New Zealand Law Society

Navigation menu

Some advice for new lawyers

02 February 2018 - By Kate Geenty

Starting your legal career is likely to be an exciting, yet slightly terrifying, time. It’s important to remember that everyone has to start somewhere, and chances are the partner you’re reporting to also felt out of their depth when they first joined the profession. LawTalk asked some senior lawyers to reflect on some of the important things they have learnt in the course of their careers, and what they wish someone had told them when they were juniors. Here, they share words of wisdom and advice for lawyers who are just starting out.

Cameron Law, Partner, Environment, Planning and Natural Resources, Russell McVeagh, Auckland

“Keeping calm and maintaining a sense of perspective is a helpful starting point. And always remain curious. It’s okay to not know the answer – the skill is in knowing how to work it out.

Cameron Law

“There will be times when hard work and long hours are necessary but in the down times get outside, exercise, spend time with family and friends. The law isn’t everything.

“Pretty much everyone suffers from Imposter Syndrome where they fear that they’ll be exposed as a fraud or not measure up. You’re not an imposter or a fraud so don’t let those negative thoughts dent your self-confidence (it took me ages to work that one out).

“As a young lawyer, I felt that I couldn’t be open about my sexuality when I was starting out in the profession. Law firms are better workplaces now and you have the right to bring your full self to work.

“It’s about being calm and curious and being (or at least appearing) confident – everyone has moments of Imposter Syndrome. It’s also about being an authentic and nice person, who people enjoy working with and they trust to do a good job for them. Treat others with respect and courtesy and you’ll get much better outcomes.

“Lawyers should look to provide advice that is strategic. A combination of private practice and in-house experience has helped to give me a different commercial perspective, a strong work ethic and an understanding of how a client’s drivers may lead to a different outcome than what might appear best from a more purely legal perspective.”

Polly Pope, Partner, Litigation, Russell McVeagh, Auckland

Polly Pope

“Success as a lawyer starts and ends with understanding what makes good client service. Focus on learning what your clients’ expectations are in terms of excellent service and make sure you deliver that to them. Remember that when you begin practice in a firm your key ‘clients’ are likely to be your colleagues.

“Be ambitious. Ask for feedback, seek out opportunities and always volunteer.

“Find professional organisations and take every opportunity to build and expand your networks. Your peers today may be junior solicitors but in a few years’ time they may be your most important clients.”

Ben Paterson, Partner, Corporate advisory, Russell McVeagh, Auckland

Ben Paterson

“Find an area of law (or business) that really interests you, keeps you motivated and challenges you. The work lawyers do isn’t cutting edge or exciting all the time, so it is really important that you enjoy what you do and it motivates you to keep going until the exciting work rolls back around.

“Realise that things won’t happen immediately. There seems to be a tendency (amongst young and old alike) to want to jump to the end goal. But if you take the time to learn and make the most of the experiences as a junior lawyer, it will help immensely the more senior you become.

“Lastly, make sure you work with a group of people that you really enjoy being around. You are typically with them for the majority of the day, so it is really important that you get on well with your colleagues. I am exceedingly lucky in that my team are a fantastic group of individuals, who are immensely fun to be around, and it makes work that much more enjoyable.”

Tania Goatley, Partner, Commercial litigation, Bell Gully, Auckland

“Treat every task as an opportunity to learn. Even the most seemingly mundane jobs you start out with will ultimately lead to bigger and better things – and chances are the person who gave you the job is already assessing how ready you are for that next step.

Tania Goatley

“Make sure you find excitement and fun in the type of law you are doing and the clients you are doing it for. No law firm, barrister or business will ever pay you enough to be successful or happy in your career unless you fundamentally enjoy what you are doing. You don’t need to love discovery or due diligence, and you will get the odd rubbish instruction, but different types of law appeal to different people – so find your niche.

“Proof read everything – twice – and make sure you know what to do with an apostrophe.

“Be respectful of your time and the time of everyone around you. Choose what to do with your own time wisely, and remember that those choices can impact positively or negatively on others. The people who can help you advance in your career will remember occasions on which you saved them time and vice versa.”

Graham Murray, Partner, Tax, Bell Gully, Auckland

Graham Murray

“The best advice I was given as a junior was to become a master of law changes and new regimes. If you do that then you quickly become a go-to person for partners and senior staff who may not always have the time to follow those changes. Law changes are “new” for both senior and junior staff, so there is no reason why keen junior solicitors cannot add value by being across the detail even though they may feel less experienced.”

Helen Mackay, Director, Juno Legal Ltd, Wellington

“My advice to new or younger lawyers is to think really openly about the pathways that a legal qualification can create. When I was at law school, I thought of legal practice as narrow and confined to the courtroom or large law firm. The opportunities that in-house legal practice gave me were immense both in understanding business and developing as a lawyer and leader.

Helen Mackay

“It is a really exciting time to be a young lawyer with the increasing adoption of smart technology, the expansion of services delivered by most lawyers beyond what is just “legal advice” and the emergence of alternative legal services providers, of which our firm Juno is one.

“Stay hungry, keep learning and grab all opportunities thrown your way with both hands. And if they are not being thrown your way, go out and create them. Read leadership and business articles as well as legal texts, watch TED talks and remain curious about the world around you. Find ways to combine your passions, whether that be the environment, social justice, technology, sport etc, with your legal career. Look for entrepreneurial opportunities around legal technology or social enterprise or aim to start your own alternative legal services provider. And remember, a large number of chief and senior executives in our private and public sector organisations are former lawyers so think of your legal qualification as a foundation rather than an end in itself.”

Garry Anderson, Partner, Corporate and commercial, Auld Brewer Mazenagarb & McEwen, New Plymouth

“Some things you can only learn by trial and error, but there are other things I wish I’d learnt earlier on. Such as: be an expert – do the hard stuff; have expertise outside the law; don’t just fill in forms, give valuable advice; be curious; have a good mentor; be financially, and technologically, literate; even if you don’t know what you’re doing, know what you’ve done; know, and stick to, your core values; be hard to replace; keep learning; be generous; have a plan; have a plan B; have a core understanding of, and be comfortable with, te reo Māori and tikanga; when you finish work, actually finish; say No; everyone thinks that they are being reasonable; make and meet your promises; don’t weasel; care about what you do and who you do it for.”

Last updated on the 1st December 2018