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Work out what's being asked of you

31 March 2017 - By Katie Cowan

Many of you will be only a few weeks or months into your first law job, and here’s hoping your organisation has a scheduled chocolate biscuit day. If not I hope you have made peace with your friends whose workplaces do have chocolate biscuit days.

But work, like life, is not all chocolate biscuit days.

If you are anything like every lawyer I have ever met, your first few weeks and months (possibly for two plus years) are marked by an internal terror that you have no idea what you are doing, and an external fixed smile that attempts to mask it.

Head and shoulders photo of Katie Cowan
Katie Cowan

My concern in writing this column, and making The New Lawyer podcast, is to help ease that terror and improve ‘Work’ experience.

When I first started working, I learned that while my law degree was very impressive to relatives at Christmas time, it had not prepared me for how to do my job well; and I wanted to do my job well.

Performing well, and being liked, are key factors in professional success and in chipping away that gnawing sense that everyone other than you knows what they’re supposed to be doing.

Doing your job well in the beginning requires acceptance of certain truths and the use of many questions. These are the more important truths:

  1. Your client is not your true client. Your client, the person you are serving and working for, is the person giving you work. Your work is to make their life easier and meet their needs;
  2. Most lawyers ascend to seniority because they are good at being lawyers. Rarely are they trained in, or enthusiastic about, management skills. While that should not be your problem – it is. Your life will get easier if you make it easy for your manager to manage you;
  3. It’s okay that you don’t know anything because your work is to find things out;
  4. Even if no-one says it, everyone goes through this bit, and you will get through it too.

In order to act on these truths, the best thing you can do is figure out early on exactly what is being asked of you and how to do it.

A script of questions to ask with every instruction will boost you so high up the confidence ladder you won’t know what to do with yourself. The following are to be used as applicable:

  • I confess I’ve never actually drafted a letter/memo/mortgage/contract before. Is there a similar matter I could review to get a sense of style? Where would you suggest I start?
  • What form would you like my output in? A draft letter, a memo, a casual chat at the coffee machine?
  • When do you need to send the final letter/advice/agreement and when would you like my draft?
  • How long would you expect this letter/memo/contract to be?
  • Are there any key issues between the parties that I should be aware of in drafting the letter/memo/contract?
  • What is the budget for the letter/memo/contract? How long would you expect this task to take?
  • Would you like me to check in throughout the drafting process or are you happy to take it from here? If you want me to check in, would you prefer emails or a quick chat?
  • What is the matter number and can I have the correspondence file to review?

The sooner your manager can rely on you to produce what they are asking for, the sooner you become reliable and the more confidence you generate, the more enjoyable and easier your work life becomes.

It’s a process, but it’s within your control more than it may have seemed on day one.

And now, a Toffee Pop, because when you work for yourself, every day is chocolate biscuit day.

Katie Cowan is the founder of Christchurch-based litigation services provider Symphony Law Ltd. Katie was admitted in September 2010 and spent five years working in civil and commercial litigation before starting her own boutique litigation practice in 2015. She began The New Lawyer podcast to further the conversation on what is possible in a legal career and in the legal industry itself. Katie will be drawing on the experiences of the new lawyers she has interviewed for her podcasts, along with her own, to explore (with a touch of levity) some of the issues which confront those new to legal practice.

Subscribe to the podcast at or search ‘The New Lawyer’ in iTunes or in the Stitcher app.

Last updated on the 1st December 2018