Whether you’re in the classroom or in an office setting, it is important to remember that, figuratively speaking, everyone’s treading water in the same pool. There’s no advantage to pushing others down for a breath of air. Think of each one of your classmates as a professional colleague, business contact, and friend. While competition is inevitable and, in some circumstances, a desirable way to push one another towards greater excellence, remember that the practice of law is about relationships – it’s a ‘contact sport’, so to speak. Play hard, but play to the whistle.
Whether at school or in the workplace, this is not the time to burn bridges. You should regard each of your fellow classmates as a potential learning opportunity, regardless of how abrasive, intimidating, or inspiring they might be. Similarly, in an office scenario, treat all staff (including clerks, paralegals, receptionists, and cleaning staff) just as you’d treat the senior partner, or your favourite Aunt. These people matter. They’re your teammates. Think of their respect and cooperation with you as something that you need to earn each and every day. It is not to be expected and never to be taken for granted. Why? Your support staff members possess the ability to make your working life happy and productive. Equally, and especially if they’re not treated appropriately, they have the quasi-supernatural ability to make things spectacularly unpleasant.
Leonard Bernstein once said something to the effect that learning and teaching were interrelated, that one learns when they teach – the cycle of learning ends with teaching and the transmission of knowledge. Presumably people have an intuitive grasp of this idea. If not, then try to appreciate the meaning of the colloquial expression: “that’ll learn ya”. The act of explaining a concept to others reinforces what you know. If you’ve got an active audience, it also reinforces what you don’t know. In other words, don’t ignore your peers’ potential to assist you in your academic and professional development. And should they be less than accommodating, remember that this too is a potential lesson in personal restraint and strategic thinking.
Legend has it that the Oracle of Delphi professed Socrates to be the wisest man in Athens. Unconvinced, he set about questioning every learned person to disprove the Oracle. There was just one problem: by thorough, Hellenic cross-examination, Socrates discovered that, when pressed, most of the so-called “experts” didn’t have much by way of a true understanding of their subject. What did that mean? Socrates was, indeed, the wisest man in Athens – but only because he knew that he knew nothing.
Likewise, as law students or summer associates, you really don’t know what you don’t know about the practice of law. But don’t fret about that, or supplement your lack of experience with too much legal drama television. A lack of knowledge actually presents an interesting opportunity. Now is not the time for self-imposed limitations. Think of yourself as a blank slate, and think of law school as a fresh opportunity to test your aptitude in every area of the law.
You want to be an advocate? Advocate. Take any opportunity you can to get on your feet and advocate for people. Being a student is no barrier. There is absolutely no shortage of self-represented litigants in Canada. We get dozens of calls from “self-reps” a week. Sometimes we take the case, and sometimes we’re able to refer the matter elsewhere. The point is to take the high and unmet demand for legal assistance as an opportunity. People need hand-holding, they need basic guidance. At the direction of a mentor, supervisor, or otherwise, spend some time at the local courthouse or at the landlord and tenant board. Be of assistance in any way you can.
Develop your capacity to build rapport with everyday people – a vital, yet criminally underemphasized skill in the practice of law. Ask questions. Talk to people. You’d be surprised how easy it is to come across as “interesting” or “engaging”. You could read Dale Carnegie’s book, or you could just remember that, to be interesting, all one has to do is take an interest in others.
Note: Should you wish to discuss these points in further detail, you’re welcome to contact me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org