Beware of stock standard advice

When I started out my practice in my father’s firm a great many counseled me to consider not working for my father but to try out other firms. Lawyers of both senior and junior stripes, acquaintances, friends and strangers, would assail me with the same advice:

Since your father’s firm is a small one doing general work, you should try out the medium-sized and big ones for a few years. The experience is different, if not better. You get to do work your father’s firm has no opportunity to do. There is more opportunity to do specialist work. If you are good or fortunate enough, you can do work at the international level! That will improve your profile. Get a feel for how its like Fahri! Don’t live in a shell. You can always go back to your father’s firm after those stints and bring back what you learn from there. You are missing out if you don’t try it out.

I ignored that career advice although it was not easy at first. As a fresh lawyer, I gave everyone’s opinion the benefit of the doubt and considered it seriously. I have since learned some opinions can and should be dismissed out of hand. Not everyone is worth listening to. We learn that eventually because experience teaches that course.

I also realized it was off-the-shelf career advice spewed without first knowing and understanding me. They did not have the faintest idea of what my character and practice were or what my father’s firm was like. I came to appreciate their advice was reactive. It was general without any depth to it.

On that note, be careful of the generalized advice I give here. It applies to me but not to you. Or it may apply to you but not entirely. You may find it useful after modifying what I said or did a little or a lot. Actually, just be wary of advice in general. In case you were wondering, no, the irony did not escape me. And just because it’s ironic does not make it untrue.

My rule of thumb is the closer the person is, or the more the advice is tailored to me, the more seriously I consider it. The further away someone is or the less they understand me, the readier I am to reject that advice. Not all advice is helpful. Whether we take or reject the advice is ultimately our call. So we are under a duty to ourselves to consider that advice as it relates to us.

I had the confidence to reject that advice because I knew what I wanted and what I had. I was clear that the immediate priority of my early legal career was to amass as varied and as much experience as possible and that my father’s firm was the best place to do that for me.

It was a generalist firm that did a variety of litigation, conveyancing, and corporate work. I had the opportunity to conduct any case in the firm I wanted. I had unparalleled access to my father, an experienced corporate lawyer, and my boss, Izzat, an experienced litigator. I could barge into their room or call them any time if I needed to know something or test an argument. This alone was worth it being at my father’s firm.

But I could also buy any law books I wanted for the library. I could go in and out of the firm as and when I liked. The partners fully supported my legal aid and public interest litigation adventures. So long as I cleared my allocation of work, I could do whatever I wanted. My ascension was fast; by my fourth year, I was mandur of the firm.

All those liberties, privileges and other benefits made it easy to reject that advice. It helped that I harboured no fantasies of being in a big famous firm doing glamorous corporate or litigation work that ran into the millions. If it happened, it happened, but I did not hanker for it. I had no interest in being anywhere else other than my father’s firm too.

I did not envy my friends or acquaintances in big firms doing famous work because I was familiar with their complaints. From what I heard, in big firms, one ends often ends up anonymous unless you are outstanding or have a patron partner to cultivate you. A new lawyer in a big firm does not get much opportunity to argue cases early on; you would be often stuck in research and in a supportive capacity. High fee-paying or prestigious clients in high stakes litigation do not want some freshie arguing their application or running their trials. They want to see the battle hardened partner in the ring not some fresh boy off the farm.

I remember once an acquaintance of mine in our fourth year of practice confessing to me his anxiety at not having done any trials up until then. He was worried about making basic mistakes when he was a senior. That was understandable. I had completed a few trials and hearings by my fourth year. Those years were spent running the gauntlet of error.

Then there is also the big firm bureaucracy, the office politics, the rigid systems, annual fee targets, other key performance indicators, the marketing, and all those things that come with large organizations. It’s not a bad thing per se. It’s just different. Some thrive in those kind of environments and work best with that kind of structure. Big firms can do certain work smaller firms can’t and vice versa. They can draw on their economies of scale, their depth of expertise and labour, and command prestige in a way small firms cannot.

There are trade-offs whichever firm we choose – small, medium or big; family owned, not family owned; politically linked, not politically linked. They all come with their respective advantages and disadvantages; as in all things in life.

The important point in all this is to know ourselves and what works for us. To know which environments we thrive in and those we merely survive in. Some of us need time and experience to learn what works for us and what doesn’t. And there is nothing wrong with that. Contentment is not easy to come by.

I am simply fortunate there was no issue with me about where I was going to practice.

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