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.
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!