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.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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.

I wish I knew… I’d never be Alicia Florrick

Claudia McGarva

By Claudia McGarva

I love the television show The Good Wife. I love that Alicia Florrick can become a partner of one of the biggest law firms in Chicago with only two years’ post admission experience. I love that she always has career-defining cases fall into her lap, can do shots of tequila without wincing, and that she’s interesting enough to have the National Security Agency keep tabs on her. She also has impeccable hair.

Most of the time it feels like I am treading through the paper trail and not doing the high-level lawyer stuff that I signed up for. It is the time spent chasing people for documents you requested weeks ago. The time spent reiterating the advice you have already given three times. The time spent making sure all the emails you printed made its way onto the file because someone else has collected your printing or you’ve forgotten to collect it. By the end of the day, I’m so tired I barely have the capacity to read the expiration date on the milk let alone the stack of recent case law that I promised myself I would read before bed.

I’m sure there are high functioning lawyers who engage in high stakes litigation and have decent hair. However, most cases I manage are on a trajectory that don’t challenge the foundation of the legal system or become a career defining moment. I’m tempted to blame television for mismanaging my expectations that a legal career would be perpetually inspiring and challenging. Sure, there have been a few moments where these elements have transpired and this is why I am still a lawyer. However, much of the work is administrative, frustrating and … work. This isn’t a bad thing. If I were Alicia Florrick, I would have burnt out and have a Christmas tree made out of tequila bottles. Sometimes, though, it would be nice if the reality of being a lawyer matched the image of a lawyer.

However, the real ‘aha’ moment of my legal career was when I found out that the Julianna Marguiles, the actress who plays Alicia Florrick, wears a $10,000 wig on set. If Alicia Florrick is even faking it till she makes it, then there is hope for the rest of us.

I wish I knew… when to hang up

Claudia McGarva

By Claudia McGarva

When I started practising law, everyone refused to speak with a particular lawyer over the phone. This lawyer was known in the legal community as ‘the Pterodactyl’ due to her screeching at other lawyers. If she called the firm, all the assistants knew not to bother putting the call through to the lawyer responsible for that matter. They would politely say, “It is our policy that all communications are to be in writing”, and hang up.

I was shocked when I met this lawyer at court one day. She was pleasant enough. I think she even complimented my shoes. I didn’t understand why my firm had a ‘policy’ to deal with her. That was, until I had a matter against her.

She wasn’t just rude; she was abusive. She called my client a liar. She called me a liar. She said my correspondence was “bordering on unethical” because I had asked for some documents and included a deadline. She made continual threats. These ranged from making a complaint to the law society to seeking numerous personal cost orders against me. As a baby lawyer, I would be lying if I said I had Teflon skin. I was terrified of this woman. When I saw an email waiting for me the next morning from her, I would sweat. I would make sure every email and letter was immaculate and I wrote a transcript for every conversation I had with her. I would lie in bed thinking about the threats I had received from her that day, thinking I would lose my practising certificate before the ink was even dry. Whatever confidence I did have when I started practising was quickly evaporating.

That was, until I realised the threats stemmed from her insecurity. She was a generalist practitioner, did not specialise in that particular area of law and had only been practising in that field for about a year. She was also a sole practitioner. I was exclusively practising in that area of law and had access to experienced lawyers to advise and mentor along the way. The aggression was a mechanism to prove to her client that she was advocating strongly on their behalf and deafen her ineptitude. I am all for ‘faking it till you make it’; however, I had never seen a senior lawyer act this way. There is no need to. It doesn’t help your client and it doesn’t help you. It puts other lawyers off side and makes you feel more isolated in, what can be, a lonely industry.

Now, I do not engage with these practitioners when they carry on. Sometimes, I remind them of the legal profession rules (and very rarely, threaten to make my own justified complaint to the law society).  However, most of the time I now say “put it in writing” and hang up.

I wish I knew… the value of time

Claudia McGarva

By Claudia McGarva

I had a baby seven months ago and recently returned to work. The first thing I noticed about re-entering practice was that the whole industry – court, networking events, clients, continuing legal education, strategic planning meetings – does not care that you have to pick your child up from day-care, or you will be charged $40 for each minute after 6:00pm. Luckily, my partner and I are sharing the load but each day is an evaluation and negotiation of one’s priorities over the other’s. I am not going to bemoan the legal industry and discuss the tired term ‘work–life balance’. No, this is about not wasting time when time is a luxury.

When I was a junior lawyer, I would go to any work social events, seminar or committee meeting that was on. This was partly motivated by the university mentality that if an event offered free food and booze, you should take advantage. Also, it was a way to meet other professionals, learn something new and not feel so isolated in the industry. Young engineers networking social lawn bowls? Why not. Intensive weekend advocacy workshop? Bring it on. Alternative Dispute Resolution Committee for feminist vegan socialists? Of course. I had time to fully commit myself to my career and was willing to do so.

After a couple of years of practice, I stopped challenging myself and went through the motions.  It was not burn out; it was laziness. I think about the time I wasted watching bad TV, reading books that I didn’t like, thinking about going to the gym, and pretending to like crafts. In pregnancy, I stopped going to networking drinks as I felt like a diabetic in a chocolate factory and my feet hurt. I was still on cruise control.

However, since returning to work, I realised that I can’t always go to that interesting seminar interstate, or attend that committee meeting that runs until 8:30pm. I try to attend some events however at the moment, I do not have the luxury of being able to solely focus on one thing. I’m sure there will be a time when I can commit myself fully to the industry (yet ironically this will be when I am ready for retirement). However, there are some things I wish I did before bubs came along – further study, apply for that higher position, meet more people and be grateful for the level of control you have over your time. I think about how that time could have been used to learn something that would inspire me, meet interesting people and work towards a challenging goal.

I’m grateful for the time I now have with my son, and professionally, feel more productive than ever before. Unfortunately, there are so many things I want to do now to reinvigorate my interest in the law yet cannot do at the moment. There are only twenty-four hours in a day, and my son sleeps for about six of them. I wish I knew the value of time when I had it in spades. However, I have learnt from my regret. I no longer waste time doing things I think I ought to, but really do not want to. If this means that I never finish reading Bleak House after the third attempt or learn how to knit, then perhaps that time was not wasted after all.

I wish I knew that…. It’s not about you.

Claudia McGarva

By Claudia McGarva

In the words of J.K Rowling, “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default”. ‘Ex Post Facto: the Wisdom of Hindsight’ is a blog celebrating and reflecting upon the awkward moments and failures endured as a solicitor, particularly in the early years of practice. Every solicitor has their horror story – and live to tell the tale.

There’s always one: the client that sends you five emails in the middle of the night all marked with the red flag. The client that calls incessantly to see why you have not returned their call even though you have been out of the office. They don’t act on your advice even though they acknowledge it and at times appear grateful for it. They don’t provide documents to you, yet become exasperated when their matter is moving too slowly. These clients may be classified as ‘high needs’, which is a polite and vague term used to disguise a multitude of sins.

Economic theory has the concept of the ‘economic man’. The economic man assumes humans will consistently make rational economic decisions that maximise their self-interest at the lowest cost to the individual. At a basic level, it is assumed that the economic man will always make the right decision for himself.

If the economic man were your client, he would listen to and act upon your advice. He has paid good money for that advice, and would want to maximise the benefit of the service he has already paid for and protect his best interests. He wouldn’t be litigious: He wouldn’t spend ridiculous amounts of money to pursue an action based upon ‘the principle of the matter’, where the cost outweighs any benefit he may receive. He would be succinct. He wouldn’t send you five emails to ask one question when he knows he will be charged for the time spent reading these emails.

However the economic man is not real. Arguably, human behaviour is inherently irrational and our decision-making processes are influenced by bias, ideology and emotion. I wish I knew there was no perfect client. I wish I didn’t waste so much time stressing about the imperfect ones. However, I’ve learnt that you must take the client as you find them. The client may be relatively rational in their normal life, yet when dealing with the stress of a legal matter, their insecurities, stresses and exasperations are unleashed all at once. The client may have been struggling for a long time, and the gates can no longer hold these back. The lawyer is usually the first person standing to meet them at the gate when the flood hits. We are not always meeting them on equal terms. So when a client is disengaged, distraught, needy and abrupt, it is not necessarily out of frustration with you as their lawyer, but frustration with the process itself. It’s not all about you.