Law school is the first step towards a legal career. Technically, the law entrance exams are.
However, those three or five years are crucial in your career, they lay down the foundation. As we all know, a solid foundation is needed for any structure to stand its ground.
We have moot courts, workshops, regular classes and assessments in varied law subjects to give our career more structure. But more often than not, that structure leaves us asking for more.
I remember my law college experience was similar. After five years of studying, examinations, assignments, moot courts, internships later, I was out in the real world. The safety net of being a student was gone. One AIBE attempt, and I was a lawyer just like that. I was expected to know and advice from a legal standpoint – to paying clients!
It was weird, and I was nowhere ready. It was as if I woke up one day and was asked to be a legal expert. The point is I was working hard towards this for five years, so I should have been prepared and more confident. However, I was struggling as I tried to stay afloat.
The first couple of years of your legal career will be all about learning the hands-on work. This is when you learn. A few months of internships or reading law books and commentaries is not going to cut it.
Even medical students study for five years, do a year of internship, years of residency, specialisation, etc. They learn practical and theory simultaneously. Imagine being operated upon by a student or a recent graduate – you’d want someone who is certain about what they’re doing. The same should be true for lawyers.
The truth is – our traditional legal education system has some significant gaps in practical learning.
I used to think I was the only one feeling overwhelmed with the enormity of the responsibility and lack of experience. But it turns out that it is true for most of us. We don’t know for sure what we are doing. We learn along the way. Our seniors know that hence they throw us to the wolves in the initial years because that is how you learn to fight and survive.
Recently, I spoke to a colleague who had worked as a corporate lawyer in a firm. He had faced struggles in his initial years. Unlike me, he managed to get a grip on things in less than a year. But, the conflicts he encountered could have been avoided with systematic guidance in place. It made him realise that the system in place is insufficient and should be revamped into something which utilises and trains the first year associates optimally.
The associates need to work on their skill sets and hone them continually. They not only need to improve upon their knowledge but also their drafting and negotiation skills, reporting and communication skills, etc. They could keep themselves updated through journals, take company law courses, collaborate on research papers, ask more questions, etc.
Here are some of the struggles one may face in the initial years of their corporate life:
Volume(s) of work
I find that the best way to learn something is to deep dive right into it. Recently, I was asked to conduct a live webinar about ten minutes before it was scheduled. Like many, I hate the sound of my voice on recordings, and on top of it, it was on YouTube which meant it would be out there on the internet.
So even though I had silly reservations regarding a webinar, I had to do it. I did not have the time to think and freak out. I ended up conducting the webinar, and the task was accomplished at the end of the day!
My point here is simple; you may not know what you can do or whether you can handle something, until the moment you’re doing it. Will I do another webinar- probably not, if I have it my way. But now I know for sure that I can do it if the need arises.
Similarly, the first year associates are assigned a multitude of tasks, and they have to deep dive into a bulk of it! Their workload is an uphill battle. They get assigned drafting work, preparation of reports, researching and analysing the law on complex issues, analysing and summarising complicated legal documents, performing due diligence in legal matters concerning contracts, agreements, etc.
They are buried under a load of work. This is either to test their mettle or simple delegation of labour. Either way, these associates who just made out of law colleges are expected to handle voluminous intricate work from day one. The problem that they face is lack of experience. They may have internship experiences, but the stakes are different at a paying job you do for a living. Not only do they have volumes of work, they usually have incomplete instructions or lack of feedback which might require them to rework the whole thing. The enormity of a enormous assignment also adds to the pressure.
Try completing a 1000 pieces puzzle with half of them missing!
I had to once do a presentation at a day’s notice of the entire year’s worth of assignments. I was handling four verticals, but then I learned later that I had to consult other members and take their assignments into account as well. Naturally, I worked on the flight only to land and realise that it is worthless and I have to start from scratch. It was a waste of my time. I could have done the presentation right, if my instructions were apparent in the first place.
These associates are at the bottom of the legal food chain and while they have a ton of work, what they don’t always have is the complete information. They are not the ones clients are usually interacting with. They are supposed to do the work, but they may not have the complete instructions.
For instance, an associate is asked to draft an agreement for an application that is patent pending. The superior briefly describes the product to the associate and leaves. Now while drafting the associate needs to understand the product at hand through detailed description, proposal, etc. But without the necessary information at hand, he will not be able to draft a sound contract.
Imagine a first-year associate working for days off on partial information and drafting a contract, only to be told last minute that the specifications have changed! It not only renders your work useless, it means you have less time to get the deliverable corrected.
Sometimes these associates get to deal with the clients directly, but they are not experienced enough to extract the client’s requirements from their conversation. Then also the information at hand is incomplete.
Lack of intermittent feedback
How do you know what you are doing is the right way of doing things? How do you improve yourself?
An associate is often overburdened and has partial instructions to do his work. This is similar to running around like a headless chicken, asking your peers and superiors for more information or similar dealings to be able to have a checklist of sorts.
Let’s face, it most of us, our way out of our depth in the beginning. We try to follow some method and hope against all hope that it works. It is not due to lack of hard work or dedication or even resilience. It is merely not having prior hands-on experience.
In an ideal world, an associate would probably reach out to his superiors and ask for intermittent feedback. This way he can fix what is broken as he goes on to do the work.
Lets say, due diligence is being performed, and an associate did not check the renewal dates of registered IP or did not check certain documents. If while doing the work, the superiors give intermittent feedback to the employee saying that you should get the due diligence checklist from X, then he can fix this situation in time.
But without experience, the associate will be making more mistakes than he can fix. So he would require feedback on his work intermittently, before the deadline. This way the associate and the organisation can both save time and billable hours in the long run.
Delay in meeting deadlines
This is one of the biggest horrors for an overburdened associate. He has so many things to turn in and in time! The problem here is not the impending deadline and how to meet them. Most associates are self-driven and hardworking enough to do the assigned tasks, even the sheer volumes of it. Within a few months, they get an idea of doing things.
The most time-consuming thing is the reworking. Due to being overburdened or lack of intermittent feedback or incomplete instructions, the final product is usually far from perfect.
The client may have changed the requirements, or the instructions were not clear. Whatever be the reason for the shoddy work of an otherwise diligent associate, he is going to get an earful from his bosses. Once that is done, comes the rework. He has to rework the contract or report or any other document he was working on with new instructions.
He will be spending nearly the same amount of time again. But this time he will have to burn the midnight oil as the deadline is closer. He will have to get the same amount of work done in less than half the time. This is stressful enough as it is, but coupled with other work, meetings, etc., imagine the stress!
How does one overcome these struggles?
I asked my colleague how can one avoid these unnecessary struggles while performing their jobs. There has to be a way around this. He explained something quite intriguing. He said the volume of work could be avoided by merely giving few projects to a particular associate, at least in the beginning. Once they are more stable and experienced, the workload can be increased gradually. But this would require close monitoring of the associate.
So basically a systematic change is required by which the associate can gradually gain the experience rather than by being crushed under volumes of intricate work. This system should have a clear communications channel from both the superior and the associate’s end. The information shared should be as comprehensive as possible. The associate should ask more questions, wherever they are uncertain.
A transparent process of feedback for the associates in place which will not only point out what they’re doing wrong but also how to correct them in time. This would automatically reduce the reworking and thereby the delay in meeting the deadlines. The work quality will improve once the stress of deadlines and load of work is reduced.
In the meantime, the corporate lawyers could work on building their practical knowledge of corporate laws. There are online courses on company laws which help in strengthening the practical knowledge base for a corporate lawyer concerning the formation to the dissolution of a company.
Apart from this, there are webinars on M&A and other intricate concepts such as ESOPS, workshops, research paper writing, etc. which helps a corporate lawyer to develop his profile.
The systematic change is not going to happen overnight. It is a change in the entire work culture. But step by step, the organisations can start to at least open the communication channels. This will help a lot of associates to cope with the work pressure, dejection and frustration arising from their job in the initial years. If nothing else, they should ask questions when stuck rather than trying to do it all by themselves.
As for the struggles, know that it does not last forever. If you keep learning and developing yourself, success will follow. All of us struggle a little in the beginning, and it takes a while to get used to the pace of things at work.
Till then, just keep swimming!