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LIV President's Blog 2012

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How to deal with the unknown

How to deal with the unknown

Junior lawyers are often seen as sponges – absorbing information, skills and knowledge throughout their first couple of years in practice. What happens when you transition out of a fairly junior role? What are the expectations as you progress? What are you required to know?
In speaking with numerous senior lawyers throughout my time in practice, I have heard the same thing time and time again (which has offered some great relief)- “you never stop learning”.
That makes sense, as the law is not a constant. New cases bring about new decisions. There are changes in legislation. Procedural rules are constantly evolving. What are you then expected to know at your level? Well for one, not everything. You may have practised in a certain area of law for a period of time, but by no means are you an expert – so what do you do when you just don’t know the answer?
1. Don’t fluff your way through.
Never (ever) fly by the seat of your pants. Don’t guess. Don’t even make an educated guess. For one, the client will know. Clients these days are business savvy and have often been involved in litigation or have consulted solicitors before.
Secondly and importantly, your practice group partner will also know. They review file notes. He/she will ask you about the client conference. You can also bet on the fact that the client will speak to your practice group partner as they maintain the relationship with them.
2. Instead of fluffing, research.
If you are expecting to meet a client or you are required to prepare an advice, do your research on the area of law. If a certain procedure is involved (say filing a writ within certain time frames and the associated material), be across that too.
Put your research in a memo/easily accessible format. That way if the client has specific questions or you need to address something in the advice, you will have a point of reference or even an answer.
If you do not have an answer and are required to provide “on the spot” advice -  defer your response until the next meeting or commit your answer in a follow up email or advice once you have had the time to consider. A client will not look at you unfavourably if you do not have all the answers in that instant. Let the client know you will look further into their query and that you will get back to them promptly.
3. If research fails, what next?
Look around the office.  Do you see that senior associate sitting in the corner office? Go speak to them. Ask them if they have a moment (in my experience, they always do). Run by them your current matter and/or questions. Senior solicitors are a wealth of knowledge. They have been in your shoes and know what it is like to feel a little out of depth/need assistance.
They may not give you the answer, but they will give you guidance and perhaps a reference to a similar file you can have a look at. Don’t forget to take notes of what they say, as you don’t want to ask them to repeat what you discussed. Remember, their time is the firm’s time and client’s time – not just yours.
4. Similar files – is there a pattern?
You have probably noticed that in looking at previous files that there are some similarities throughout. This is not a coincidence. The facts will be distinct, however the way in which a file progresses will follow a similar formula.
Create a checklist for the procedures involved (a time line for the interlocutory steps, for example) and a pro forma advice as a reference (including headings such as facts/summary, quantum, liability, indemnity and recommendations). You can “fill in the gaps” as you consider the file and receive your instructions. By having such a guide, the next time you receive a new file you have a point of reference as to where to begin. Again, it is always important to do further research when required – particularly if it is a technical area of law. Include that in your advice where necessary.
5. With time, comes experience.
You will notice as you progress within a role, the knowledge and skills will accumulate. What you found new a year ago, will now be a constant on your files. New concepts will arise that you will have to deal with – and that will be due to the greater responsibility that you will have on files and in your role generally.

If that is the case, go through the above processes. Research, consultation and questions should never stop – not at any level. The good news? The “unknown” becomes more infrequent as you go along.
 Do you have any other tips for new lawyers for dealing with the unknown?

Vicki Thomopoulos is a solicitor and an active member on the LIV Social & Professional Development Committees.

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13/07/2013 5:46:00 PM

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