What is involved in private practice as a junior lawyer?
Written by Thomas Eckardt on 1st February, 2017
Working as a lawyer in private practice at the early stages of your career can vary depending on the firm size, and the practice group you are allocated to. Generally speaking, the hours are long so it is crucial you align yourself to a senior associate or partner that is engaging and that works collaboratively with their matters.
Tasks such as attendance to discovery (assuming you’re a member of the commercial disputes team) or managing the due diligence process (assuming you’re a member of the M&A) team, can be on the surface quite mundane and cumbersome. However, these tasks are a key opportunity to demonstrate to your senior lawyer that your attention to detail is high and your general legal aptitude is proficient.
It is very easy to get bogged down in a certain stage of a transaction or proceeding, and before you know it you have created your own pigeon hole for yourself. Becoming proficient with a certain task is important but know when to put your hand up for a new and separate task is equally important. For example, if you have been on discovery for 5 to 6 matters, it is worthwhile requesting to have partial carriage of drafting pleadings, or at least reviewing pleadings drafted by your senior lawyers. If you have been stuck on due diligence for several private M&A deals, it would be of benefit to put your hand up to have a go at drafting a share or asset sale agreement, or preparing a company constitution, asset transfer agreement or a non-disclosure agreement.
A variety of work is crucial to keep you interested but also to ensure you are consistently upskilling in preparation for that promotion or that planned move to an in-house role.
As a junior lawyer in a smaller firm you will get exposure purely by virtue of working in a lean modelled firm with limited resource, which is positive assuming you have proficient multi-tasking skills. Being pigeon holed in a larger firm is much easier, but of course the upside is having the brand of the firm on your CV.
Billable hour targets vary between firm size, but irrespective of the firm you are employed by, hitting your billable hour target is an added pressure of every role. Many firms are doing away with this archaic billing model, and some have incorporated a hybrid (per hour billing/fixed fee), but have no illusions, billable hour targets form the foundation of the financial model of the professional services industry, so the model will be around for many years to come.
As a junior lawyer it is easier to hit your billable hour target as a lot of the work will be filtered down to you in any event, and will be reviewed at the various senior levels, which means it is harder to hit the more senior you become. The key is to be proactive and always be taking initiative to take on the work.
Although overachieving on your billable hour target is not a sole indicator of your quality of work, it is most definitely a metric viewed as an indicator of productivity and indirectly a factor attributing to your work quality, because senior associates and partners will not allocate work to you unless they believe you are capable particularly in a shared resources model whereby junior lawyers are grouped as a pool and engaged on a needs basis by the entire practice group.
Try your best to record your time as and when you consume it. It is very easy to forget to start your clock at the start of a task (on the firm’s matter management and time recording software) and you end up manually entering in your time at the end of the day or week, and the room for error obviously increases.
You will have the opportunity to informally train your colleagues. Usually junior lawyers are tasked with the responsibility to stay abreast of any pertinent updates both statutory and case law related. Although slightly nerve racking, when faced with the task of updated colleagues that are double, triple or quadruple your PQE level, see this as your opportunity to shine, more often than not, your theoretical legal knowledge will far surpass your superiors. The practical application of such knowledge however is a skill which will clearly rest higher up the food chain.
Depending on your personality type try and gain as much client interaction as early on as possible even if it’s attending client meetings as the token note taker. Exposure to client pitches or general interaction is equally important to finessing your technical skills. Many partners will not want you involved at the client level as your time is better utilised focussing on the grunt work, however there are some partners who see value in grooming junior lawyers early on, on the importance of business development and marketing the firm. As you climb the ranks, engaging and closing new clients will outweigh to some extent the technical elements of your role.
Most important as a junior lawyer is having access to a mentor. Someone who you look up to and can have open, honest, conversations with about your current challenges and future goals. If you are looking for a mentor, then please register with Young Lawyer Advisory who will help connect you. It is something worth looking into.