This article is written by Yash Kapadia. This article maps the challenges faced when one starts to work at a law firm and ways to overcome or be prepared for those challenges.
Working at a prestigious law firm is preferred by most law graduates. Since the very first year of law school, we are told to aim to bag a job at one of the top five law firms. A high-paying job is the number one priority for most lawyers. However, sometimes this high-paying job comes at a cost. Sadly, no one tells us about how to perform at a law firm, thrive, deliver and grow in an extremely competitive environment.
You can get a job at a law firm because the interview went well, your CV is exceptional, or maybe you performed really well during your internship. The real problem arises once the law school graduate fails to perform or achieve the standard of expectations set out for him. When that situation arises, the employer may choose to fire the employee.
Challenges faced while working at law firms
Most law firms hire around 50-75 graduates a year (even after the pandemic). Unfortunately, most of them leave or get fired within a period of two years. Your entrance exams or the semester exams from law schools do not prepare you for a job at a law firm. Some of the challenges faced by most of the law graduates while working at a law firm are enlisted below:
If a fresh associate is dealing with a merger or acquisition of a foreign or even an Indian client, they might have to learn a lot of different rules, laws, regulations like FDI policies, RBI Circulars, etc. which sometimes they may have never come across or dealt with in-depth even during their internships. Being well conversed with the legal jargon and also business jargon is very important. When such scenarios come to you at 100 miles per hour, and you do not possess knowledge about anything related to that transaction, you are bound to make errors or take more time than usual, which may lead to creating a not-so-worthy first impression.
For example, if a due diligence report has been prepared and a fresh first-year associate is asked to prepare an executive summary first draft or is asked to prepare a comprehensive note on deal compliance or file an FC-GPR form, and they have no idea or are completely blank when asked to do such work, they are at a huge skill deficit at the mercy of someone who they need to ask as to how to do that work.
Obscene work hours
It is public knowledge that lawyers have to work obscene work hours at law firms. It is important to note that this is not the fault of the law firm but of the lawyers who probably do not meet their deadlines and therefore have to sit at work for long hours. These long work hours may be a result of some repeated errors or failing to meet the required standards being made in a particular transaction or drafting a particular court document that has to be submitted the next day. Mid-level lawyers often complain about the long work hours they are experiencing at law firms, which is creating a hostile environment for them in and outside work life too. It is pertinent to understand that the obscene work hours are mostly because of deadlines not being met and not because a partner unnecessarily asks his team to stay in the office and in their cubicles to stay back till the clock strikes 1-2 a.m.
As mentioned earlier, most of the top law firms recruit more than 50 fresh graduates every year, excluding some lateral hirings at the law firm. As we all know, more lawyers are graduating every year and the competition is increasing for entry-level jobs and survival of the lawyers in these roles every year. The competition faced by each one of the associates is cut-throat where another lawyer of the same designation from another law firm, smaller in size, wants to grow and take a similar position at a bigger law firm with better work and pay. Constant performance at work is required which is monitored and observed by immediate seniors as well as all others ending to the top brass of partners.
At a junior level, it is more important to be diligent in the work provided. What is needed to be proved is that you are a reliable associate who can do the given work with utmost diligence. Perfectly proofread documents, no typos, no formatting errors, keeping all documents/briefs ready before a particular matter. However, if these things are not taken care of and such minor mistakes are not avoided, it reflects on the quality provided by the law firm as a whole. Anything done that decreases the value of the law firm would only leave a negative impact and firing in a worst-case scenario.
Excellent communication skills are required to keep on track and talk to people and colleagues around. When anyone is able to communicate in a clear and concise manner, is able to explain to their team or point out errors made in a clear way then that is considered to be an added skill. The way an associate can talk is a skill that is mastered by a few and helps to stay ahead of the curve of only being good at the work assigned, especially at top-tier law firms. Therefore, having a good command of English and being well conversant with another language like Hindi, Marathi or a widely used native mother tongue is an added advantage a fresh lawyer can have apart from their legal skills.
How to overcome these problems
Problems are present in every profession but the way a person sees them and overcomes them depends on their mindset. The mindset needs to be set and knowledge needs to be present well before a law student starts working at a law firm. There are various ways anyone can overcome the obstacles that they may face while working at a law firm with the correct mindset. It is pertinent to state that all these problems have to be overcome whilst one is a law student and some after experiencing the associate position. The following are certain approaches to adopt and take care of to overcome the challenge that any fresh graduate faces at a law firm:
Choose an area of interest and develop practical skills
Pick an area of interest with more opportunities, more openings on a year-on-year basis. Taking a large practice area solves this problem like corporate law, litigation or arbitration, IPR. Teams handling funds, employment law are niche and smaller as compared to other fields. However, if one genuinely likes a niche area, one needs to work much harder to excel at that niche area like competition law.
When we speak of practical skills, we mean the very areas and the basics from where the work of that area of law starts. For an M&A transaction, one needs to be well conversant with the Companies Act, Takeover Code, FDI Policies, NCLT Rules. For banking, one must know the details of what includes in a loan agreement, share-purchase agreement, how to find out relevant RBI policies. All of these skills can only be observed through internships, enrolling for online courses on the Companies Act, etc.
Command over English
Truth be told, if one doesn’t know English, people generally think of that person as not being smart. Therefore, if the English language, be it writing or communicating, is not really good, one must work the most on it because all that goes around is English and legal jargon all around. The play of words in various agreements is extremely precise where even a colon, a comma can entirely change the meaning of a sentence and can lead to a huge dispute while interpreting it. Hence, take up courses on the English language, practice writing legal articles, read various agreements, suits, court documents to understand how English is conversed amongst fellow lawyers through documents.
Build strong relationships
Relationships can be built at any stage in life when a person has the intent to do so. In the field of law, law students often never build relations with their seniors as the only agenda is to intern at an XYZ law firm. There are few who stay in touch with their seniors who they interned under and sort guidance from on a regular basis. If good relations are built with your seniors while interning and even while working as fresh graduates, it will compound one day to become strong connections and part of your network. Lawyers and seniors too like the confidence of interns to approach them and stay in touch with them. Furthermore, they like to guide the junior i.e. intern and make sure to make them understand their mistakes so that they are not repeated. Considering today’s times, your network and connections determine to display a lot about a person and these relations can last a lifetime.
Find a mentor who has excelled in your area of interest
With technological advancement in today’s times, all one has to do is build a network and ask someone to guide you in the area of law you are genuinely interested in. In fact, there are various blogs that have started to only focus on providing a mentor to law students like Mentorology. Regardless of the geographical location, a mentor can help a mentee through technology today. However, this must start when one is a law student and not a law graduate. The reason being, when one graduates and searches for a job, there is a strong connection and bond already built with a mentor who has already excelled in your field of interest and has helped to make a career trajectory that helps one be ahead in the curve of practical skills. All one has to do is keep trying until someone says yes to be a mentor.
Find the answer to “How will you add value to the team?”
This is one of the best ways to stand out in a team while receiving a job offer. Work on some sort of skills and find out how that would add value to a particular team you’re interviewing for. The skills developed while being a law student will come into play when one answers this question. For an interviewer to ascertain the reason for hiring, more attention is paid towards how the interviewee is different from the others and what advantages would be provided from the interviewee’s end.
If internships at law firms fail, approach startups
Startups are as hungry in search of talent and if one does not secure an internship at a law firm, startups must be approached. A law student must approach them to provide legal services and any other sort of due diligence required to be complied with. Startups are probably the best place for a budding lawyer to work at. Working at a startup teaches one to communicate professionally, follow instructions and also work in an extremely professional manner to maintain the decorum of that company. However, law students only focus on securing internships at law firms. If they are unsuccessful, they sit at home wiling away their time. In fact, one must approach a startup so that a lot can be learnt about law, growth and strategies too. All of these skills learned will compound and be put to use when one applies for jobs or works as an associate at a law firm.
It is evident from what has been stated above in this article that working at a law firm is no cakewalk. The long working hours, the heavy competition, the stress, the politics in some cases are all to be taken into consideration. However, the good part about it is there are ways to overcome them and also be on guard when one has to start working at a law firm. There are a set of skills discussed above that need to be acquired and internships must be secured in order to overcome most of the challenges. Probably, taking unconventional moves like enrolling for a rigorous course in the initial years of your law school can set you way ahead in the curve of knowledge possessed by one’s counterparts. With the Ed-tech sector bolstering and reaching new highs, it is recommended that every student must experience some sort of course in the area of their interest to understand its practical applicability in the real world. As the times and approaches change, we must adapt to them.
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