THERE IS a vast gap between what junior lawyers expect the world of law to be, and what the reality is in many cases, a Supreme Court judge has warned.
In a speech to practical legal education teachers this month, Justice George Palmer called for realignment in lawyers’ professional duties, and the reality of behaviour and attitudes in the legal profession.
He argued that bridging the gap from practical knowledge and the real life experience of working in the law can be a “rude awakening”.
“Just in the last month, I have heard of two young lawyers who became completely disillusioned after working for a year or so in a large firm, and have left the law for good,” Justice Palmer said.
The aggression, rudeness and demands of senior lawyers, some of whom have no time to help younger lawyers, cause many of them to reconsider their futures at some large law firms. Justice Palmer cited the experience of his former tipstaff, who wrote of a recent job interview at a large city law firm where the senior lawyer made it clear the younger lawyer would not be supported in any role he took on.
“I’m a busy man, I don’t have time to be nice, so if you’re looking for some sort of mentor you’ve come to the wrong place. I have high standards and I’ll hold you to them. If you don’t meet them you’ll soon know about it. If I suspect you’re not giving me 100 per cent of your best you’ll soon know about it. Don’t expect this to be a nice place; it isn’t,” the young lawyer recalled.
Justice Palmer criticised this aggression, asking where his young tipstaff could learn that professional excellence does not necessarily come at the expense of personal happiness. He asked how young lawyers will learn that with a certain standard of intelligence, technical knowledge and application, professional success is possible through a well-balanced personal life.
Then there is the senior lawyer who will tell their “impressionable protégés” that an effective and hard-working lawyer can get a high standard of living, kudos amongst colleagues, and “a warm glow of satisfaction when you win a case or tie up a successful transaction”. But Justice Palmer said junior lawyers will not be warned that a legal practice is not “a companion and a solace to you when you come home late every night to an empty apartment and you feel that the only way you can get through the silent hours ahead is with a drink — or two, or three, or six”.
Justice Palmer urged young lawyers to align themselves with firms with senior lawyers that are “cheerful, helpful and encouraging”.
Whatever the reality is, warned one legal expert, lawyers should be told exactly what is expected of them in the early stages of recruitment. Consultant Sue-Ella Prodonovich, principal of PTB Consulting, told Lawyers Weekly that if there is a gap between the expectations of recent graduates and the reality of legal practice, it is important that the junior lawyers are aware of what is to be expected of them.
Citing the issue of access to partners as one reason many junior lawyers leave the law early, Prodonovich said their expectations must be aligned with the reality. “We hear that they are not getting enough access to partners … What were the expectations of people for access? What was the representation of these juniors in regards to how much access they will get?”
Though not referring specifically to Justice Palmer’s more aggressive example, Prodonovich argued that lawyers should be told if they are going to have to work long hours, so they can make their decisions accordingly. “Say to them ‘this is hard work, you will work long hours, you will be working with great clients, a high-powered team’.”
Firms in the US are laying their cards on the table when it comes to telling lawyers what to expect, which is working well there, said Prodonovich. “Firms in the US are admitting it’s tough, saying ‘let’s be clear how we work’.”
Palmer suggested legal teachers impart wisdom on their students; this will in turn change the nature of legal business, and dispense with the aggression to which he referred.
He said this can be achieved in the way teachers employ courtesies in drafting model letters; the way they discuss the techniques of mediation; insistence in moots on students observing the professional courtesies; the suggestions they can drop as to how legal skills can be volunteered to pro bono work.