“Am I just not cut out to be a lawyer?”

I am not sure which tweet of mine triggered an influx of messages over one weekend a couple of weeks ago from anonymous young lawyers seeking career advice. It did not take long for me to realise that the common theme of these messages is extremely unhappy young lawyers. These unhappy young lawyers pretty much asked the same question in different forms: “Am I just not cut out to be a lawyer?”.

How many of you can relate to this?

I’ve always had a thing against lawyers who tell aspiring or young lawyers that “you’re just not cut out to be a lawyer” and I hope such words have never escaped my lips. The plain reason is that I am a firm believer that different people thrive under different circumstances. Just because you do not fit in at a particular firm, it does not necessarily mean you’re not going to find job satisfaction and happiness in a different firm.

Whilst I do not intend on defending employers, supervising partners and myself as team leader / law firm partner, I wondered if the unhappiness of many young lawyers (including my own at some point in my career) stems solely from harsh criticism, demanding bosses and what is seen by them to be unreasonable expectations from their bosses or is it in fact due largely to their misplaced expectations or perceptions of what legal practice is like.

More recently, I am also thrown into a situation where I wondered if in fact, telling someone that they’re just not cut out to be a litigation lawyer may be the kindest thing I can do for them. I have not said it but I think it and have held myself back because in the same line of thinking, I also ask if I am the problem that someone cannot thrive. Could things have been very different for them had I made better decisions, behaved better, taught better? The internal debate is a never-ending one.

I cannot answer everyone’s question as to whether they are cut out to be lawyers. But reading the messages I received made me come up this list of questions which I feel we can ask ourselves if and when we have doubts if this profession is our calling:

1. Are you pursuing a career in legal practice for the right reasons?

I must admit that going through some of the messages I received made me wonder if some of these young lawyers had pursued a career in legal practice for the right reasons. We all have our very own reasons why we decided to be lawyers. I’ve said this before: Hopefully the reason why you’ve decided to pursue a career in legal practice is not because you want to make a lot of money. I think if money is the motivation, then there are other better and easier ways to make money than being a lawyer.

To me, legal practice is a calling and above all, a service. In most, if not all practice areas, you will deal with real people with real life problems. You need to recognise that your work may have serious consequences on these people‚Äôs lives even if it may not always seem so. I can understand why this is a little difficult for many young lawyers to see, especially when you’re just starting out. As a pupil-in-chambers or a 1st year lawyer, chances are you will be given a lot document management and research tasks before you see any real action or even be given any context to the work you’re working on (depending on who you work for, of course).

The truth of the matter is that, more often than not, you might never get your Suits moment (whatever that is to you) until later in practice. Most of legal practice is tedious, repetitious, hard-work at the start. If you are not prepared for this and if you are in this for the big bucks and the glamour, you will end up very jaded very early on.

The talk about money is somewhat of a sensitive topic in the current climate but it is a very much needed discussion. In almost every jurisdiction, lawyers complain of being underpaid and overworked. The truth of the matter is, given how demanding the profession is of your time and energy, I sometimes wonder how much will be enough? What is the ideal, optimum salary which will compensate a lawyer for their time, mental health, physical health, blood and sweat so to speak? Would it also not be the case that the more you’re paid, the more is demanded and expected of you? I don’t have the answers.

But I find that there is truth to the saying that if you do not love the law, you will always feel underpaid and overworked.

2. Do you require a lot of guidance?

Guidance. Lack of guidance. Words which are the bane of every law firm partner’s existence. Or so I think. At least in my experience, “lack of guidance” complaints and feedback are one of the most-hated complaint / feedback amongst more senior lawyers I know. I remember an incident where a senior lawyer commented out of frustration: “You young lawyers don’t just expect to be spoon-fed. You expect to be breast-fed!” It was a callous comment and not to mention, highly inappropriate but I can assure you that many senior practitioners share the sentiments albeit not in those exact terms or words.

I often ask interviewees for pupillage and associate positions what are their expectations of guidance from their supervising partner. I may be more upfront than other interviewers in the firm (and please know that this is just me) but I often tell interviewees that if you are someone who requires a lot of guidance or spoon-feeding, this place is not for you. In fact, I’ve found at least one article out there which quoted a lawyer who went as far as saying: “attorneys who require lots of guidance are equally unsuited to the job.” He was quoted in an article titled: 4 Signs You’re Poorly Suited to be an Attorney.

The plain reason is that most, if not all, law firms expect and require their lawyers to work in highly autonomous environments. It is debatable what sort of guidance is sufficient and what expectations of guidance would be unreasonable. The balancing act is not an easy one. I can only speak from a litigation practice point of view and in my view, it is fair to expect as a pupil-in-chambers, for example, guidance on the following:

  • Drafting structure be it in pleadings, interlocutory applications, submissions, letters to opponents and Court;
  • Research angles;
  • File management;
  • Client management;
  • Trials & hearings management;
  • Idiosyncrasies of senior counsel you may be working with;
  • Courtroom etiquette.

This list may be different from practitioner to practitioner but for me personally, I think it is fair for a pupil to expect guidance on the above from me. But of course, if such guidance is needed for every single file you work on, it raises the question if you’ve actually learnt or remembered anything.

This brings me to examples of the kind of person who I think requires too much guidance:

  • You need to be repeatedly told what sources to look at for research;
  • Your drafting often involves massive amendments to language, accuracy of the facts and law;
  • You need very specific instructions on every piece of task / file you work on;
  • You need to be told very specifically that you need to do your research before you start drafting a particular application every other time;
  • You need to be told repeatedly very basic things including all of the above.

As junior lawyers, the reality is that you will be expected to think and find answers on your own. Unfortunately, as most of us will learn, most law firms operate in high-pressured, fast-paced environments which leave little time for hand-holding and spoon-feeding. For example, I can’t be telling a 1st year lawyer to do the necessary formal checks for every single file he works on, assuming it is a new file. I may tell him the first time and I think it would certainly be fair to expect that he remembers what he has to do without being told for subsequent, similar situations. You shouldn’t also need to be told on each file to remember the time-frames for filing of things like a Notice of Appeal or Motion for Leave to appeal to the Federal Court & on compliance with case management directions.

Some things ought to be your second nature if you are in legal practice and if you think you require guidance on such things even after completion of your pupillage, then I am afraid legal practice may not be for you.

3. Do you care about the interests you’re serving?

I picked this up from this article which explores why legal practice in America is the only job with an industry devoted to helping people quit practice: https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/07/the-only-job-with-an-industry-devoted-to-helping-people-quit/375199/

I think this ties in with my No. 1 question “Are you pursuing a career in legal practice for the right reasons?” but very well deserve some consideration on its own. Firstly, I think that even if you decide that you actually “love the law” (whatever that means to you), if you have no empathy towards the people whose interests you serve or you are unable to see value in the work you do for them, then legal practice is not going to spark much joy for you. I would say academicians appear to love the law too. If not, it would be hard for them to devote their careers to writing, studying, teaching and researching the law.

In other words, if you don’t give two sh*ts about the clients and their problems, then it is less likely that you will enjoy legal practice.

A subset of this question would be whether you are someone who likes problems. The reality of legal practice is that you are paid to be a problem solver. Clients pay lawyers to solve their legal problems. Your bosses pay you to solve their problems and do the work they do not want to do. So, if you are someone who finds other people’s problems to be burdensome or troublesome, then maybe legal practice is not your calling.

Similarly, it’s hard to see how one can be a litigation lawyer if you dislike furthering and convincing people on a particular stand. Unlike Tinder guys who jump to conclusions that I must like to argue a lot since I’m a litigation lawyer, I think litigation is not just about arguing. We make calculated concessions from time to time to further our client’s cases. I view litigating as an more of an art of persuasion than merely arguing. If you are not someone who enjoys discourse, able to see different arguments objectively with the aim of responding logically and coherently to such arguments, then litigation may also be challenging for you.

But I also don’t think that if you answered “No” to Question No.3, then you are doomed and should quit practice immediately. Sometimes, like in my case, it is a case of finding that 1 practice area that you not only enjoy but adds value to your practice. It can be that you find that you need to explore a different practice area first before deciding that you’re simply not cut out to be a lawyer.

Final Thoughts

I leave you with these 3 questions to think about if you’re that pupil or young lawyer out there wondering if you’re just not cut out to be a lawyer. The reality is, legal practice is tough and demanding. If you read enough, it is the same in every other jurisdiction.

I was left reflecting on my own behaviour this morning as someone in a more senior position within a firm’s hierarchy when I had an early morning chat with a good friend over a new trend I see of aspiring / young lawyers taking to social media to expose, what is in their view, to be toxic work places. I said that we would never think of doing such things in our days. At most, we whined about it to each other, hit the bar, knock back on a couple of drinks and went right back to work.

There is little doubt that many are driven away from legal practice because of such work environments. In fact, a few of the messages I received were from pupils / young lawyers with complaints of their bosses / work place environments which led them to question if they’re just not cut out to be lawyers. These messages are helping me reflect on my own behaviour as someone in a more senior position.

My good friend made these observations during our chat this morning:

“Now we are in senior positions, we lack the same empathy. Sometimes I wonder if we dealt with sh*t correctly or is the current generation getting it right by calling out toxic behaviour in the work place?”.

“We are all now in a position of power, to certain extents. We need to be held accountable. Walk the talk. Every action has repercussions. We touch lives every day.”

I hope to explore these topics in my next few posts. God willing, I find the diligence and motivation to keep writing.

In the meantime, these are a few of the articles I came across when Googling for inspiration (read: validation) for this piece and I hope you’ll find them helpful:

  • https://www.law360.com/articles/737486/4-signs-you-re-poorly-suited-to-be-an-attorney
  • https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/07/the-only-job-with-an-industry-devoted-to-helping-people-quit/375199/
  • https://leavelawbehind.com/lawyer-burnout/
  • https://leavelawbehind.com/i-hate-being-a-lawyer/

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