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Surviving your grad year

Surviving your grad year

By Jing Zhu


It’s important to develop your reputation in your first year in the legal profession. Here are some tips.

So you’ve landed the dream job: you’ve interviewed, tested, clerked, interned and researched your way into that position you’ve had your eye on since second year law school. No doubt, the first year as a graduate is a steep learning curve. But while you’re looking forward to your admission as a lawyer, don’t forget to keep in mind managing and developing your greatest asset – your reputation.

1. Admit your mistakes

Here’s a tip from a managing partner I received on my first day as a graduate that has served me well throughout my career. Always admit your mistakes to your manager and admit them early. As a graduate, no one expects you to have all the answers. Nor does everyone expect you to get it right the first time. However, no matter where you work they will expect you to act with honesty and integrity. As lawyers, our clients, opposing parties and courts expect us to be truthful in our dealings with them.

So when (and it will be when, not if) you get something wrong, own up to it to your supervisor. The earlier you admit the mistake, the less serious the consequences and the easier it will be to fix. Most mistakes, especially those made at a junior level, can be ameliorated in some way. However, if you sit on it and brood you run the risk of the delay creating greater difficulties and the inevitable closed-door discussion as to why you didn’t say something earlier. The sleepless nights and stress you endure worrying about the issue may also be unnecessary and harmful to your mental health.

2. Always be courteous

It’s important to remember that your reputation is not just about how your superiors see you but about developing good working relationships with everyone. As a cog in the greater machinery of your firm, government department or commercial enterprise, your supervisor will be looking to you to work well with not just other lawyers but also support staff such as office managers, word processing specialists and catering staff. As a graduate, many of the non-legal staff will have worked in your area for many more years than you, and will have more experience in legal processes and procedures. Don’t be afraid to ask for help but always be courteous and respectful when you do. Learn to take criticism (which is always tough) and remember that a degree of modesty is particularly helpful.

When dealing with opposing practitioners, similar principles apply. Just because you’re not on the same side does not mean that condescension or rudeness are ever appropriate. At the end of the day, you’re both trying to get a good result for your respective clients and deal with the matter in a timely and cost effective manner. People are much more likely to want to deal with you if you’re amicable. For example, I can remember getting a much needed filing extension from an opposing solicitor because of the good working relationship we had developed over the preceding files. I’ve even been referred clients because opposing solicitors knew that I would deal with them fairly and professionally.

3. Apply social restraint

As a graduate, you are being introduced as a new team member in the organisation. So, chances are invitations will be flying around to Friday night drinks, end of financial year parties, birthday afternoon teas, going-aways, engagement celebrations and other events. There are two main points to keep in mind. First, as a graduate, always attend the social events. There may be the occasional family emergency which means you can’t make it but if you are regularly missing from events, people notice and it may be mistaken for disinterest in the organisation or worse, arrogance. Work social events are a great way to meet people outside your immediate team, find out more about the type of work other people are doing and generally build up your networks. These will become invaluable to you as you progress through your career. As a graduate, it’s also a good time to let other lawyers know you have capacity to assist them should your team be quiet. This way you can develop not only your skill set but also build a rapport with teams outside your rotation areas.

Second, keep in mind that although it is wise to attend as many social events as you can, it is not wise to drink too much. This seems an obvious point but it is surprising how often this advice is ignored once the free alcohol starts pouring. A good tip is to grab a drink at the start of the night and sip, slowly. Or at least alternate between alcohol and water. Although it is a social function, others may still want to talk shop with you or find out how your graduate experience is going. It is a bad first impression to be slurring your words. But this doesn’t mean you can’t have fun. Although you don’t want to be remembered as the drunkard, no one will know who you are if you meekly stand in the corner all night nursing your orange juice. So have fun and drink in moderation. But remember, just because the partner is following up his/ her glass of red wine with a scotch, it may not necessarily be wise for you to follow suit. They have commanding control of the office. You are still getting the lay of the land, so keep your wits about you.

The most important thing to remember is that a reputation is for a lifetime. It takes a long time to build but sometimes only seconds to destroy. Develop it, nurture it and always be on the lookout for ways to improve it. Then, you’ll no doubt be on your path to a long and prosperous career in the law.

Jing Zhu, Barrister, Victorian Bar and Chair, LIV’s privacy working group

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