The Law is a fickle, perplexing, daunting, demanding thing. Young lawyers must come to terms with this. They seek guidance as penetrating as a Zen koan: “The terms of the non-disclosure agreement must be as tight as a door against thieves.” They search for a learned elder to facilitate their passage through the rhetorical thickets. Often this venerable figure appears in the form of a wise old lawyer.
Confession: I am not that wise old lawyer. However, after thirty years of practise, public and private, with clients ranging from indigent shoplifters to mandarins and ministers, let me offer these few tokens:
- You Do Not Know Anything. Oh, you entered law school with a skull full of mush, survived, and graduated thinking like a lawyer. Congratulations. Now you get to learn how to practise law. Learning about The Law does not end with law school, or articling. You have not finished learning, only started doing so. Law societies call it Continuing Professional Development or Continuous Legal Education but it all comes down to one thing: you will be learning the law as long as you are practising it. I guess that is why they call it “practising law.”
The Law used to be found in books; now there is a plethora of online sources. There are people around you who know more than you do—judges, lawyers, court staff, administrative staff, paralegals, librarians, the security guard at the courthouse. Learn from them. Let them help you. Thank them and give them credit when they do.
- You Know More Than You Think. Admit what you do not know, ask questions when you have them, do the most thorough research you can, but have confidence in your education and abilities. You earned the degree, you have the training, you passed your bar ads, and you are every bit the lawyer as the partner with thirty years experience. You impressed many people and demonstrated your talents to get where you are. You can do this.
Plus which, most of what those professors pounded into your brain with the fragile hammer of law school curriculum is still banging around up there. Cases and concepts are still fresh in your mind; you are still charged from the Socratic to-and-fro of your law school classes and eager to debate those lofty issues. This is why the partner with thirty years experience will wander into your office and ask you to remind her of the name of that Charter case dealing with Sunday shopping laws, and just what the Supreme Court meant in that case anyways.
- It is Okay to Feel Nervous. Let us be honest—this is not going to be easy. You are going to make mistakes. Own them. Learn from them.
Whatever legal practise you end up having, it is terribly serious work, and the stakes are high. Clients usually need lawyers because something they love or need or want is at risk: money, family, employment, real estate deal, corporate merger, freedom, liberty, reputation. They believe they are putting their life in your hands, and sometimes they are. You are right to feel the pressure, and that pressure will manifest itself in various ways, not all of them good. You need to find healthy ways to deal with that pressure—“whatever does not kill me makes me stronger”—but know that it is good to feel nervous. When the day comes you no longer feel nervous, when you simply cannot care enough about what is at stake for your client or doing your best work for them, then whatever passion you ever had for this has ebbed away and you need to start looking for a new job. Remember: that it scares you is why you do it.
- Never Answer a Question Immediately. That is, unless a client asks what you want in your coffee. Clients are paying a lot for your advice, and they expect quality and prompt service, but that does not mean that you need an immediate answer for every one of their questions. Nor are they necessarily impressed when you reply with an answer off the top of your head. A lawyer should never answer a client’s question with “Well, that’s easy. . . .” Most of your answers should be “Hmm. That is a good question. I’m going to have to think about it.” Once you have had a chance to think about it, do some research, or talk to a colleague, you must answer that question. Likely, your answer will be “Let’s figure out how to do this” instead of “No, you can’t do that.”
The Law has few easy or clear-cut answers. Sometimes there are any number of answers. The response to many legal questions is that timeworn chestnut: “Well, it depends.” Usually it does.
- Get a Life. You have one now, or did before you were caught in the jaws of The Law. You need a life. Seriously. It is a big world, and you should see more of it. Everyone has family and friends—make them a priority and spend time with them. Whether it is knitting Icelandic sweaters, golfing, making candles in upstate New York, running marathons, collecting shards of Etruscan pottery, or trying to fool trout with a bamboo wand and some lint on a pin, you need something absorbing to do when you are not in the office or thinking about The Law. Because you are not in the office all the time, are you? It is easy to look your spouse in the eye and say with a serious voice “Don’t worry, honey, I won’t forget about our family and friends and romantic getaways in Aruba after I make senior partner at Dewey, Cheathem, and Howe. I’m doing this for us.” It is harder to make that commitment year after year. You might make the top of the letterhead after thirty years, but what is in your photo album?
- Find Your Best-Before Date. Here you are, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to take on the world. Friend of the oppressed, foe of the oppressor. Let’s go make some Law.
So how long to do think this is going to last? How long can you do this? How long will you want to do this? Have you thought about that? Sure, you’re full of piss and vinegar now, but Life has an obstinate habit of getting in the way of The Law. Do you have kids? Do you want kids? Do you want to have a healthy relationship with those kids? Do you value your marriage? Can you afford a divorce? Have you ever thought of doing something else? Harbour some hidden desire—knitting Icelandic sweaters, making candles in upstate New York—that you have always wanted to pursue? Has it ever occurred to you that you might come into your office one morning, set your coffee down, look around, and realize that you just do not want to practise law anymore?
You need to be honest with yourself about how long you can do this, and what you are potentially sacrificing to do this. Everyone has their limits—know yours.
- Be Kind. Of course, this should really go without saying, but I am told we live in different times. As Kurt Vonnegut reminded us, “There’s only one rule that I know of, babies–G*d damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” Look—I don’t care if you subscribe to the Golden Rule or the Ten Commandments or the Four Noble Truths or some slogan your kindergarten teacher chalked up on the board—if you are not prepared to treat every person you come into contact with over the course of your profession with common human decency and respect, then you should find a new profession. Preferably one that involves working alone in a cave. Remember: it is the little things. Say “please” and “thank you”. Offer to help. Clean up after yourself. It is not enough to merely muster sympathy for people, but they do not and cannot teach empathy in law school. We are here to help each other get through this Thing, whatever it is.
- Stay Open to New Things. A Zen master once told me “The Law is a large house with many rooms. Be wary of lingering in just one.” There are simply too many areas of practise, too many specializations, for anyone to have a general practise anymore. As attractive a fantasy as it may be, these days no one can go back to their hometown and hang out their shingle between Mary’s Barbershop and Eli’s Café, aspiring to be the next Atticus Finch. You have to specialize, and you will eventually find some recondite corner of The Law where you want to stay for a while. You need to find a practise that engages you and entertains you and makes you want to get out of bed every morning. However, do not forget those other rooms in the house—one day you will find yourself with a sort of client or file you’ve never had before, or faced with a problem you’ve never seen before, and suddenly another door opens.
Hey—if after articling you impetuously decide that you want to spend the rest of your life prosecuting the makers of counterfeit Baby Yoda sleepwear, then may the force be with you. But, as the Inuit elder said as she handed me a piece of walrus meat, you should never be afraid to try new things.
- Speak the Truth. Your mother told you never to tell a lie. I am pretty sure there is something in the Code of Professional Conduct about always telling the truth. Being honest requires more than just that. Clients do not always want or expect it, but they deserve your absolute candour. Too often lawyers are the only ones who can speak truth to their clients, and sometimes that truth is brutal and painful and hard. You must always remember your role and duties as a lawyer, and have the courage of your convictions. Clients will ask you: “Can I do this?” You need to consider another question: “Should you do this?” The rule of law requires that lawyers speak truth to power.
When I started practising law in Yellowknife, Mark de Weerdt was one of the NWT Supreme Court judges. He was many things, but most of all he was a gentleman and a professional and had a very clear and scrupulous view of what lawyers do. When Justice de Weerdt admitted articling students to the bar, he reminded them of Shakespeare’s famous line: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers” (Henry the IV, Part II). He pointed out that line was uttered by Dick the Butcher, an anarchist, who along with his fellows wanted to get rid of lawyers because they knew that it is the lawyers who stand between order and chaos.
Dick the Butcher understood what it meant when lawyers spoke truth to power. Justice de Weerdt believed that young lawyers must know this. The Law demands no less of us.
- Enjoy Yourself. Did you enjoy law school? Did you enjoy articling? Are you enjoying your new job as a lawyer? Are you hoping that you will eventually enjoy your job as a lawyer? Listen—if you do not enjoy doing this, or cannot find some way to enjoy doing this, then you should not be doing this. You will make yourself miserable, and you will come to resent your job and your office and your colleagues and you for keeping you from whatever it is you really want to be doing—knitting Icelandic sweaters, or collecting Etruscan pottery, or making those candles in upstate New York. You will fail your clients and you will fail The Law and you will fail yourself.
And now is the time to ask yourself some hard questions, questions you have hopefully asked before and at least attempted to answer: why did you go to law school? Why do you want to be a lawyer? What do you think it means to be a lawyer? If you took to The Law for money then you will always want more, and feel that you never have enough. If you did it for power or prestige then you will always be a bully, and feel weak and contemptuous. If you did it to be smarter then you will always fear being caught out as a fraud, and feel stupid. If our practise is to mean anything, if we are to give ourselves to a profession that we resent hearing called a trade but are too timid to call an art, then The Law must mean more than billable hours or bank accounts or titles or winning at all costs.
You are embarking on an adventure of a lifetime. I wish you something more than luck.
Scott Duke lives, fishes, and used to practise law in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. His thirty years at The Law took him to private practise, legal aid defence work, and the halls of the federal, provincial, and territorial governments; to almost every community in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut; and from the banks of the Mackenzie River to the Supreme Court of Canada.