Mrs YFG: what I wish I knew

I was recently promoted.

Not through any particular exciting process. I’m now a Senior Associate solicitor – through a combination of being qualified enough and good enough.

It’s amusing, because when I was a trainee 6 years ago I thought the Senior Associates knew what they were doing. I definitely know more than a trainee. But I’m not particularly senior in life to pretend I somehow did something special to survive the years to promotion. It just happens and you wake up one day and realise you’re further down the line.

There are, however, some pearls of wisdom I wish I was told when I was a bright-eyed junior. Some of these apply to any profession, not just the legal world.

Listen to your gut

I mean this. The number of times something has felt weird or I haven’t understood and I didn’t speak up. Later on, I regret that. Always.

Your gut isn’t always right, but it normally prompts you to ask the right questions. If your gut tells you someone is wrong, you don’t have to aggressively challenge if you don’t want to. You can always say “I might be going mad but….?” or “Can you explain X to me as I don’t think I’m getting it…?“. I find that asking somebody explain something can either confirm my gut was barking up the wrong tree, or confirm my suspicions.

You might be wrong, but at least you asked the question rather than it comes back to bite you in the arse when you could have flagged something early on but said nothing. Nobody will thank you for not asking the questions.

Don’t make a promise you can’t keep

A standard piece of career advice for time management is usually “say no“. This is what you’ve probably already been told. Perhaps you scoff because you think you know better. This advice is poorly phrased. What it actually means is not promising something you can’t deliver.

Under-promise, over-deliver.

People may be upset if you say no to them. But they will be mega pissed if you say yes and then don’t deliver, or you rush the work or miss a deadline because you didn’t have capacity. You will do yourself no favours saying yes if you can’t deliver on your promises, and it’s much worse to do a half-job when you could have said no and someone else would have done it better.

The trick is to deliver the no in a “yes” way:

    I have some time tomorrow and could help you then

      I can’t promise today, but I’ll do my best

        I’d love to help – would Wednesday work?

          Can I check the deadline as I have a lot on and want to make sure I am the right person to do the job?

            I have promised X Y, and I am prioritising that at the moment but can look at this later.
            Sometimes no is not an option, because there is nobody else to do the job. In that case, there’s nothing you can do but be realistic with your promises (i.e. if it needs to be today it will be later on, or you can only do the first half today). You can allocate your resources as best you can and prioritise, and make sure all your competing taskmasters know about the others. Make the scope clear and try and nudge the deadline on.

            Don’t be the hero.

            Thoughts are not facts

            I know, it sounds so obvious. But it took me years to realise this: my anxiety convinced me that I had done something wrong and I just hadn’t found it yet. My anxious brain invented scenarios that hadn’t happened (but could happen) – but hadn’t. That’s the key: what’s actually in front of you? Actually react and worry about that, not some story your brain has told you.

            I find that I tend to assume fault as soon as anything happens (i.e. client has a problem, is it my fault? Someone isn’t responding to me, did I offend them?). I try and find any scrap of blame on my part and I don’t deal well with that. I pride myself on doing a good job and am devastated if I think I’ve done something wrong (or not quite right).

            The only thing that calms me is to recite the facts to myself and cut the conjecture. What has actually happened? X sent me an email asking for Y document. Nothing more: don’t go further and “X has asked for Y document and maybe it’s because there’s a problem with it and he needs to re-do my work or has someone challenged what I’ve said and what if that document is missing in the first place maybe I accidentally deleted it oh balls….”. Everything after the first “and” was a waste of my time and sent me down a shitty rabbit hole I then have to climb out of.

            Concentrate on what’s in front of you, not the stuff your brain invents.

            Anxiety does not prevent shit happening

            My anxiety has never helped me avoid a problem or a mistake. My work ethic and attention to detail have. But worrying about something never fixed it. Yes, mistakes happen- I’m still human (and I challenge anyone else to do my job). But no matter what you’ve done (or not done) you will always get credit for: a) confessing and b) proposing some kind of solution.

            Assuming there has been a mistake, and that mistake is my fault (which it won’t be most of the time), what would I say to a colleague in my position?”. If they came to me with a worry that they’d cocked up, I would reassure them and try and find a solution. There is no reason for that not also to apply to me. I don’t whack them around the head and belittle them as I do to myself.

            In my experience, even the most fabulous omnishambles can be fixed.

            Look at your colleagues

            Every six months a bunch of eager beaver trainees turn up. Every six months I get asked the same questions about what seats you should choose for ultimate optimisation (“seats” are trial runs as part of solicitors’ training, in different departments). My answer is always the same: look at the people around you. If you couldn’t live their life, don’t stay in that environment. Because you’ll end up there too.

            Do they enjoy their job? Do they have time for their family? What kind of work do they do? How many hours do they spend at work? Have they got work-related stress or health problems? Would you enjoy doing what they do?

            Being away from the office is never convenient

            Surprise: your inbox doesn’t take a break when you are on holiday. You will never get to complete the tasks you wanted to do before you leave. Something will always come in while you’re away that needs dealing with urgently. But you still need to rest.

            It is difficult to detach from my job. I find it difficult to take holiday. I feel guilty for resting or for taking time to respond to emails, or for asking my colleagues to do my work when I’m on holiday or sick. My job is not just something I turn up to get money in return. It’s a fundamental part of my identity. A failure, lapse or delay at work is intricately connected with my emotions and self-worth.

            All you can do is plan ahead, and be clear about whether you are checking emails or not, and if so, between which times of the day. If you do not rest and treat holiday sensibly it will end up negatively affecting your work in the future.

            This article on how to deal with email on vacation is really useful, and I have tried to apply this to my holidays. It’s difficult for me to be completely offline.

            If it’s urgent, they will call you, not email you

            When I am away people get my out-of-office. If the sender really wants you, they’ll call. If they desperately need you, they will find a way to contact you (everyone has an email signature): through a colleague, a personal number or Liam Neeson.

            If it is urgent they will ring you. If it’s really urgent, they will leave a voicemail. Otherwise, it can wait.

            The tiny passive-aggressive red exclamation mark on your email does not make it urgent. Don’t be fooled.

            Would love to hear any more tips, wisdom or nuggets that you wish you’d known when starting work!

            22 thoughts on “Mrs YFG: what I wish I knew

            1. Nothing to share, but as a trainee starting at a big firm in September I’m extremely grateful for this! I’ve been a paralegal for a couple of years who is sometimes referred to as ‘headstrong’ (which I realise is not meant as a compliment), so the Yes Ways to Say No part is particularly useful.

              1. Congrats on your upcoming TC. I love how lawyers can use one word and mean another: in my experience, being firm and clear with what you can and can’t do for someone is much better than being a “yes man”- as a prolific “yes man” myself….

            2. The anxiety point is spot on. I will beat myself up over the most minor of errors that no one else even notices. And even if they do, it’s not like all the goodwill I’ve banked over the years is going to unravel because I accidentally emailed out a letter on non-letterheaded paper. Having said that, you do need to bank the goodwill first!

              1. Agreed, mistakes are absorbed better when you have good deeds saved up! The problem is as you well know lawyers are paid worriers: anxiety is a symptom of the role, and being neurotic and pedantic can be encouraged. It’s a perfect breeding ground for anxiety and mental illness: the nature of our work makes it so. It’s so difficult to take a realistic view of mistakes when the spectre of making one is hanging over you!

            3. Firstly, congratulations on the promotion!

              The delivering ‘no’ in a ‘yes’ way is what I have to do all the time now, juggling and managing everyone’s expectations. Have to learn that for some people, ‘urgent’ isn’t really urgent.

              I somehow learned this the hard way so that would be advice I would give to my younger self.

              I did suffer from anxiety too early on in my career, but this has eased off with age and experience – I’m not sure my younger self would have listened to that one!

              1. Thanks weenie and also happy birthday- saw your recent post. I think some things you have to learn yourself because it’s easier to say with the benefit of hindsight and experience: you just can’t understand the point of view your senior has because you haven’t been through what they have. But at least I can pass on some things I wish I’d done when I started out.

              1. Haha- immediately save it? Is there any other strategy? In all seriousness, put the extra aside, max out ISA and then put the rest towards extra payments on the mortgage for now. Mr YFG is trying to get me to contribute more to my pension but I won’t without the employer match….

            4. Congratulations on the promotion! Also a massive thank you for your tips and previous blog posts about anxiety and lifestyle inflation in the legal industry. It’s rare to hear these issues spoken out loud. As a future trainee interested in FI, I’m very grateful!

              1. Good luck with your forthcoming TC and glad I can help. These issues are often unspoken for fear that it affects your career, which is ridiculous and needs to change. Hopefully one day the old ways will fall away!

            5. Congrats on your promotion and I do agree with what you’ve written here especially your thoughts on anxiety. I also experience this form time to time and I always remind myself to focus on the solution instead of putting my mind into playing all the worst-case scenarios it could possibly think of.

            6. Haha – I allowed myself a wry smile at some of these…

              ‘Thoughts are not facts’ I wish someone could explain this to the MIL. She dreams something up and within a few days it has calcified into fact from the complete internal fiction of its earlier fabrication. It has to be seen to be believed. As an engineer, I can’t allow thoughts to become facts without painstaking testing otherwise nothing works. I think that bleeds into your private life and helps prevent it to a certain extent.

              In a simpler world underpromising and overdelivering is good, but it has to be balanced with getting stuff out the door, even if its not perfect – and to get it out the door you do have to sell it first! So I think this one is more nuanced, the corollary being ‘fake it till you make it’ I suppose. Theres a time and a place for both approaches.

              Anxiety never helps, particularly when under pressure, but thats when it tries to strike. You need zen like skills to survive these moments.

            7. My pieces of advice are as follows:

              Learn to touch type. I learned to do so more than 25 years ago. I assumed that we’d have voice controlled computers within a few years and I was probably wasting my time. But learning has proved to be a major time saver over the years. Nobody ever follows this advice by the way as they believe they are already quick enough.

              Read How to win friends and influence people. A lot of work is politics and this is a dated but still valuable guide on how to get the best out of others.

              Don’t be fooled by dangles or vague promises of great things – like promotions etc – in the future. Tie the person down to a delivery/review date and prepared to walk if it doesn’t happen.

              Ask lots of questions. There will come a time in your career where you will have to appear to be the person who has answers. At the start of your career, ask lots of questions and appear enthusiastic. Many older colleagues love teaching newer ones. Be selective in which advice you follow though…

              Know that every young person that ever was felt undervalued or not taken seriously enough by their boss and feels they should be getting on quicker than they are.

              Figure out how to get stuff done that makes your boss look great.

              1. touch typing is great advice, i took it a step further and rearranged the key positions to minimise the distance my fingers have to move to type the english language. Speeds went from 50wpm on bog-standard QWERTY to 120wpm with TheRhinoTM uber-layout! Keeping RSI at bay one key at a time!

                1. That is impressive. All I did was get a smaller keyboard than the standard ones (a small wireless one) as my hands are too small to cover the entire keyboard and I would have to move my hands from side to side to type. If I moved the keys I would be screwed though….

              2. This is great advice, thanks greencat! Agreed on the touch-typing: I take it for granted that I can type mega quick but it seriously saves possibly hours of your time per day.

                Also agreed on not waiting for anyone else to notice or track your development and to actively schedule in reviews or milestones: set these for yourself and be clear on your actions if management don’t deliver on your requests.

                Ask lots of questions, but from the right people at the right time !

                1. I learnt to touch type at university and it is the most useful skill that I have. It’s painful to watch colleagues type with two fingers, but they never seem to be able to find the time to teach themselves to touch type. I have frequently suggested to my employer that they install a programme on our system so people could do this over lunch, but it has never happened. I think that it would save people so much time in the future and make them more efficient, but what do I know?

                  1. In a previous workplace, a tool for learning how to touch type was on the system – but still almost no-one took it up. As a manager in the past, I’ve tried a few different ways to get touch typing higher on people’s priority list eg added it to probationary objectives, creating incentives etc. Some colleagues will even go to great lengths to “prove” they are quick enough already and so don’t need to learn. I don’t bother trying anymore.

                  2. I remember learning to touch type when I was temping after uni before my training and that’s the only time I ever would have learned as no training opportunity ever came up after that.

            8. First of all, great blog you and Mr. YFG have here – thank you.
              The one thing I didn’t appreciate when I was more junior was just how much power you wield over your senior colleagues when you are good at what you do.
              People rarely admit it, but in any professional services industry, you are only as good as the people who work for you.
              If you can’t get the best people to work for you, you won’t be the best amongst your peers.
              Now that I am more senior, I do everything I can to promote, advance and grow my employees. I wish I had asked the same of my bosses when I was just starting out. Some were great but many others just coasted off the back of my hard work

              1. And just because someone phones you doesn’t mean you should answer it. Their lack of planning does make it your urgent problem. Focus on your own priorities, not others.

              2. Thank you, and I agree that you gain strength from the people who work for you. Part of the reason it’s so difficult to delegate is trusting others to do part of your job for you, but once you do know you can trust them you do depend on them to some extent to be able to do your own job!

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