner wanted was the citation to one case. The partner will also know you're actively working on their project rather than getting radio silence from you and thinking you're slacking off.

Death by redline

You write something you think is pretty good, give the draft to the partner, and they return it to you with so many redlines you can't even see what you originally wrote. You then write it again, incorporating all their changes, and they redline it AGAIN. Naturally, this goes on, until one of you dies from old age (kidding).

Dealing with several rounds of redlining is a collective experience for law grads in their first jobs, and no matter how good a writer you are, writing documents like memos to clients and letters to opposing counsel is a different skillset from writing essays. Going through your mistakes with a partner is ultimately helpful in teaching you how to write these kinds of documents. By sending you numerous redrafts, rather than just re-writing the document themselves, the partner is explaining to you how they want documents drafted. Also, don't be too hard on yourself on this one – every senior lawyer has their own style of writing which they want documents drafted in, but there's no way you can know that in advance. It's something you have to learn.

The "can you send an email for me" trap

Senior lawyers often come into your office, dictate an email or letter off the top of their head (which you frantically note down), and ask you to send it. You do, and then there's a mini-crisis because it says something they now say they didn't want it to say.The best way to avoid this is as follows:

(1) Once the senior lawyer has told you what they want in the email/letter, dictate it back to them to confirm you have it right.

(2) If at all in doubt, send the senior lawyer a draft first. When you're first starting out, this is a good idea for any correspondence that isn't obviously innocuous. If the senior lawyer doesn't want to see drafts from you, they'll tell you they trust you, and you don't need to run everything by them first.

Everyone's work is urgent

When you're working with multiple lawyers, they tend to load you up with work and expect you to get onto their tasks right away. You don't feel able to tell them you have a lot of other work, so you say nothing, tell them you'll get it to them asap, and then they ask for it the next day (and you haven't even had the chance to start their task). You're now working around the clock on everyone's "urgent" work, and weekends no longer apply to you.

The way to handle this is to have a to-do list that lists each task, who its for and the due date. Every time someone gives you work, pull out your to do list and tell them that you are thrilled to help but need to know when they need the task completed because you have other tasks you are working on as well. This reality-checks senior lawyers and allows them to sort out, amongst themselves, which of your tasks should take priority. And make sure you always get deadlines from everyone so you can prioritise tasks.

You disagree with the partner

This is a tricky one. You shouldn't be a thorn in the partners' side by quibbling with them over every little thing. But what happens when there is something significant you disagree with, such as a legal argument you have extensively researched or a strategy that you think is not in the client's best interests? Pick your moment, and ask to speak to the partner. You need to know your stuff and have a list of good reasons for why you disagree. Make sure you have genuinely thought about all the issues and have solid research to support your position. If the partner seems annoyed by your disagreement, you could explain that you want to understand why you might be wrong. And you might find the partner is actually receptive and glad you pointed out something that could have caused significant issues later on in a matter.

Ultimately, if the partner doesn't agree with you, you'll have to respect that and go along with their position – but if it's important, make sure you've made your views clear to protect yourself in case things go pear-shaped. One thing, though - if a senior lawyer is doing something illegal or unethical, contact your local lawyers' assistance helpline, or a trusted lawyer mentor outside your workplace (e.g. a law professor) immediately. You should never be pressured into doing something that could ruin your law career forever.

Hopefully, the tips above will make your transition to your first job a little easier – and soon enough, you’ll find that some of these problems are a thing of the past. You might even become that senior lawyer that redlines everything to death!

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