Channelling Churchill: Tips for new law graduates and their supervisors


March is an exciting time as a new cohort of law graduates are warmly welcomed into firms.  Entering the world of private practice law is a bit like travelling to an exotic overseas destination - the whole trip will be great, but there will be days that aren’t much fun.  When the going get’s tough for both graduates and their supervisors remember the wise words of Winston Churchill.  He might not have been much of a painter based on his 1947 painting of Marrakesh, but he did know a thing or two about performance under pressure.   With acknowledgement to the International Churchill Society (no, I’m not making this up) which of these quotes can you channel when you find yourself in strange territory?

“Time and money are largely interchangeable terms”

Churchill made this observation while working in a senior treasury role in 1926. The business of law requires the charging of time and for new graduates the dark art of time recording. Sarah Powell writing of her experience in BigLaw gives practical tips on time recording. Start with a verb in the present tense (analyse, examine, attend, assist) and show movement or progress so it can be understood by the person preparing the final client invoice. Don’t be tempted to “desktop discount” and under record your time. It’s the most important way for others to see how hard you are working and how long tasks are taking. Everyone takes longer when they start doing something new.

Senior lawyers who delegate and check work are making a trade off between the time it takes to do the task themselves and the time to delegate, coach, check and finalise your work. Some will be prepared to make the investment in your development with a smile on their face, others will be focusing on the time lost and the time that will need to be spent making your work client ready. Hold conversations up front about the time and budget allocation for a task, the time others will need to check your work and the amount that will likely be written off on the final invoice. At all cost avoid surprises because everyone’s time is valuable.

“You must look at facts because they look at you”

If you want to secretly torture the person who is taking the time to supervise your work, not paying attention to details is the best way to do it. Before Churchill entered politics he was a journalist for a short time. If you have ever been irritated by a simple error in a newspaper, blog or book and it made you doubt the accuracy of other things the author said, then you are getting close to understanding the extreme frustration of busy senior people who find simple errors in your work. Grover Cleveland’s short and entertaining book Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks captures it beautifully. “Before senior lawyers can trust you with more complex work, you have to demonstrate that you can perform stellar work dependably on easier tasks”.

For supervisors give people a couple of chances before you make up your mind that they can be trusted with details or not. Everyone will make a mistake now and then and it’s easy to overreact if the stakes are high, you are tired and the quality of the final product is paramount. When it becomes a pattern or there is not genuine remorse for the error it’s time to raise the issue with the person and take it further if things don’t improve. It’s tempting to just decide not to give that person now perceived as unreliable or lacking attention to detail any further work. Unfortunately everyone loses in that scenario - senior lawyers won’t have the support they need resulting in doing the work themselves and the graduate lawyer isn’t getting the experience to learn on the job.

“courage is what it takes to stand up and speak. Courage is also what it takes to sit down and listeN”

After more than fifteen years of working with legal professionals, I’m still surprised at the hesitation to both deliver and listen to negative feedback. It does take courage to communicate a message that is a surprise, especially a negative surprise, to another person. Everyone want’s feedback, but no one want’s to learn that they haven't done a good job. Supervisors need to take action on giving regular feedback on both good and poor work so new graduates can improve. It’s the best way for someone to improve quickly, but it can so easily turn into an unpleasant exchange.

Graduates need to be courageous in receiving feedback without arguing or getting defensive. There is a time and place for debate and I’d like to suggest to you that this isn’t it. Given a choice between saying nothing and quietly deciding to never give you work again, you are better to be curious, respectful and brave in taking the full force of the feedback on the chin and really considering the effort the supervisor put into giving feedback. It’s usually the least favourite part of their day and if it becomes a disrespectful exchange they are very unlikely to make the time and effort to do it again. You have probably heard that “feedback is a gift” the truncated version of Warren Buffet’s “Honesty is a very expensive gift; just don’t expect it from cheap people ”. As you unwrap the gift of feedback, remember it’s value by letting the other person finish and not interrupting them, resist the temptation to argue back and take the time to reflect and absorb their feedback. Remember to say thank you even if you disagree or it might be the last feedback you receive from them.

“Diplomacy is the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they ask for directions”

Ideas and suggestions are the lifeblood of a healthy firm but they need to be packaged and delivered with diplomacy. Pointing out the flaws in a current process or system is unlikely to be well received from someone with limited time in the firm and limited experience. This doesn’t mean that the idea isn’t a good one, but it does mean that you have to build credibility, build relationships and pick your timing. Assessing the probability of success is an important but often ignored part of proactiveness in the latest research by Andrew DuBrin and it correlates with many parts of career success so it’s great to learn early in your career. Finally take the time to be genuinely curious and open minded as to why it’s done that way now - there usually is a logic and although you might not agree with it, your suggestion to improve will do better if you take the time to understand before suggesting a change.

Partners/Principals, Special Counsel and Senior Associates you need to channel your inner diplomat when listening to an idea or suggestion. Ignoring or dismissing the idea are just professional versions of telling the Graduate to “go to hell, we don’t want your idea”. Professionals have long memories and how the first idea is received will set the tone for their expected reaction to the next one. Don’t spend hours and hours encouraging people to be innovative and collaborative when their ideas have been crushed early in their career. Take your lead from Churchill and do it in a way that they ask for guidance next time to pitch the next idea to the right combination of people to make a positive change.

“Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm”

Wise words coming from a person who suffered from depression and certainly dealt with his share of challenges. Sarah Powell’s book mentioned above recommends being clear about your reasons for joining the firm you selected, having a clear plan about your goals and what it will take to realise them. It’s this sense or purpose and direction that can maintain your enthusiasm through the tough times of document review, evidence binders and the myriad of research tasks that you will be asked to undertake. If your loss of enthusiasm has a more long term or mental health angle to it, have that conversation with your supervisor and utilise the support resources available.

For graduates, don’t be tempted to leave private practice before you have built a depth of experience that will serve you well for the rest of your career. You need enough time to build expertise and that usually takes knowing an area of law with the depth of understanding to work independently, spot errors in routine work product and supervise the routine work of others. Check out any of the podcasts or videos from Anders Ericsson on the science of expertise. His research was behind Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and the importance of 10,000 hours for developing expertise. Ericsson’s book Peak: How all of us can achieve extraordinary things is well worth the $15 for the kindle edition to read on the bus, train or ferry for the next couple of weeks. The bottom line is that changing course when the going get’s tough might stop you from developing the deep expertise you need and private practice firms are a terrific way to gain deep technical expertise.

For supervisors, think carefully about how to maintain your enthusiasm for describing, explaining, coaching and encouraging all your team members and in particular those new to working in law. You are their role model for managing people in the future and your enthusiasm will carry across to their positive attitude to do a good job for you. Have a clear goal for how developing your people management skills fits with your career goals, the benefits for your practice group and for clients. Identify in advance the best time of day and place to give instructions, check work and give feedback - don’t rely on getting around to it in the frenetic pace of a busy week - especially if you are taking on responsibility for a group of graduates for the first time. Be on the look out for signs that your team member is reaching a difficult point in building their expertise and give them additional support, encouragement or feedback to get them through it. Sometimes just knowing that it’s tricky, others have struggled at that same point and it will improve is enough to persist in the face of adversity knowing that their challenges aren’t going unnoticed by others.

“To be really happy and really safe, one ought to have at least two or three hobbies, and they must all be reaL”

Churchill took up painting in his 40’s after the fateful WW1 attack he ordered on Gallipoli and it certainly puts that lost document or missed typo in perspective. Find and protect the time each week or month to enjoy your hobbies. The timing of when you enjoy your hobbies might change, or you might find yourself changing the format from golf round to golf range, but if golf is your thing make sure you heed Churchill’s advice on happiness and keep doing it.   

Kudos to you if you have made it to the end of this rather long blog.   I help professionals develop their people management skills.  For new graduates that’s how to manage the demands of legal practice and for supervisors that’s the practical skills to delegate, give feedback and hold career conversations.