We all remember the ordinary man on the Clapham Omnibus and the snail in the bottle. We all sat patiently through lectures on the law of trusts. Later in our legal education, we learned about the Criminal Procedure Rules and the Civil Procedure Rules. We also learnt how to complete forms to submit at Companies House or the Land Registry. After this, we were sent out to work for, and learn from, established lawyers– most of whom had been through the same legal training, but had chalked up a few more flying hours.

We are of course, lawyers – and so our legal training is not unimportant. We arrive as qualified lawyers having learned – and been taught – an awful lot. But there is also a load of stuff they don’t teach you at law school. The following are, therefore, a few things I would like to have known 20 years ago:

1. Law is not the end. It’s the means to the end. It’s a tool to help achieve something – normally a financial or strategic outcome. Clients are not, therefore, as interested in the law as one might think. To many, it is simply a number on a spreadsheet. Always consider the context in which your legal advice will be applied. Think about the output you are helping a client achieve, rather than the legal input. Forge a role as a trusted adviser, rather than just a trusted lawyer.

2. A career in the law is a marathon, not a sprint. Take your time. Ease in gently. There’s no point getting cramp at the Cutty Sark. Look after yourself – physically and emotionally. 

3. Focus on your weaknesses as well as your strengths. We all know (or think we know) what we’re good at, but the best lawyers are the most well-rounded ones. The encyclopaedic legal brain – who is equally adept at developing the most commercial of advice and charming the most difficult and demanding clients. This does not come naturally, but takes years of self-reflection and hard work. You might be a great academic lawyer, but could you be more commercial? Alternatively, are you ‘lawyerly’ enough?

4. At the same time, don’t be in awe of others. There will always be better lawyers, better networkers, people with an appetite and ability to work harder. Don’t focus on them. Focus on yourself, your strengths, your weaknesses. Of course, recognise the better traits of others – but be brave enough to create the lawyer you want to be, not a caricature of someone else.

5. Remain passionate about the law. It doesn’t have to be all areas, but should at least be some of it, and ideally relevant to your practice area. If you’re not, being a lawyer will become a chore, you won’t enjoy it and you therefore won’t be good at it. The best well-rounded lawyers (see above) still enjoy their daily legal updates.

6. Embrace the ecosystem within which you operate. People like talking to others with similar interests. The more connections you make, the better you will do. Even if it means kissing frogs and chasing wild geese, those hard yards (especially earlier in your career) will eventually pay off.

7. Be nice. What goes around comes around. Treat everyone you come across with the respect that you would expect in return. The future GC always remembers the partner who took the time to explain to him or her what a CDO was – and equally so the one who wouldn’t give him or her the time of day.

8. Above all, enjoy yourself. You are going to have to work hard to succeed – so you have to be happy. Life is too short otherwise. Plus, happy people make productive people who are good at their jobs. If you’re unhappy, ask yourself whether it’s the right role or the right organisation for you. Be honest with yourself – and don’t be afraid to make a bold decision.  

Andrew Nugent Smith is Managing Director at Keller Lenkner UK: kellerlenkner.co.uk

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