In his role as a career advisor at Leo Cussen, Alex Giannopoulos is often asked what it was like to work as a commercial litigation lawyer and what are the lessons he learnt during his career.
Practical Legal Training helps graduates prepare for a career in law and our Careers Team at Leo Cussen helps prepare grads for their first role as a lawyer. Yet, there is no doubting that once you have secured a role as a practicing lawyer, you will have some first-year jitters!
What did Alex learn? He begins by explaining one surprising insight;
💡 Being a good lawyer often has little to do with knowing the law.
Alex elaborates with these nuggets of wisdom:
- A good lawyer knows more than just the law
Knowing the law and being a good lawyer can be two different things (these days anyone can Google the law). While understanding legislation and case law is clearly an important part of your job, what can be more important is to take the information and make it valuable to your clients.
Alex explains that reaching the best solutions and outcomes can often come from negotiations and discussions. It is these communication skills that can make the difference between settling a dispute and agreeing to an outcome or having lengthy and expensive matters drag on for your clients.
- Common-sense and commerciality are just as important as technical law
Whilst you have learnt all the theory and rules, in practice you will regularly take off your legal hat and put on your common-sense hat for solutions.
There may be some great legal solutions to problems, but there are also commercial and common-sense solutions that may lead to better and quicker outcomes, and these can only be found by looking outside the square. Alex explains that being a good lawyer requires you to use many tools in your “tool box” – both legal and non-legal. It will also be important to listen to your instinct and gut feel.
- Pick up the phone
You may think phone calls are time consuming, so 1990’s and inferior to a digital record where you can carefully craft an answer – even intimidating. However, even in the new millennium, many issues can be resolved very quickly by having a conversation first. Alex found that this was the best way for him to communicate to prevent misunderstandings and endless ‘back-and-forth’ emails. But don’t despair if you’re an email fan, it’s still important to follow up a conversation with written correspondence to solidify the points made and agreed.
- Manage expectations
Clients can be emotionally involved in outcomes. Lawyers often hear a client say they want to win at any cost and it’s the ‘principle’ of the matter. Be very cautious of the P word.
Alex explains a situation where a client expressed that they didn’t care about the cost of taking someone to court. They may not mind the cost in the beginning but may not want to pay their bill in the end if they don’t get the outcome they had wanted. Give upfront estimates and regular check points of likely costs during and after and explain the possibility of negotiated outcomes where there is no winner per se. Unless you work in a ‘no win no fee’ practice, it’s important to be clear with your client that payment is for the work you do and not the outcome at the end.
- What to say when you don’t know something
When you don’t know the answer to a question or don’t have an immediate legal opinion, be honest. Get back to your client later. Explain that they have raised a complicated issue, so you will double check and get back to them with a solution. It’s ok to swallow some humble pie and be honest.
- Turn up! And manage your time well
Sometimes it’s about who turns up and not who has the better argument. Alex gives us an example of a court hearing he thought he would lose. However, simply because the opposing side didn’t turn up, the judge found in his favour. His lesson? Even though the other side would have had a better argument, they jeopardised the case by being a ‘no-show’!
Good diary management is just as crucial as good legal skills. Being on time (to work/court/meetings) can also help settle nerves and avoid delays and distractions.
- Build relationships–internal and external
Clients don’t just choose lawyers with legal knowledge. They choose lawyers with good relationship and communication skills who they trust. Demonstrate your ability to communicate and easily explain complex legal matters to help your client understand and make good decisions. This is where you become a trusted partner to your clients (see our Trusted Advisor article here).
- Put your hand up for opportunities
There may be times in your career that you can go beyond your usual responsibilities. Putting your hand up to do new things can pave the way for better opportunities. You never know what will come from a secondment or being asked to write an article. These can be something extra for your CV and can lead to better job opportunities. You’ll never know unless you put your hand up!