News - What to Expect in Your First Year Out

Our lawyer, Kim Cousins, was recently invited by the Far North Queensland Law Association  to provide tips to law students at James Cook University Cairns Campus regarding “What to expect in your first year out”, as part of the FNQLA’s mentoring program wrap-up evening.  Here are the points:

Student life compared to life in practice

  • Have you ever wondered do I need to remember what I am learning?  Yes! Generally knowing less means that working in practice will be harder, particularly in general practice.
  • Similarities / differences to be aware of:
    • Preparing tutorial answers versus precedents
    • Study groups versus discussions with colleagues in house
    • Heavy workloads
    • Being measured by marks versus by billings/receivables/quotas etc.  Salary is usually measured or impacted by performance
    • Personal deadlines impacting you versus deadlines with real life consequences to other persons.  Mistakes can have catastrophic consequences
      • N.B Being proactive with bringing issues to your supervisor’s attention can avoid many problems
    • Study ending upon completion of LLB/GDLP versus compulsory professional development to maintain practising certificate

Advice to a graduate transitioning into practice

  • Resources
    • Locate and gain access to them
    • Develop a filing system for precedents you develop and your research
  • Ask questions
    • Don’t sit wondering and worrying.  Ask for help, or a precedent to refer to
  • Plan to succeed
    • Efficiency is essential especially in private practice
    • Are you setting yourself up for success or failure?  Can you work the extra hours that may be required, or do you need to find a position better suited to your personal commitments? Are you mentally and physically fit to have the stamina to get you through the difficult times, and perform at your best?  Diet and exercise
    • Are you a Type A personality?  High achiever?  Watch out for anxiety, procrastination, and perfectionism which can stifle your productivity.  Check out resources at the Clinical Centre for Interventions in Western Australia
    • Make sure you have performance reviews, and grow from feedback
    • Celebrate your wins
    • Look for opportunities to develop yourself
  • Back yourself
    • New lawyers can add a lot of value
    • Trust your instincts
  • Business development - lawyers who can not only do the work, but can bring the work in are highly valued
  • Stay connected with your peers, colleagues and organisations
  • Its important to know your rules regarding trust accounting  / LPA / ASCR / & Director’s Guidelines (where applicable)

Skills and coping mechanisms for your first year out

  • Supervisor/s - value them and appreciate time pressures and differences in communication styles.  Do your best.
  • Having a mentor – whether this is your supervisor, or someone else inside or outside your practice, its important to have a mentor
  • Support network – staying connected and having a mentor means that you have a support network to call upon in challenging times, and that can expose you to different perspectives, and new opportunities
  • Looking after yourself / looking for the signs
    • As raised earlier, mental health is important.  You should look for the signs of mental health issues. 
    • High rates of depression and psychological distress in the legal profession
    • Refer the LawCare section of the Queensland Law Society website  for examples of the signs and contact details, or other avenues such as such as the Beyond Blue
    • Note the impact of psychological distress on your ability to think and function in high pressure situations
    • A significant proportion of disciplinary and negligence matters against lawyers arise from psychological distress – refer to the Legal Services Commission website for details.  Contact Solicitor Assist via the QLS website for assistance with legal problems if needed

Private practice versus the QDPP

  • Queensland Director of Public Prosecutions (QDPP)
    • The Cairns office generally only deals with matters before the District and Supreme Courts
    • Preparing matters administratively by opening files, ordering criminal histories and other documents, editing tapes, preparing tender bundles etc.
    • Dealing with complainants and their families/witnesses including young children, and dealing with support services, police and other related organisations
    • Drafting indictments and schedules of facts, and dealing with new information, requesting further evidence, research, advocacy, and dealing with defence counsel
    • Transitioning from a clerk to legal officer, and selection criteria
  • Private practice
    • Research and doing support work
    • In the beginning - performing isolated tasks on supervisor’s files, possibly meeting with clients, possibly  running with your own files and heavy workload (under supervision)
  • Different court experiences
    • Wider range of court experiences in community legal services and private practice versus limited criminal matters at the QDPP (but significant offending at QDPP)
    • Examples outside DPP include DV Court, Court 1/Arrest Court, Federal Courts etc.
  • The same and different matters
    • Cross over from the QDPP to other practices of indictable criminal matters, some transmitted summary matters, and overlap with Commonwealth and Queensland offences, by mentions/sentences/trials/bail applications/bench warrants.
    • Otherwise civil matters and summary criminal matters dealt with in other practice outside the QDPP
  • Different constraints – resources versus billable time in private practice
  • Opportunities / career path – other practice and QDPP options

Things I have learnt as a lawyer

  • Time  - there is no wasting time in private practice! There are six minute billable  units in most private practices with a minimum expectation of 5-7 hours per day of billable  time
  • The law – your depth of knowledge grows with time ; things get easier
  • Communication
    • When to say less
      • Giving an answer to a client
      • Summarising research
    • When to say more
      • Confirming instructions and advice
      • Ensuring to give your supervisor ALL of the pertinent facts when seeking advice
    • Sometimes not to say or do anything
      • Only acting on client’s instructions
      • Not acting without money in trust if that is your firm’s policy
      • Stepping back - does the demand need to be answered? Take control
    • Relationships
      • Within your practice - appreciate support staff; value their knowledge and skills
      • In and outside your firm – be courteous and attentive to others including acknowledging tasks or correspondence.  Maintain confidentiality.
      • Between the firm and your client – manage their expectation of fees, and revise correspondence
  • Procedural aspects / administration
    • This is a significant aspect of practice
    • Knowing what a secretary/assistant does and directing them, or DIY
  • Briefing  - ensuring your Counsel has all information to hand and is not mislead
  • Court experts – ensuring communication with Court experts is in accordance with the rules/procedures of the courts
  • Self-represented litigants – challenges, and obligations of practitioners and courts, and keeping communication to writing
  • Giving clients practical advice such as the cost is likely to outweigh any benefit to the client by taking action, and advising your client not to proceed 

The different types of legal jobs that you can do after university

  • Legal services
  • The Coroner’s office
  • Prosecution
  • Government departments
  • Local government
  • Compliance
  • In-house counsel
  • Barrister
  • Judge’s Associate
  • Court

Parting  words

  • (At the risk of repetition) Be respectful of, and grateful for, your supervisor’s time!
  • Try to get some diverse experience in the beginning
  • Mistakes will inevitably  happen but it is how you respond to them that matters
  • Take appropriate risks, such as career moves etc.
  • Don’t forget that there are other career options that being a lawyer, such as the public service, compliance, business, finance, governance, politics, and real estate etc.
  • Give back to your supervisor/practice/community
  • Don’t give up on your law career too early!