Escaping the Junior Experience

We suffer the junior experience as fresh lawyers.

We may have done the research, gathered the evidence, formulated the claim, fashioned our responses to the defences, prepared every scrap of document or bundle for the trial or hearing; we may have considered the terms and conditions of the deal, ferreted the appropriate precedent, painstakingly revised the drafts, prepared the opinion letters for various legal queries; we may have discussed the matter with our bosses and prepared it according to their instructions, we may have done everything there was possible to do about the brief, done it well, know far more about it than our bosses, have it at our fingertips and in our fingernails, and yet, and yet, a client still has no confidence when we given them the legal advice.

They had to hear it from our bosses, our superiors, the older looking fellas. It was only then a client felt more confident and convinced about the advice. Our bosses may eventually say the same thing as us, word-for-word, but that it comes from them and not us, the fresh lawyer, is what makes the difference.

That is the junior experience. I chafed against it. The junior experience confounded, frustrated, and eventually had me simply accept it as the way things were.

For my junior experience, I remember countless times when I was tasked or took it upon myself to explain a matter or legal issues to a client. It was usually in person or on the phone. I would brief them as thoroughly, patiently, emphatically, and relevantly as I was capable of. I took my time with it. Responded to whatever questions they had. It was important to me that a client understood what I advised them.

But inevitably, they would ask, what used to annoy me greatly during my early practice, the question after I finished briefing them:

 “Thank you, Encik Fahri. But what does Encik Izzat/Datuk Azzat think about my case? I want to speak to them about it. I want to hear what they think.”

Lord knows how many times I wanted to retort, They think the same thing I just told you lah. There is no need to speak with Encik Izzat or Datuk Azzat. They will tell you the same thing. We have discussed your matter at length. Their opinion is what I told you. And by the way, I did all the groundwork. It was me that broke out the books, considered the case, wrote the drafts and revised them. Of course, it was at their direction. But trust me, you are not going to hear anything different from them. So please don’t waste their time by asking them to repeat what I just told you.

But, of course, I never did. I never expressed my frustrations at a client at being treated condescendingly, dismissively, or invisibly. It was not professional. I came to accept that as a junior lawyer that was simply my lot in life at the time. I had to put up with it or burn myself up with annoyance and frustration. Because burnt and frustrated was how I was at the junior experience for the first few years of practice.

I came to realize that generally, people felt more confident, convinced and it was easier taking advice from an older person compared to a younger person. Ordinarily, senior lawyers tended to have more natural gravitas about their ways, thoughts and manner of speaking compared to a junior one. A culmination of their experience, thinking and constant refinement of both led them to possess such gravitas. This does not, of course, apply to senior freshies.

The junior experience is not confined to the conference room or call with a client. It happens in the courts too.

All things being equal, if I, a junior lawyer, were up against a senior lawyer, a judge was likelier to be persuaded by a senior lawyer. Sometimes I felt it was especially so if the senior lawyer talked nonsense or created drama. ‘Heard dismissively’ is how I would characterize some of the treatment I received in my early practice – I would be heard half-heartedly or callously before being quickly dismissed or told to wrap up soon after I began. Or I was toyed with by the bench with petty questions and ‘didn’t you knows’ before my application was dismissed.

There is a parallel between advising clients and standing up in court – it is not just about what we know, not about how much work we did, but what we deliver. Although an outcome cannot be divorced from its process, the courts and clients are only interested in the outcome, not so much the process. But as lawyers, we care or are supposed to care about the process because it determines the outcome. We can only influence the outcome by influencing the process.

How long or short we dwell in our junior experience is related to our developmental trajectory as a lawyer.

We escape the junior experience once our learned friends at the bar, the judiciary and the citizenry regard us as competent lawyers in our own right. We begin our escape from junior experience when our superior trusts us with work. It may start with signing off firm letters in our own name. It continues into making our own decisions on judgment calls and making important decisions over cases under our care. It culminates in the client wanting to speak to us instead of our boss. And they do so not out of convenience but out of conviction that we are suited for them.

If a client calls and asks to see one of my lawyers instead of me, it’s an indication to me that they are on their way out of junior experience or out of it.

One of the things I try to do with my lawyers or pupils is to expedite their escape from junior experience. I want to get them as quickly as they can to a point where they are competent, credible and courageous enough to deal with client queries and more importantly, that a client feels comfortable taking advice from them without me in the conference room or have the advice ‘approved’ by me.

Escaping the junior experience is primarily the effort of the young lawyer. A young lawyer does not necessarily require guidance from a senior to do so but guidance improves the chances of escape. A senior that actively takes an interest and initiative to nurture and grow his younger colleagues will greatly hasten their process of escape and flourishing.

The presence of three qualities will improve a young lawyer’s chance of escape and its expedition.

The first is a desire for and a taking pleasure in the law and legal practice.

The second is a deep desire to improve our qualities, abilities and attitude where it relates to the law and legal practice. Such a desire inevitably leads us to deepen our existing desire for law and legal practice.

The third is a psychological, emotional and attitunal fortitude, courage, initiative and a willingness to ensure difficult, challenging and novel situations, on a regular basis.

The first two qualities are inherent. Nothing can be done about them. You either have them or you don’t. If you do not have them, the law is not for you. Seriously consider leaving legal practice. You are likely one of those that see legal work as a chore and something to dread instead of something to be enjoyed and a way to help others. You will be looking for some way to distinguish yourself in the law, instead of doing so with the law. Those that persist despite the lack of such desires tend to end up having an long extended junior experience before ending up a senior freshie.

The last quality though is the part which can be developed. It is the part that a superior or senior lawyer can influence. It is both easy and difficult at the same time.

It starts with giving our junior colleagues as much trust and autonomy as we can bear and trust to give them. It continues with giving them an opportunity to struggle with the work and overcome the difficulties themselves and being patient with them.

As a senior, I see my role as helping them help themselves, not help them directly with the work. I am around if they need to discuss an issue, need some direction on where to go on it, or give feedback, but I am not there to do the work I have assigned them to do. That’s their responsibility, just as it is my responsibility to answer to the client for any shortcomings on the work.

It is that struggle, the overcoming of it and the patience to let them overcome that struggle that is key to escaping the junior experience.

It is in the struggle and overcoming that we truly learn, understand and inhabit that learning. It is in the struggle and its overcoming that we achieve ownership, not simply possession, of that knowledge. We don’t just know it; we understand it, we feel it pulse through our veins.

It is in the struggle and its overcoming that we cultivate our breadth of knowledge, confidence in our manner, quickness in thought, creativeness of options, psychological resilience, and an assuring gravitas, for example. Our constant and thoughtful engagement with the reality of our brief is the soil from which confidence about ourselves and ability grows.

Of course, as we know in law there are exceptions to the rule. Not all young lawyers suffered the junior experience. I know a few who had the privilege of being exempted from it, but even then not all the time. But I reckon that is the general run of a young lawyer’s practise – the junior experience.

I am less frustrated about it now, not simply because I have escaped it, but more because I can now better appreciate that the junior experience is not an entirely conscious thing by the courts or clients.

More often the junior experience is driven by a coalescence of various cognitive biases such as ageism, self-serving bias, confirmation bias, Semmelweiss Reflex (obvious and important empirical truths newly discovered are reflexively rejected by an established community or society), back fire effect (phenomenon of digging in further in a position when faced with clear evidence that disproves it), and disconfirmation bias (imposing a stronger burden of proof when faced with clear evidence that disproves it) that go towards the illusion that a young lawyer’s view is always or necessarily lesser than a senior lawyer’s one.

I suppose this is the legal career version of the great escape.

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