Australian Associate Daniel shares his top-ten skills that every commercial lawyer needs; great advice for both current and aspiring lawyers.
We, commercial lawyers, provide legal services to commercial clients. To do this well, it is essential that we have an understanding of what makes those clients tick. But don't worry if your undergraduate degree was more Caravaggio than capital markets, or if the average Fin Review article leaves you a bit bewildered—there are numerous introductory resources that can ease you into the workings of the world of business.
At a law firm, you will write a great deal for more senior lawyers. But remember that the audience for your writing will be dealing with many matters of their own at any given moment, so they will have only limited time to digest what you write. This means you need to make your points clearly and concisely.
Make your train of thought and process of research as explicit as you can. Put the solution to the question you're answering at the beginning of a memo, not the end. Write plainly. If you can avoid using jargon or expressions in Latin—and you usually can—then do so.
The law on any given point can be devilishly complex. But clients have neither the time nor the inclination to read lengthy analyses of this complexity. You need to be able to pick out what really matters in this ocean of information, and distil it down to the essentials — and distil it correctly and completely. A concise summary is no good if it is inaccurate or missing crucial details.
Remember that details matter in the law, so it's important to be precise in your use of language and legal concepts.
Details are also important when you're taking instructions from other lawyers: Get into the habit of carrying a notepad with you to accurately record the details of what you're asked to do.
This does not mean the ability to rote-memorize legal formulas or pithy one-liners from Kirby J or Lord Denning. What it does mean is the ability to spot real-life situations where a particular legal concept might be applicable. For instance, if you come across a badly behaved company director, you should be able to think "hmm, I know the law imposes certain duties on directors—time to look those duties up again."
If you're asked to look into a legal issue, you need to have some notion of where to start your research. What might you read to get a sense of the leading cases on the issue at hand? Where might you find the reported versions of those cases? How do you find the most current version of any relevant legislation? How could you find cases that have interpreted that legislation?
Clients do not engage lawyers because they want to provide those lawyers with intriguing intellectual puzzles. No, clients engage lawyers because they have commercial problems that call for lawyer-assisted solutions. As a lawyer, you will need to bear this in mind when you provide advice on those problems—what is the client actually trying to achieve, and what would be the most commercially astute way of helping them achieve those objectives?
At any firm, you'll find yourself having to handle more than one task at any given time. You need to be able to keep in your head a sense of what's due when, and you need to be able to assess how much time is appropriate for each task. You also need to prioritize those tasks appropriately. All the work that senior lawyers will ask you to do will be important: What really matters is being able to figure out the order in which a number of important tasks need to be completed. Sometimes this will mean explicitly asking questions about priority to the person giving you the task: "I'm also doing [task] for [partner], would you like me to prioritize this instead?"
Solicitors, unlike barristers, work closely with one another in firms. These firms are not places of monkish solitude: You need to be able to work collaboratively with your colleagues, exchanging ideas, solutions and responsibilities in the service of a shared goal. Good communication skills will help ensure that you and everyone else is on the same page.
Finally, remember that at a law firm you'll be called upon to research legal problems—you'll do better research and produce better work if you're genuinely interested in the answers!