31 January 2017

Working Well: Advice for Junior Lawyers

Published on 31 January 2017
Anita Hall knows only too well the unwritten rules of the office that may baffle lawyers new to the firm, especially junior lawyers.

“Until relatively recently,” observed Hall, “law as a profession was learnt in much the same way as any trade – master and pupil, the master imparting knowledge, skill and how to work, how to go about the day to day business of being a lawyer, to the future generation.”

Hall, who clerked with HopgoodGanim Lawyers in 2004 before moving to McCullough Robertson’s Dispute Resolution and Insolvency team, now lectures for the College of Law in its Practical Legal Training Program. She spoke to Insights about why it is vital to convey the day-to-day lessons of being a lawyer, and top tips she urges junior lawyers to consider.
As the approach of master-and-apprentice on-the-job learning was supplemented with undergraduate degrees, postgraduate diplomas and masters’ degrees, Hall argued that “learning how to work, and live, perhaps even happily, as a lawyer, is one of the things which has been lost.”
“The modern legal culture is, we all know, plagued with issues associated with poor mental health,” said Hall. “We talk about the importance of wellness and resilience. We know that wellness comes from sufficient sleep, eating mostly well, socialising, meaningful connections, exercise, outside interests and engaging with work in a meaningful way. Developing skills in how to work, how to organise one’s day, how to organise one’s life, will add one more tool to the resilience toolkit.”
Focus, Hall said, is fundamental to working well.
“Any practitioner of any discipline needs calm, order, and time, to devote to developing their craft. There are things we can do to carve out a section of time to find ‘the zone’ – that sense of heightened focus where the real ‘magic’ happens. Creatives, chefs, surgeons all work their best in ‘the zone’. Quality, tailored legal work, jurisprudential thought, needs that same ‘zone’ to happen.”
“Focus requires three things before it can exist: Preparation, process and presence.”
To Hall, ensuring you are prepared for work involves preparation of both work space and work day.
“What is in your space which you don’t need? Articles your printed out three years ago to read in a spare moment? An annotated text of the ‘new’ Corporations Act 2001? Throw out the clutter; remove out of date materials before they cause damage to your work; figure out how to file/shelve/display those things you need, you love, you are working upon. It is calming to work in a tidy space; for many people, an untidy space invites anxiety.”
The goal, said Hall, is to encourage you to work well, ensuring you have the right tools to work how you like in sufficient comfort. This may mean adjusting your desk, your chair, or keeping a fountain pen, felt pen, pencil or stylus on a tablet handy to inspire continued focus.
Equally important is keeping your work space in order. “Spend a few minutes at the end of each task, and again at the end of each day, righting things back to their organised place. You have to leave to go to a meeting? Save the document. Replace the documents in the file, close the folder, re-shelve it.”
Organisation is just as essential for a well-managed work day.
“You should only focus on one project in each area at a time – figure out what you want to accomplish in each area in a given year. To this, spend a little time figuring out what your priorities are in each area of your life – work, home, personal. Set yourself small goals which build over the course of the year to the ultimate goal.”
Process, Hall explained, is the routine you develop to keep your preparation actionable.
For Hall, this involves a morning coffee spent writing her work/home to do list on an index card, and ensuring her desk is reasonably tidy before she departs each day.
“The process is designed to help you achieve excellence in the things you have prioritised,” said Hall. “It is holding yourself accountable to the items you have prioritised for the day.”
Hall also suggested ‘chunking’ similar small administrative tasks, like checking emails or follow-up phone calls, into half-hour blocks, while allowing larger blocks of time to work on major items requiring more focus.
“You may schedule an hour to spend on the advice to that new client; two to work on drafting that agreement; half an hour to spend on that personal development course, and when you’re home, maybe you can schedule an hour to work on that painting you’ve been working on.”
Wherever possible, consider delegating or outsourcing tasks – for example, dictating documents for transcription, requesting research or advice from the firm library, or regularly sending receipts to the accountant ahead of tax returns.
Most of all, discard multi-tasking, especially in a professional environment. “You might be able to listen to background music, but you cannot dictate an advice and check Twitter,” said Hall. “Schedule regular breaks, and take them. Take five minutes to have a cup of tea, take 15 minutes to walk outside during daylight. You cannot give your full attention for 14 hours straight, which is why you look for distractions.”
“Choose one thing, do that thing, then do the next thing. You must give your full attention to your client in a meeting; so give your full attention for 25 minutes to the advice, then take 5 minutes and get back into it. Similarly, if you are out with your significant other, give them your full attention for the duration of the dinner and turn your phone to silent.
“Make each decision about how you spend your time deliberate rather than reactionary. Our presence is valuable, our attention finite, our time irreplaceable.”