How to succeed as a junior lawyer

Interview with lawyer and author Katherine Cousins on how to get ahead of the game as a Junior Associate.

Katherine Cousins is the author of “Successful Solicitor: Get Ahead of the Game as a Junior Corporate Lawyer” (available on Amazon). Her book has sold in thousands of copies and has been recognised by leading industry media including Roll on Friday and Legal Cheek. Katherine practices Competition Law at Addleshaw Goddard LLP in London, focusing on cartel investigations, horizontal and vertical agreements, and compliance matters.

Katherine, thank you for joining us. Tell us the story behind your book. 

Back when I was a trainee I wrote a blog post directed at other trainees and vac scheme students about what to wear to work. It was supposed to be tongue-in-cheek and a bit of fun, but when the grad recruiting team took it down from the site for being “too funny and too honest”, some clever person took a screen grab and sent it to Roll on Friday. It was subsequently picked up by all the major news outlets, from the Metro to the BBC. I thought I was going to get fired! Somehow they managed to keep my name out of it, but this episode sowed a seed that I could write something fun and helpful to new lawyers just starting out. A few years later, having collected a tonne of notes on how to improve my practice (I wasn’t a natural born trainee at all!), I broke my wrist and was stuck at home for three weeks by myself. I started dictating my notes into chapters and by the end of that period I had something resembling a book. It had to be edited and redrafted and all that jazz, but that was really when it took shape.

What differentiates a great Junior Associate from a good one?

Something that sets great associates apart from good ones is thinking ahead. Many legal processes have repeatable parts and understanding them in depth to anticipate what comes next is a big advantage. For example, from a competition M&A standpoint you typically have a due diligence process, followed by a merger control analysis, and then the notification with a few distinct stages. Within each of these stages there are specific steps, and you can literally keep a list of 5-10 items you need to be thinking about ahead of moving to the next stage. This creates a lot of value to the partners, who can feel comfortable that you’re not going to let a ball drop because you know what’s coming down the track and you’ve made it a repeatable process. 

Secondly, I would stress the importance of regular communication. It’s very simple but at the same time quite uncommon for junior associates to keep more senior colleagues in the loop on progress. I’m talking about simple email updates saying “Conscious I need to get this to you, I’m on track, I’ll get it to you tomorrow morning”. It creates a lot of comfort and trust that they know that something is being handled without them having to constantly follow up. 

Finally, great associates have a proactive attitude in the relationship with their supervisors. For example, in my area of law we often we work across lots of different business sectors. It goes a long way if a junior associate proactively familiarises herself with the industry and parties involved. It is also good for an associate’s own learning; it builds conviction that you can figure things out yourself. Great associates will take a few extra steps to take things as far as they can before asking for help. 

There is sometimes a delicate balance between pushing things as far as you can and asking for help. You don’t want to end up spending a lot of time, getting nowhere and hearing that you should have asked earlier. How to get that right?

It is a fine balance, but great associates develop a good sense of what they are capable of and apply judgement on where to dig deeper vs. seek help. One solution could be to put a specific timeframe on your research. If I think about my own practice, I would probably give myself like a solid 15-20 minutes to work something out. If at the end of that I still haven’t gotten any further, I think it’s okay to go and check in with someone that you are on the right track.

Because quite often, even if you haven’t figured it out in full, those 20 minutes will point you in the right direction. When you talk to your supervisor, you’re no longer starting from a blank sheet of paper, but can say “My initial thoughts are I need to do X Y, Z. Do you agree?”. And then whomever you’re asking can react to a proposed solution – either agree with what you’re doing or suggest a different direction. That is much easier (and less annoying) for them to respond to than a blank slate.

Conversely, what are the most common mistakes that can be easily avoided?

I think one of the most common is not acting on feedback. I know this may sound harsh, but usually if someone told you not to do something, or do something a different way, you can perhaps get it wrong once or twice more. That’s human, we’re all learning, that’s ok. But if you keep making the same mistake again and again people will think you’re just not listening, and they won’t have a lot of patience for that. If you don’t appear to be putting feedback into practice, that’s a big mistake. 

Another quite common one is overpromising, which is risky especially for junior lawyers, who are just starting out. People recognise that a City law firm is a dynamic environment and things change, but you need to communicate that proactively. If you have committed to something for Wednesday, but a few other things have come in and now it’s looking more like Friday, you need to stick your hand up and flag that. Being realistic and transparent that something might take you a while is much more helpful than trying to be confident and subsequently under-delivering, or hoping someone won’t notice you’ve missed the deadline. 

Lastly, something I totally admit to having done myself, but one should definitely avoid [laughs]. It’s when you commit to send something on Wednesday and send it at 6:30pm that day. Assuming your supervisor or partner has committed to deliver it to the client later that day, they still need to put in additional time to review and amend your work, which takes them into evening hours and is not respectful of their time. This is something that can usually be avoided with little planning and proactivity. The first time it happens to you, you will realise what a rubbish thing it is to do to someone!

What’s your advice on seeking feedback?

For starters, make sure you’re following all of the formal firm channels for providing feedback like the quarterly or semi-annual appraisals. Ensure you put the time into partners’ diaries and follow up should these get rescheduled. I would also recommend the practice of asking for supervisor feedback at the end of every major engagement. It doesn’t have to be a very formal meeting, just pop by the partner’s office at the end of the day and ask for 15 minutes of their time to discuss what went well and what could be improved.

One critical thing to remember about feedback is not to become defensive. It can be challenging to listen to feedback, but it’s critically important to approach it with an open mind. Visualise how you would react in the moment. The best practice is just to nod and say thank you, but it can feel uncomfortable at the time. It’s ok to offer your point of view if you feel a certain assessment has not been fair, but be willing to accept someone’s opinion and thank them for it, even if you don’t necessarily agree. If you’re asking for feedback on improvement areas, be prepared to listen to the answer whatever it may be.

Finally, it’s a good practice to collect feedback from as many stakeholders as you can, not just your supervisors. Ahead of talking to the partner, you may want to have a conversation with the senior associate on your team, which can perhaps be a bit more informal and less daunting. Reach out to other people you’re working with – consultants, knowledge professionals, other associates and trainees. It’s critical to collect feedback not only from above, but also from across and below in your organisation, because it will give you a sense of whether you’re good at instructing, delegating and other important skills that the partners wouldn’t have exposure to. 

What advice would you give to junior solicitors preparing to join a new firm?

Firstly, really do your homework. You should be able to learn a lot through their website and their promotional materials. Read up on things they are proud of. It always looks good if you just joined somewhere and you know about their unique strengths, their strategy, recent moves like expanding into new markets, etc.

Moreover, I would take up all opportunities to meet your future colleagues ahead of joining. Most firms will give you a chance to meet the associates, join team events etc. 

And finally, definitely take some time off from your last job, so that you can start with a fresh perspective. Sometimes people move firms because they were unhappy somewhere, and it’s critically important to clear your head and not bring any of that old mindset into your next role. Take time off to reset, reinvigorate and bring lots of energy and enthusiasm into your new adventure. 

What is one bit of advice you would give your junior self?

I think it would be to relax and not stress over “not knowing what I’m doing”. It took me years to realise that it’s a feeling that actually affects a lot of people in the legal industry. Law is a complex area and no one is a know-it-all. But the more experienced you become, the more comfortable you get knowing which things you have to know vs. not. That lets you relax a bit. However, at the beginning I definitely felt like I didn’t know anything, and it seemed to me like this was really obvious to everyone. 

As you grow within the legal career, the questions only get harder, so you need to get more comfortable that you don’t immediately know the answer. What’s important is that you believe in your ability to go and figure it out. It took me many years to “relax into feeling uncertain” and I would definitely advise my junior self to make my peace with that feeling as soon as possible. 


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