How to get the most out of work experience in the early stages of your legal career
The extent to which you are able to draw the most out of work experience opportunities is largely dependent upon the perspective from which you view the opportunity from the outset. I have always believed that work experience is primarily an opportunity for professional development, character building and a widened perspective. Advantages such as having a great shining example of my competence on my CV, or having a bit of extra money in my pocket, are secondary benefits, and in my view should never be the focus of one’s efforts whilst seeking work experience at the early stages of their legal career.
During my journey to pupillage, I worked in a variety of legal and non legal positions to develop my skill set and curate a wider view of how the law, and lawyers, work in practice. Naturally, some periods of work experience yield more in terms of my professional development than others, but every single role served its purpose. With that being said, here are some of my top tips for ensuring that you can draw the most out of your work experience and propel yourself to where you’d like to be in your legal career…
The Big Picture
Your vision, overall strategy, and the reasons why you even wanted a law career in the first place, should be your main priorities for all of your major work experience decisions. Whenever you’re faced with a decision, be it macro or micro, ask yourself: “At the end of all of this, what kind of person do I want to be and what would I like to have accomplished?”. This should be the case for everyday work decisions, as well as when you’re plotting big career moves.
Yes, we’ve all faced times when John, the Partner in your team, has consistently given out incorrect instructions and somehow repeatedly repudiated the blame and shifted it to you. There are many ways to deal with this scenario, but my advice is to treat it as an opportunity to live up to the values and character that you’d like to build your reputation around.
It’s easy for paralegals and volunteers in their early twenties to dismiss these irritating situations as one off events, and to react irrationally. In my view, these situations are an opportunity to develop and harness the character traits which, perhaps 5 or 10 years down the line, will be invaluable to you when you’re in a position of responsibility and your ability to handle challenging scenarios is predicated upon well rehearsed personal virtues.
Similarly, deciding to move on from a role in which we have become too comfortable is a difficult decision for many. Over time I have learnt that a good way to come to a good decision in this regard is to centre the decision making process around those factors I mentioned above: What is your vision for yourself? How does remaining ‘comfortable’ fit into your overall career development strategy? How does this role currently serve, or put you in a position to serve, the reasons behind why you want to become a lawyer (or anything else for that matter) in the first place?
So when we’re faced with these difficult situations, consider the different options available to you. Pick the course of action which, when you’re looking back at your decision in five or ten years time, you’ll be proud of.
No one endures a career without any challenges. But some of the challenges we face in the early stages of our legal careers are also some of the best opportunities to accelerate our development.
Have you ever been in a situation at work where you felt out of your depth? Misinformed? Overworked? Have you ever felt like you had no senior members of your team to turn to for advice? Yes? Great! These are all opportunities to grow and develop.
I am not saying that all of these difficult situations can be perfectly resolved by a positive outlook, and I’m certainly not saying that you should always take responsibility for everybody else’s mistakes. However, optimism is the best form of pragmatism. Even if the outcome of a challenging scenario isn’t the one we wanted, the process by which we arrive at that outcome is one from which we can still learn and develop if we see the opportunity to do so.
By way of an example, I was once plunged into a situation where, as a paralegal fresh out of Bar School, I was working with a Senior Partner on a matter which required a substantial amount of associate level work and responsibilities. The clients were demanding, and many of the tasks I was being asked to carry out were not tasks I had ever done before. From my perspective, there were two ways of approaching this scenario:
a) Complain about the demands placed on me, only commit to the tasks with which I was familiar, and force the Senior Partner to bring in an associate to pick up some of the workload; or
b) Embrace the challenge. Open my eyes to all of the opportunities that this demanding scenario offered which aligned perfectly with my long term skill set aspirations. Ensure that, whatever happens, I come out of this challenge having learnt as much as possible whilst being proud of my input.
Every workplace difficulty has its own nuances, and we also have to be aware of how workplace pressures can impact our mental health. However, in my experience, a lot of workplace scenarios can be viewed through the lense of the two perspectives offered above, and ultimately we can choose which lense serves us, our values and our long term interests. Optimism is the best form of pragmatism.
(A great concise book I recommend on this topic is ‘The Dip’ by Seth Godin)
Learn from the best
Start taking note of all of the great things your colleagues do. There will always be members of the team who are consistent high performers, and this presents an opportunity to learn via osmosis. Perhaps it would be useful for you to take a closer look at what specific aspects of your colleagues’ routines, interests, education sources and experiences have contributed to this consistent high performance. In my experience, this has been a shortcut to learning and developing the skills that profoundly improve my performance.
I still have my notes from mini pupillages and vacation schemes which comment on the unique qualities I have observed in great advocates, or the approach taken toward planning a piece of advice drafted by highly renowned solicitors.
With that being said, reverse engineer the person you want to become by answering these 4 questions:
I) Who do I want to be?
II) What skills and traits does this future version of myself possess?
III) Who do I know with these qualities and how can I learn from them?
IV) Now that I understand how they do what they do, how can I begin to implement these traits in my own way, today?
Depending on the relationship you have with the person identified at III) above, you can build rapport and develop a stronger insight into how to acquire your desired qualities (or build on your existing ones) by looking for additional opportunities to work with them and actively asking for feedback. In my experience most senior professionals recognise genuine enthusiasm and a willingness to learn when they see it, so don’t be afraid to ask!
The overall message: each work experience opportunity should be chosen and treated as though it were a golden chance to squeeze as much as you can to accelerate toward the professional you want to become. Adopt the above principles, and your everyday tasks and challenges will become a whole lot more meaningful in the context of your career journey.
Who is this article for?
Highly motivated and ambitious young professionals, mostly but not exclusively in the legal profession, who are building on their skill set in the pursuit of a Training Contract, Pupillage or other formal vocational training towards a professional career.