Fight On or Take Flight?

Asking the right questions to survive and thrive in the legal profession.

Are you a fresh law graduate or a practice trainee? Have you been recently called to the Bar? Are you bothered by the recent news of there being a glut of law graduates with too few training contracts to go around? Or are you concerned with the talk of burnout among mid-career lawyers?

Should you stay on to join the squeeze? Or should you move on to greener pastures? If you stay on, how do you prevent burnout? How do you survive the legal profession for the long haul? Is there a future in the profession for you?

Unfortunately, before you find the answers to these hard questions, you need to ask yourself more hard questions.

Perhaps it is now an opportune time for contemplation before you decide whether to dig in your heels and bite the bullet. Take the time to reflect before making that decision to cross the Rubicon.

Did You Really Want to Be a Lawyer?

Before you even start applying for a training contract, did you even paused to seriously consider whether you really want to be a lawyer? If you do not really want to be a lawyer, then why apply?

Why did you decide to study law to begin with? Did you embark on a law degree because you really wanted to practice law or because of some other oblique reason? Knowing your "whys" will determine your "hows".

Were you attracted by the ideals of an honourable profession or that of justice and doing right? Or did you do it because your parents thought it was a good idea? Or because you were told lawyers make lots of money?

Whatever your reasons were, ask yourself if becoming a lawyer is still a logical conclusion to your reasons? If you were drawn by the ideals of justice and doing right, then ask yourself what kind of a law practice should you be applying to? What practice area should you be in? If you were told you will make a lot money, ask yourself if that still holds true. Can you not make your money elsewhere? A law degree is as good a degree if not better for many other occupations or pursuits.

If you are convinced that the practice of law is what you want, then find out what being a lawyer entails. Interview people from the profession, from different practice areas and understand things from their perspectives. Do not take one person's word as gospel truth, ask a few.

It is important to at least like the work you are to engage in. Endurance at work depends largely on the extend to which you like, dislike or love what you do.

If you conclude that you really want to be a lawyer and you are able to like what you are expected to do, then you need to ask more questions to decide if you can survive and thrive in this profession.

Are You Prepared to Pay the Price?

Having decided that you want to be a lawyer, you should also understand that the legal profession is a demanding one. You cannot afford to be rest on your laurels if you wish to last for the long haul. Getting that law degree with good honours and getting called to the Bar is not the end of the story. It is but the beginning.

There are at least 3 aspects that you must keep your eyeballs on: (1) Values; (2) Lawyering Skills; and (3) Business Skills. All 3 aspects are equally important if you want to do well.

Values

The legal profession is meant to be an honourable one, so a high premium is placed on values.

The legal profession is regulated. Often lawyers can be made the subject of a complaint and may be put through the disciplinary processes of a Review Committee, Inquiry Committee or a Disciplinary Tribunal. Going through one of these can be a nerve wrecking experience. To maintain discipline, the Supreme Court is empowered to impose sanctions which includes striking a lawyer off the Roll, suspension for a specified period and censure depending on the severity of a lawyer’s misconduct, defect of character and other acts or omissions. This is a risk that comes with the territory.

Other than the fact that erring is human, you have to guard yourself against the perils of the disgruntled client, the overly zealous opponent and sometimes a sincerely wrong Bench, all of which can all lead you down the valley of a disciplinary process. So you can never afford to be complacent. Of course, it is much easier to stay out of trouble if being honest, upright and principled comes naturally to you but that alone is not enough. You have to be ever vigilant and be au fiat with the professional rules that apply to lawyers as well have a lot of faith in the system. This profession is not for the faint hearted.

However, paying the price for “Values” is not just about learning ethics in the sense of how not to get into trouble. The legal profession is a fraternity. Having “Values” is also about having respect for fellow members of the Bar and the Bench. What goes around, comes around. If we are nasty to opponents and the Bench as a rule, then we will have to guard against nasty opponents or Judges all the time. If we learn to pay it forward and be courteous and helpful (without being a pushover or compromising clients’ interests) even when others may not do likewise, then we help create an environment that help us all last longer in the profession.

Lawyering Skills

Lawyering is not just about knowing the black letter law. It is also about the skills of managing a legal matter effectively from beginning to end. Skills such as the ability to understand what issues clients are confronted with and knowing how to generate solutions to solve them.

Whilst some of these skills can be picked up along with mandatory continuing professional development, many of them are caught and not taught. Lawyers are oftentimes not the most enthusiastic teachers but if the student is ready, the teacher sometimes appears.

Realise that these are the very skill sets that clients are looking for and it is when clients’ needs are met that our existence is justified. So you have to be intentional in picking these skills up.

Do not expect to be fed because sometimes you are not.

Business Skills

The fact that the practice of law is a business is an inescapable fact today. To pretend it is not, is not tenable. Gone are the days when lawyers earn a good living just by virtue of being lawyers. You have to realise that practising law today is very much a business. You need to understand how to market yourself, take care of clients, bill and collect. You must understand running of a practice requires overheads and you must understand profit and loss, even if you are an employed lawyer. The profits are what pays your salary.

Realise that being part of a legal practice is like being onboard a cargo ship, unless you are the captain, you are either crew or cargo. When the ship meets with a storm, push comes to shove, usually the crew stays and the cargo gets thrown overboard.

So you need to ask yourself what makes you the crew and not the cargo?

Which Creature Are You?

In order to figure out what makes you a crew member instead of cargo, you need to understand your own make up.

I believe there exists 3 main types of creatures in the legal eco-system. Recognising what kind of creature you are will help you survive and thrive better. Whilst there exist hybrids of these 3 creatures, rarely would you possess the virtues of all 3.

The 3 types of creatures are (1) the Genius; 2) the Rainmaker; and 3) the Workhorse.

The Genius

The Genius simply has the smarts. Geniuses are usually born that way. While you can learn to work smarter, you cannot learn to be a Genius. You are either one or you are not. The Geniuses are the luckiest of the lot. They usually do not have to find work, everyone wants the Genius to do their work and the Genius usually has the privilege of choosing the work he wants to do. As such, the Genius do not really have to work very hard. However, if the Genius is prepared to learn the virtues of the other 2 creatures, he will be most formidable. The Genius is the rarest of the creatures.

The Rainmaker

The Rainmaker has a knack of finding business and that is his greatest value to his organisation. So he really does not have to be smart because he can get the Genius to do all the thinking. He does not have to be very hardworking because he can get the Workhorse to do all the work. Whilst he cannot learn to be a Genius, he can learn to be hardworking or work smart, thereby becoming more powerful. Not as rare as the Genius but still a rare bird. Rainmaking skills unlike the smarts of the Genius can be learnt.

The Workhorse

Those not endowed with the virtues of the Genius and the Rainmaker will by default be a Workhorse. They are a dime a dozen. The only value of the Workhorse is that he is able to work hard. Unfortunately, having the ability to work hard does not equate with the willingness to work hard. To survive, the Workhorse must work hard. To thrive, the workhorse should learn to work smarter and try to acquire some skills of the Rainmaker.

What you have to understand is that remuneration will eventually commensurate with value add. If your value is just the provision of labour, then you are destined to work harder, faster and longer.

When the law practice is able to find a cheaper source of labour, then you will be in big trouble. If you have no other value add, you will either have to find where the door is yourself or you may be shown the door in due course.

What Is Your Value Add?

Now that you know it is all about providing value, you should then be asking yourself very early on who you want to give value to and how you want to provide value? You should ask yourself what skill sets you need to acquire.

If you go into a big firm, you better be proactively learning the skill sets that would make you a top dog in your field such that clients will ask for your services. In this way, you will remain of value to your firm. If you are merely a workhorse doing the run of the mill work in the big firm, you will eventually be confronted with the "what is your value add?" question at some point and if the only response you can muster is "I work very hard" then you will be in big trouble. Because you will be easily replaced with a few younger and cheaper lawyers. Then you will have the challenge of finding another job to make the kind of salary you are accustomed to in the big firm. Chances are you may not be able to attract the work you are used to doing in a big firm. You would also not have done or learnt the work the small firms usually do.

So you may be better off choosing a small firm and learning to do the work you can reasonably expect to attract from your own network. Learn to do the work well and learn to find the work. If you get the hang of it, you will have learnt a life skill to take care of yourself and your family.

Are You Knocking On Those Doors?

If you have considered all of the questions above and resolved that you are prepared to do what it takes to be a lawyer, then I believe you will find your place in this profession regardless of the grim statistics now in the market place.

It is at the end of the day a number game. If you have not gotten that training contract, it is about how many doors you are prepared to knock on. Knowing that there are more law graduates then available training contracts just means that you have to knock on more doors faster. Assuming one in 10 applications you make would result in an interview and assuming one in 10 interviews would land you with a training contract, ask yourself how many applications do you need to make? Have you made that many applications? Are you hungry enough to do so?

Consider the unbeaten paths. Apply to law practices that did not previously offer training. Make them offers that they cannot refuse and learn to get them hooked on to your value add. If they get used to having you around, they are more likely to retain you. Even if they do not, you are a step closer to getting called to the Bar than before.

Then repeat the process in getting hired as an associate. Be of value. Learn to fish and not just expect to be fed fishes. Learn to add value to clients, the more clients you help, the more referrals you will get in the future. Be faithful in the little things and the bigger cases will come. Be reminded that you exist to solve your clients’ problems and you will get amply rewarded in the process. Clients do not exist just to solve your problems.

Once you have learnt to be of value, once you understand where your value add lies in any given situation and once you learn to market your value to others systematically, you will be less likely to burn out. It is a matter of being in control of your professional life. It would certainly help if you learn to live within your means as well as inculcate a habit of networking and prospecting for work that you know how to do well.

What Is Success to You?

I hope that the above questions have been helpful in helping you decide whether to remain or to move on. If you have decided to stay on for the fight, I hope that some of the ideas shared above would give you a handle on how to have smoother ride

Either way, I believe that as long as you comprehend that in life, it is all about giving value, you should be able to succeed in whichever course you elect to pursue. As Zig Ziglar would say:

“You can have everything in life you want, if you will just help other people get what they want.”

That said, you need to figure out what your own definition of success is. The definition I have adopted for myself is a quote I came across from Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop:

"Success to me is not about money or status or fame, its about finding a livelihood that brings me joy and self-sufficiency and a sense of contributing to the world."

May you find your success.

 

Michael S Chia
Director
MSC Law Corporation
Email: Michael.s.chia@msclawcorp.com