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What they don’t tell you about your first 5 years in practice

By Maciek Motylinski,  co-founder of Beyond Billables


You’ve put in the work, survived law school and now that hard-earned degree is within grasping distance. You’re probably ready to burn your textbooks and preparing to start scaling the heights of the profession. Whilst it’s good to be driven and determined, there are other factors you should bear in mind to keep an even keel and ensure progression.


Being proactive and patient is the only way to get the work you want
I can’t stress this enough. Early on in your career, the best thing to do is try to understand the group structure. How work is generated and by whom. How to position yourself so you get exposure to the most interesting projects. Don’t just sit back and expect that partners and seniors will seek you out because you’re such an ace graduate. The reality is that you know very little. So, your best chance is to prioritise your learning and gain some control over what and how you learn. You want to be seen as not only smart and reliable, but also as someone who is enthusiastic about learning the ropes. This means being realistic about the responsibilities you’re given early on in your career. Colleagues will engage with you more when you have this outlook.

When you’re new to practice, it’s as much about putting the puzzle together as it is about knowing stuff. Understanding how different transactions and structures work (and why) is key. The most successful junior lawyers go out of their way to review and understand documents. Then they ask questions about how it all fits together, even when they don’t need to. Doing this allows you to build a big-picture perspective rather than confining yourself to your small part of a massive project when you don’t understand how things fit together. Mix this with a little patience and you will progress quicker and learn valuable insights along the way. You will also find that busy partners and seniors are happier to answer your questions when they come from a place of genuine curiosity. Take the initiative where you can and see how well it works.


Asking for help is not a sign that you are missing something
When you come into a firm early on, you do so alongside a group of equally smart and talented people. Then you see how smart and worldly and experienced the senior lawyers are and realise how much you have to learn. This is normal. But, how you handle this and the approach you take will also have a marked impact on your development. All too often, junior associates can be too slow in asking for help, worried that they will come across as stupid. You don’t want to be seen as not knowing something, right? Wrong. This is silly. In our view, as a junior to intermediate lawyer you need to be asking as many questions as you need. How else will you learn? How else will your supervisors know where you are at in terms of your development?

You obviously have to be sensible about this and seek help without becoming annoying. Try approaching people when they have some down time and not when they are in the middle of something. Always keep a note of key areas that you are not sure about, so you can go back and ask about it later on. Asking for help is never seen as a weakness. It is a sign that you are intelligent enough to know your limitations and seek the most efficient way to overcome them. It’s all about being proactive, not being pre-occupied about what others think.Never let your ego get in the way of asking a sensible question.


Mistakes are normal, so own them
Mistakes can be stressful and costly in legal practice. Minimising errors and risks is key to being a great lawyer, especially as far as clients are concerned. But, as with everything, mistakes do happen and, more often than not, it’s a junior level lawyer making them. It’s part and parcel with the learning curve.

Often, the fear of making mistakes can be limiting on your professional development. Too much caution can stop you learning and making the essential mistakes that will allow you to grow. You will make mistakes, particularly in the first 5 years of practice. Accept this, do everything you can to be competent and avoid making mistakes – but when you do, put your hand up and own them. You will not only get the respect of your colleagues and supervisors, but also the full benefit of whatever lesson you need to learn to make sure it doesn’t happen again. This applies to mistakes that are genuinely unintentional. No doubt, there will be mistakes that are inexcusable and that you should be made to feel stupid about. But still, it’s a lesson worth learning.


Work politics is a waste of time
Playing the gossip and politics games within a firm can be an easy trap for junior lawyers to fall into. For many, it’s seen as a necessary evil to sure up their position and social standing in the firm. But, from a career progression standpoint, it’s a dead end. Associates who spend too much time ingratiating themselves to the decision-makers or engaging in political ploys and gossip do so at the expense of the work they need to do to get ahead. The best thing you can do in the first 5 years of practice is to establish a reputation of being above these things. It can be hard – a juicy piece of gossip can be tough to pass up. Remember: if you become known as being above the pettiness, then you also become known as the person who can be relied upon as a source of unbiased advice. Be the wise owl, not the chattering bird.


It’s not only about your billables
Early on, it’s hard to shift your mindset away from billables being the only value proposition. As a junior lawyer, it can be tricky to add value in other areas. The key is to get on top of value-add areas as soon as you can, so that your billable hours metric isn’t the be all and end all. Understand that you bring value in a whole range of other areas. Things like business development and client contact. Driving new systems and championing processes that promote efficiency. Employing technology. Volunteering on pro bono projects. Over time, these things will add up to a career that goes far beyond the value you add in terms of billables. These things ultimately lead to billing more in the long run, because they help with developing and generating work. Understanding this early on and doing all you can to broaden your objectives will give you a head start. It’s like sowing the seeds now for rewards in the years to come.


So be patient, be smart, be conscientious and play the long game. As hard as this may seem, it’s the surest way to get ahead and stay ahead.



About the author: 

Maciek Motylinski is a co-founder of Beyond Billables and is a master of the pivot. He’s played the roles of lawyer, leading international recruiter and entrepreneur – sometimes all at once. Some might call Maciek a career nomad. Not content with settling for average, he’s currently on a mission to smash the legal paradigm and get lawyers to think bigger. To explore more fulfilling options. To push their personal boundaries and try something unexpected.

To find out more about Beyond Billables, visit www.beyondbillables.com.








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