I wish I knew … once a lawyer, always a lawyer

Claudia McGarva

By Claudia McGarva

It’s hard to separate work and home. I’m not just talking about finishing off advices in bed, waking up in the middle of the night thinking about work, or feeling constantly guilty about not spending enough time on either front. I’m talking about being in lawyer mode in a relationship, and applying what you learn in legal practice to your relationships.

So here are my top three obnoxious lawyer habits that have transgressed into my personal life. They’re not very romantic, and by no means have I perfected their execution, but they bring an element of control amongst the chaos:

  1. Quid Pro Quo

It’s December. In the legal profession, this means end of year parties. Now that I have a child, I have to book well in advance for a night off, figure out how I’ll get home, and whether it is worth staying up past 8:30pm. If I’m going to have a night off, it better be worth it.

More importantly, it means I have to cash in my carer credits.

My carer credits are held within a secret bank account. I don’t receive written statements and have to rely upon my poor memory to see how much is sitting there. No one else can access it besides me. It gets topped up when I pick up the parenting slack when my partner has to work late, goes to after work drinks or has an afternoon off from caring duties to have a resemblance of a social life. However, it takes a real dive if I have to stay overnight for a work conference, or go to a Christmas party.

I’m constantly balancing the books. The notion of quid pro quo is something instilled in you through law school and in legal practice. It forms the basis of our daily interactions: something for something. The practice of law is highly transactional.

Likewise, negotiating different roles in a relationship and trying to make something work means trying to make sure both parties don’t feel ripped off and can enjoy the benefits of their investment.

At first glance, this may appear clinical. However, my credit system acknowledges caring duties constitutes work, and it has value – on a micro and macro level. I’m not quite at the stage of recording my time spent on care duties in six-minute increments, but I’m not above it.

  1. Managing Expectations

 I learnt the hard way that you under-promise and over-deliver. In a matter, you are constantly managing client expectations – what is a reasonable outcome? What is an unreasonable outcome? When you will out that advice? When you will get around to reading the flurry of emails?

The same goes for personal relationships.

I promise my mum I will call every Sunday. If I’m going to be late home from work, I try to give my partner as much notice as possible. I have honest and frank conversations with my partner, and myself, about what I can and can’t deliver.

And most importantly, I say no more often than yes. Rather than saying “I’ll try to make it”, and then bail at the last minute, now I try to be completely honest and say “No, I can’t” in the first instance. It’s not a new concept, but when you implement it for the first time it feels revolutionary.

  1. Networking

In the early days of my career, I went to networking events to get out of the office and eat tiny food. It was nice meeting other practitioners and then bumping into them at court, slowly recognising more faces around town and having friendlier interactions with other lawyers if they were on the other side in a matter. I then realised the importance of maintaining networks and being able to draw upon the expertise of others to help give your client the best advice and representation, and for your own professional development.

I’ve been able to develop great relationships early in my career that I still have today. However, the most productive network I’ve worked hard to maintain, the one that has been the most beneficial to my career, is the relationship I have with my partner. I wouldn’t be able to work the hours I do at the moment without my partner, and vice versa.

I used to think when I had my son that I was missing out on important events that were, unhelpfully, always scheduled around day care pick up time. Now, I’m slowly getting over the fear of missing out, and realise my family is the most important network I need: to keep me sane, and more importantly, to keep me employed.

There’s plenty more I could add, and my partner has said “stop lawyering me” on more than one occasion when he felt he was being cross-examined. However, there are some perks with being in a relationship with a lawyer: my partner never reads the terms and conditions on a product and/or service because he knows I will. At least I can bring something to the table.

The Grinder (and minder and finder)

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By Finchley Atticus

A couple of years ago an early career commercial lawyer explained to me that in her law firm you have the finders, minders and the grinders. In her opinion the prime position is the finder, the lawyer who brings in the clients to the firm, the rainmaker who ensures the firm is rolling in the cash.

I mention this because I’ve been enjoying watching the first (and unfortunately the only) season of The Grinder, a US legal comedy series which screened in the USA in 2015-16. It’s been screening here in Australia on Channel Eleven, and it’s a show within a show. Each episode usually opens with a scene (which gives a nod to all the clichés of legal drama and always draws a laugh from me at least) from the long-running TV legal drama called, yes you guessed it, The Grinder. Like a Russian nesting doll, Rob Lowe (I never watched The West Wing but he was fantastic as the nefarious TV executive in Wayne’s World) plays TV star Dean Sanderson, Jr, who in turn played attorney Mitch Grinder, the lead in the fictional show The Grinder (hope you’re keeping up with me here). Dean is still very emotionally attached to his Mitch Grinder persona, and he never loses an opportunity to provide a commentary on his humorously overwrought performance of Mitch Grinder, for the benefit of his family, ensconced in their lounge room.

What’s an out of work actor like Dean to do? Apart from reliving his stardom as Mitch Grinder, he decides to parlay his skills learned as a fictional lawyer by joining the law firm Sanderson & Yao, headed by his father (played by William Devane) alongside Dean’s brother (Fred “The Wonder Years” Savage), both attorneys. Coincidentally, Fred Savage’s Wonder Years co-star Josh Saviano grew up to become a lawyer in real life, following a long and storied tradition of thespians giving up their auditions and scripts to pursue a legal career. The reverse is also common, with a string of lawyers turning in their briefs to become actors or comedians (Ronny Chieng being on prominent recent example). The intersection of acting and the law is fascinating to ponder, and probably explains the endurance of university law revues, featuring witty performances by law students who write, act and direct whilst cramming for exams and working long hours as paralegals for grinders who are under the pump to achieve the billables for the managing partner.

It’s a shame Fox axed The Grinder after one season, and the ratings was probably a key factor (why oh why do some quality shows have difficulty drawing in ratings?). Nevertheless, hopefully Mitch Grinder in endless of reruns of The Grinder somewhere in a screenwriter’s imagination and the memories of his fans like myself.

I wish I knew… about the Trump slump

Claudia McGarva

By Claudia McGarva

I have been surprisingly affected by Trump winning the US election. I had never been a political obsessive or knowledgeable about international elections. My secret fear is being stopped in the street by the Italian equivalent of John Oliver, and being asked who is the Italian Prime Minister (and then feature on some Youtube video that goes viral in Italy about ignorant Australians). Unfortunately, the perception of ignorance is more motivating to learn about this stuff than the dangers of ignorance itself.

However, Trump’s victory had me feeling … bummed. I had an extra glass of wine or two that night. I felt the need to talk about the election with anyone who would listen. I went to work the next day in a slightly off mood, my thoughts becoming nihilist in nature as the day went on.

I was in the Trump slump.

Sure, I had followed the election as closely as your standard observer. I was hurt, yet not shocked, by his comments about grabbing women’s pussies, denying women access to abortions, building walls, and calling for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the US.

Like so many people, I thought he couldn’t win. Stupidly, I thought the video of him and Billy Bush talking about sexually assaulting women was the nail in the coffin. In 2016, surely your average voter wouldn’t rely on the “boys will be boys” rhetoric and recognise this person is not fit for the job? Surely, the majority would listen to his absurd policies and discount him as a narcissistic reality TV star and not a serious politician?

Unfortunately, Trump’s win clarified for me what I’ve learnt during my legal career: that you can be the most prepared, the most qualified, the most conscientious, the most earnest, the most respectful practitioner and still lose out to incompetence, vindictiveness and showmanship.

I think about the matters that unnecessarily dragged on because someone didn’t file a document on time, didn’t turn up to a court appearance, refused to produce material, and made irrelevant and rude statements to fan the flames. Sure, you may get a cost order here and there, but enforcing those orders is a whole other issue. I think about the matters that have settled because the other party and/or their representative were obstructionist, aggressive or crazy. The idea of battling on, dealing with the cost and stress of litigation, was too much for some clients and understandably, didn’t want to continue to a final hearing to be proven right.

Yet in most of these matters, whilst the poor behaviour may have been called out and ‘tut-tutted’ by the judge, or by the law society, it didn’t change the ultimate outcome. My clients still had to pay their legal bill, which had blown out through no fault of their own. The disgruntled self-represented litigant still filed new applications and appeals, dragging the other party back to court under the guise of procedural fairness. The obstructionist lawyer still found more clients and mismanaged their matters, clients who were non the wiser, thinking they could trust their lawyer to act in their best interests.

It is an uncomfortable truth that incompetence is a strategy to get what you want. According to the commentary, Trump was the ‘anti- establishment’ candidate (yet I don’t know how someone who had clearly benefited from the establishment to generate enormous wealth could be deemed against it). Apparently, his political ineptitude was a drawcard for many and Clinton’s experience was a major deterrent. They didn’t want the same old, same old. However, as Tom Friedman from The New York Times observed:

“As much as I knew that it was a possibility, the stark fact that a majority of Americans wanted radical, disruptive change so badly and simply did not care who the change agent was, what sort of role model he could be for our children, whether he really had any ability to execute on his plan — or even really had a plan to execute on — is profoundly disturbing”.

We can call Trump a misogynist and racist, and the American people stupid. Yet what does this achieve? Merely ascribing labels laden with value judgments to shut down conversation is not enough. We need to listen, engage, analyse and debate to truly understand and challenge the structures that reward incompetence and the people that are allowed to successfully operate within them, however infuriating that may be.

I’m not going to become a rogue solicitor because I might be able to get away with it. I want to be an ethical practitioner. I will, however, wallow in my Trump slump for a little bit longer, just until I finish the bottle, and try and ward off the dangers of ignorance by googling the Italian Prime Minister.

 

 

 

 

 

Help: law school has ruined me for a career in law!

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Q:

 

Dear NLL,

I have a pretty big issue – at least I think it is. Having just finished my law degree and graduate diploma, it has dawned on me that law has sucked the life out of me and I really really don’t want to do it anymore.
I am/was a mature age student, I have 3 children, all under 10 and I have progressed through my degree over what feels like a century. Though I’m incredibly proud to finally fall over the finish line, I feel so drained.
What would you recommend? Does this feeling mean that I will never want to utilise my law degree as a solicitor, or will it pass after a break? Help: Law school has ruined me for a career in law!

 

KD

A:

 

Dear KD,

Let me begin at the end by saying this question is ultimately impossible for an outsider to answer. Nevertheless, I have some observations that will hopefully make this whole process a little easier.
Firstly, the study of law and the practice of law could not be further apart than if they physically inhabited polar ends of the earth. It is almost twenty years after finishing my law degree and I’m still struggling to make the connection between what I studied and what it is I actually do on a day-to-day basis. When you say ‘law has sucked the life out of you’, I think what you really mean is that the study of law has sucked the life out of you. It is an important distinction because distinguishing the two creates the possibility of a completely different future. Put another way, more likely than not, there is a promised land awaiting you out there and it will not in any way resemble the ordeal that you have already been through. It will be another ordeal altogether. (Stay with me here…)
You see when you start actually practicing as a lawyer you will be undertaking a completely novel role. There will inevitably be a steep learning curve and it is highly likely that you will find that the new experience and unique challenges invigorates you; piquing your interest in law all over again.
That’s not to say that it will be easy. Promised land or no promised land, it is still new territory and it will take time to establish roots and get comfortable. Happily, while you are experiencing this new adventure, you are actually getting paid. Now if that isn’t a silver lining I cannot say what is.
Look, if you completed your law degree and GDLP whilst raising three children I’m tipping you can do pretty much anything you put your mind to. And this is where you probably need to do the hard work: Where is your mind at the moment? What do you really want? What makes you passionate? What drives you? Where is your heart at?
The answer to these questions may well be different to how you might have answered them at the beginning of your law degree; but I doubt it. In my experience, more often than not, the law degree has just provoked in you’re a temporary amnesia. Don’t worry. It does that to the best of us. It will pass.
I recommend you try to reconnect with what made you want to study law in the first place. What was all that about? Chances are, whatever it was, it’s still a big part of you. Sure you feel drained, so by all means, take a break while you try to work it all out, but don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater just yet. Now if, as sometimes happens, you find after careful thought that you have changed so much over the years that practicing law is no longer where you’re at then that is perfectly fine – there are countless ways to put a law degree to good use – think politician, law lecturer, mediator, policy adviser, government, legal journalism, law librarian, business development, banker, motivational speaker, legal reporter, and entrepreneur, to name just a few.

 

I hope this helps.

 

Arna

I wish I knew… to avoid office politics

Claudia McGarva

By Claudia McGarva

When the Eiffel Tower was completed in 1889, many locals hated it. They called for it to be pulled down. It was an eyesore. It was structurally flawed. The tower was almost scrapped a decade later, until the French realised it was a nifty radio tower during the First World War. Now, the tower attracts about 7 million visitors a year and is a national symbol. The Eiffel Tower endured ridicule, scorn, threats of destruction, widespread acceptance and finally, pride.

It is scary to think how many ideas are nipped in the bud before they have the chance to grow: ideas that were abandoned because the majority didn’t accept them. During my legal career, I’ve worked at organisations that decided to pioneer a new way of doing business, or at least flirt with the idea of a new world order. These organisations either had an existing reputation of being trailblazers, or had acquired a new head honcho who could clearly see the firm’s flaws before they became a part of the problem. Either way, the challenge to these organisations was not whether their proposal for a new billing structure or deciding to expand their areas of practice was a bad idea. It was clear these organisations had done their research and were responding to a need in the market. No, their greatest obstacle was their existing staff and their opposition.

Staff opposition was usually on the basis of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”. Ideas of change and responding to client need were immediately dismissed as wanting to change for the sake of change. At times, colleagues became toxic. When I was a newly admitted practitioner, I found disgruntled colleagues bailed me up in the kitchen and tried to ‘get in my ear’ about how the firm was going to hell in a hand basket. I now assume it was because as a junior practitioner, you are learning about everything, including office politics, and you are an easy target – impressionable, probably still polite to your colleagues and non-threatening.

As a relatively new practitioner, this can be a difficult position to be in. You may be new to office politics and get bogged down in the muck. It can be exhausting, particularly if you have billable targets and colleagues want to use your time complaining about these changes. I’m not saying there aren’t appropriate times to debrief with colleagues about an organisational decision (which can also be of great value to an organisation). The issue is whether that conversation is constructive – does it offer valid criticism about a new decision? Does it test the idea? Does it understand the need for change?

I think about the time wasted engaging in these conversations, and the effect it had on my morale. It can be damaging, exhausting and debilitating. It may lead to an unnecessary premature departure from an organisation that may have otherwise been a good fit. It can also mean you miss out on being part of an exciting development, which in time, may be a source of pride in your career.

Alexander Hamilton

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By Maille Halloran

The “ten-dollar founding father without a father” and the subject of a Broadway musical that took home a bagful of Tony awards, American founder Alexander Hamilton was also a lawyer. Born in the British West Indies, Hamilton began working to support his family at the age of 11. He impressed his Scottish employers with an intelligence beyond his years and was eventually sent to the North American colonies for his formal education. The lure of politics triumphed over Hamilton’s scholarly pursuits, and he left before graduating from King’s College (now Columbia University) in New York City to join the patriots’ cause. In the Revolutionary Army, Hamilton met General George Washington, and become one of General Washington’s trusted advisers. Peace with Great Britain and France meant the end of Hamilton’s military career and he studied law instead. Hamilton opened his own legal practice in New York City, mainly defending British Loyalists and their property rights. Hamilton represented the defendant in the landmark case Rutgers v Waddington, which set the precedent for judicial review. His legal prowess made Hamilton an invaluable adviser to the government of the day, and though he didn’t help write the U.S. Constitution, Hamilton’s advocacy made its ratification possible. When Washington became the first president of the United States, Hamilton was appointed to be the first Secretary of the U.S. Treasury.

The Chaser (TV series)

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Legally trained Chas Licciardello of The Chaser

 

By Maille Halloran

The satirical news writers and television stars of The Chaser are perhaps best known for erring on the wrong side of the law. A knowledge of legal rights might come in handy when planning stunts such as the notorious APEC security breach. Fortunately, Chaser members Dominic Knight, Julian Morrow, Chas Licciardello and Craig Reucassel were all graduates of the Sydney Law School. Journalism graduate and fellow member Chris Taylor even worked as a court reporter for two years before joining The Chaser team.

Consumer affairs television series The Checkout, starring Julian Morrow and Craig Reucassel, showcases something not unlike legal advocacy. Viewers are reminded of their rights as consumers and product claims and guarantees are tested. The show itself has not been immune to legal controversy. The ABC faces legal action over The Checkout segments on A2 milk and Swisse vitamins.

Chaser member Dominic Knight is the least recognised of the group, writing rather than presenting on most Chaser programs. In 2009, Knight published a novel, Disco Boy, about a disenchanted law graduate.

I’m a probate lawyer.

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I represent people who contest their parents’ wills. I want to write a book about all the things I’ve seen. It’s not quite The Soprano’s, but it’s close. My colleague likes to say that contested wills are the final battleground of a dysfunctional family. Everything from childhood gets brought to the surface. You’d be amazed how long people can hold grudges. And probate court is their last chance to get revenge for ‘Mom loving you more.’ The crazy thing is how many clients would rather be right than be happy. It’s almost always smartest to settle. It costs both sides more to fight it out than to make a deal. Yet people still choose to spend all their time and money, just to get a judgment from the court that will prove they’re right one final time.

Courtesy of Humans of New York

I wish I knew… no one’s looking at you (kid)

Claudia McGarva

By Claudia McGarva

I recently attended a week long legal conference – one of those conferences where you get excited about scamming a free mousepad that you will never use, have dessert at lunch time because it’s there, and desperately try to make friends at the afternoon tea break because you feel you should “network”.

After four days of eating, schmoozing and talking shop, I was exhausted. I was also a little bitter. I have recently started a new role in a legal sector that is foreign to me. It has been a welcome change, and I have no regrets. However, I have never felt like such an outsider as I did during this conference. Most of the people who attended have been working in that sector for decades. They attended the conference with at least one other person from their organisation. I was on my own. It was clear most people already knew each other, and use the conference as a catch up once a year. I didn’t know anyone.

As I said, I was a little bitter. I was making all the effort – inching my way into people’s conversations at the breaks, always having to approach people and never the other way around, asking permission to sit at their table, and filling in the gaps in awkward conversation. I thought if I were in a group and I saw someone on their own, I would have made an effort to include them. The worst was when I was at the conference dinner, and I felt like I crashed a wedding. Luckily booze and loneliness is such a great combination.

Whilst it was tempting to sit with my phone and pretend I was doing something important, I decided to grow up and make the best of an awkward situation. I knew the conference was the only opportunity for these people to reconnect with colleagues. People have limited time, and may not want to make new friends if it means not being able to connect with old ones. I would have been a fly in their face. In my younger years, I would have stressed about not being likeable and wallowed in loneliness. Now, after my initial bitterness wore off, I realised I’m too busy and tired to engage in unproductive self-reflection and alone time is to be relished.

The older I get, the less I care what other people think because I realise they probably aren’t thinking about you. I mean this in the context of the crippling self-consciousness I engaged in when I was starting out in law – that everyone is judging your every move, the fear of doing anything wrong, the fear of getting fired and looking like an idiot if you asked a question at a seminar.  People don’t care and have their own insecurities to deal with before entertaining yours.

So I survived. There was even a silver lining to my obscurity – if no one knows who you are, they can’t send you the dry cleaning bill when you accidentally spill champagne on their jacket when they turn their back on you mid-conversation.

No, I’m not bitter at all.