Working with Juniors and Myself

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Working with Juniors and Myself

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As a senior lawyer, I almost always work with a junior or two on a matter. By junior I mean a fresh or less experienced lawyer or a pupil. The junior would be the one that has to do the ‘getting up’ for the case. To ‘get up’ a case is to prepare a case for hearing or trial. It is not a phrase often used these days. 

In getting up a case, the junior is tasked with preparing a first draft of whatever we are working on. It can be an opinion, contract, application, trial, etc. Prior to beginning their work we will discuss the case, the approach and direction to take, how we intend to tackle the challenges we can expect, whether they need clarifications and the deadline. I often tell them that if they come up with an idea to work it in to the draft for discussion later. Then, I leave them to it and see what comes back. 

That was how it was with my boss when I started out except he just discussed the case and gave me a deadline.

The first draft is often the most difficult and easiest to make mistakes for a fresh lawyer or pupil and, therefore, a fertile field for learning. After a discussion about what to correct and improve about the first draft, I send them off to revise it. They come back with the second draft and we have a discussion about it. If it still is not close to what I want we will continue to discuss and revise it until I find it acceptable. 

It is a truism that we learn best from our mistakes. That is why I deliberately create an enviroment that gives them opportunity to make mistakes. So when I do point out the mistake, explain it and correct it, instead of scolding, belittling or shouting at them, the lesson is clear, direct and vivid to them. Or so I hope.

They learn by doing and not simply being told or scolded. Scolding, belittling and shouting erects needless barriers to learning. It wantonly damages their nascent sense of confidence about themselves. And for those that do the scolding, they don’t realize how mean, disrespectful and egoistical they appear.  

Without that aggression, the lesson I want to impart is better absorbed because they have intimately experienced the mistake, the correction and most importantly, worked out for themselves how to avoid it. I give them a free hand with the drafts because I want them to develop their own style and not be constrained by mine. If they adopt mine, that’s fine; but I am curious to see what theirs looks like.

So there is often a certain amount of to and froing on the drafts. Even though it is my preferred teaching and working method, it can be a painful one for me if my colleague is mediocre and is either uninterested or incapable of improvement. If they do not get meaningfully closer to my expectation by the third draft and see no prospect of improvement, I will let someone else have a go at it. If we have time that is. If we don’t, I will take over and complete it without them. 

This method, however, is a pleasureable experience if I work with a legal savant. Their first drafts are often close to my expectations if not meet them entirely. There are moments when they exceed my expectations and I learn from them. Working on the drafts with them is less of a chore and more of an adventure in an intellectual cavern.

I did say that I ‘almost always’ work with a junior. I don’t work with one when a piece of work is, I feel, too difficult for them, or has great urgency about it then either a senior colleague handles it or I do so myself. In such situations, there is no time for that method and process to take place.

But there are times when I do not want to work with a junior or anyone on a piece of work because I am possessed by a strong desire to do it all myself. I want to be the junior labouring at the work instead of dealing with it in a supervisory capacity. I want to be the one to come up with the drafts, doing the research, preparing the application, writing up the letters, crafting the submission, drafting a contract or opinion and all the bits of work that go towards the finished product. 

Who then checks my work? That would be me, too. I often leave my drafts to fallow and return to it after sometime. No matter how short the time frame I have to leave it alone. A few hours if time is short. A few days if time is long. Leaving it alone allows me to make that mental break to consider it afresh. It allows for new ideas and insight to present themselves. It helps me to shift from a ‘junior mindset’ to a ‘senior mindset’ and approach it in that fashion. I can look over my draft as I would a stranger’s. That is important to enable me to consider the drafts critically instead of defensively. 

Only once that is done do I circulate my final draft to my colleagues for their feedback. I ask them to check it for errors, readability, sense and persuasiveness. I don’t do this all the time but if I think it important enough or am feeling unsure about it I circulate it. 

That desire to do it all myself runs its course when the work is submitted. After that, I feel a great personal sense of satisfaction and accomplishment and feel my skills sharpened.

In yielding to that desire of feeling like a junior, I get to savour the experience of doing instead of supervising. I enjoy assuming the junior role so I do not forget what it was like to be one. In doing so, I can better empathise with the young lawyers and pupils I work with. Just as important, I get to savour the experience and sensation of being a young lawyer attending to the getting up in my early days, or at least fool myself so. 

Just because we are senior does not mean we have to always feel, think or pretend to be one all the time.

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