I worked at a 300 year-old Law Firm in Central London for about six months – first as a vacation schemer (intern) and then as a business development assistant. These are some of the things I learned along the way.
- Sometimes your seniors at work will be wrong – and you won’t be able to do anything about it. On several occasions, I would read something from a Senior Associate or Partner that was laden with grammatical errors, typos, or other ridiculous formatting issues. It was frustrating when they would insist on having it “their way.”In these instances, I just exhaled a (private) heavy sigh and let it go. I believe that sometimes, people think that because they’re an expert in one area (family law, for example) they are automatically expert in another (events planning, marketing, budgets, etc).
- And sometimes, your way just won’t be right for the Firm. And it’s not a personal attack when this is pointed out! It was often a bit difficult to hear someone say, “that’s just not how we do it” – but it was something I learned to accept. It wasn’t my job to project my vision for the firm – it was my job to protect and perpetuate their vision. I realised that I’m much more suited for innovative and modern approaches, which is why I’m personally quite happy to be at a much younger, more modern law firm.
- Don’t expect a Thank You. I very rarely received recognition for completing an assignment, let alone working extra-hard to create something “above and beyond.” I’d like to think that it was because the lawyers I was working with were simply too busy, but the truth is – some people just don’t feel they need to thank people. Either way, I learned how to not take it so personally: I could find comfort in the pride and care I took in my work.
- Nothing personal. You don’t have to “like” everyone you work with on a personal level – you just need to know how to navigate the environment well enough to accomplish your work. Collegiality is important, but you shouldn’t let office politics get in the way of doing your job. There were plenty of people I wasn’t very fond of at the Firm – I had to set this aside and just crack on with it. It’s okay to leave your “social” self at home or with your friends, and put on a more serious face in the office.
- Eager to please? I realised that I have an insatiable need to please people. While this can be a good motivator, sometimes it’s not really worth the extra energy or time. You only have so many hours in the day, and it’s okay to push back on things (within reason). There were so many instances when I spent (unnecessary!) hours trying to do a superbly immaculate job on a little task, when in reality, doing the job “well enough” would have been absolutely fine.
- Manage upwards. Especially in email communication, sometimes there can be a lot of back-and-forthing between various supervisors/managers/higher ups. I found it most useful to 1) lay out the facts simply, clearly, and concisely 2) be specific about my requirements and what the “end goal” or objective was and 3) provide alternatives and action points. What is it that I NEEDED? What is it that we were trying to ACHIEVE? The person reading the email should know exactly what they need to do in order for you to do your job.
- Don’t pass work off as your own! If someone has helped you out in a meaningful way, you should mention this to colleagues. If Joe asked me to do something but Harry offered guidance or good suggestions, of course I’d thank him personally – but I’d also point out Harry’s involvement to Joe. This made me look like a team player, and prevented Harry from feeling that I was taking all of the credit.
- Getting lost is a great way to find yourself: I joined the firm as an assistant, thinking that I wanted to be part of a very traditional, very English practice. For a while, I thought rather seriously about specialising in family or private client law. But I soon realised these areas of law were more of an idealised version of what I thought I “should” be like. At the end of the day, you shouldn’t be pretending to be someone else just to fit in with your Firm.