This is a guest post from Lucy Reed, a barrister with who blogs at Pink Tape and tweets as @familoo. Anyone a) vaguely legal or b) generally interested in life should really be following her anyway, but just in case you do not this is how she describes herself on Twitter.
I am delighted she has shared this post with me and I don’t want to get in the way of it with a long introduction. I will quickly note how this blog post came about though.
A few weeks ago there was some publicity in England & Wales about McKenzie friends – legally unqualified buddies who provide support but not legal advice to people in court – and specifically student and remunerated McKenzies. The blogs Nearly Legal (by Giles Peaker) and Lawyer Watch (normally by Professor Richard Moorhead, but in this case a guest post by Dr Leanne Smith) posted about this topic. Lucy posted about it too. I recommend all those posts. I watched this unfold from a safe Scottish distance, although I did wonder if there might be a slight amount of collateral damage to some student pro bono activity, a topic and a cause I have an interest in. I also wondered if there might be some good that could come out of this, namely an opportunity to remind students, junior practitioners, McKenzies, or whoever that there can be times when you have bitten off more than you can chew. It is important both to minimise those situations and know how to react to them when they arise. I asked Lucy if she might offer her wisdom on the topic and she agreed. Over to Lucy to explain.
(For Scottish readers, I have added a couple of footnotes to give the Scots law equivalents when English examples are given.)
Ten signs it’s time to stop and ask for help
To survive as a law student or newly qualified lawyer you have to project confidence even if you don’t feel confident all of the time. But it’s important never to forget the value of humility. Humility protects you against career ending errors.
Being a cocky little wotsit may be a good short term coping strategy, but not if it leads you into making some daft mistake which will have ripple effects for your career and your client’s life. It’s far better to ask a colleague, your supervisor or senior for help when it turns out you didn’t really need it than to wing it and have to go to them after it’s all gone pear shaped.
I’m assuming here that you are a law student doing pro bono / clinic work or a newly qualified lawyer being let loose on stuff you may have seen but haven’t done before.
So. When do I need to pause and ask for help?
- When you’re starting out, pretty much everything will be unfamiliar territory. Those things that are almost like the scenario in the text book but not quite – those are gonna trip you up. ASK.
- When your client asks you a question you don’t know the answer to. It’s ok to say “I need to check the answer to that”. Have your phone a friend on speed dial. DO NOT WING IT.
- When the judge asks you a question you don’t know the answer to. It’s ok to say “I need to check the answer to that – may I have five minutes?” or “May I come back to you after the luncheon adjournment?”. Have your phone a friend on speed dial. DO NOT WING IT. (Hint – the judge knows you are inexperienced. The judge was in your shoes once. Most judges will cut you some slack.)
- When there is something you really didn’t get in law school and you glossed over it and fortunately it didn’t come up in the exam and… all of a sudden you’re confronted with it – NOW you gotta confess all and ASK. (Mine was the difference between tenants in common and joint tenants*. And basically the whole of the law of equity. Don’t tell anyone.)
- When you’ve flip flopped more than once on the right answer to something. TALK IT THROUGH WITH A COLLEAGUE.
- If it’s outside your usual field – ASK.
- Student / pro bono schemes: if it’s outside the parameters of the scheme you are operating under. It’s not just okay to say, “this is not within the scheme.” It’s a must. You are probably running under someone else’s insurance. If it’s not within the scope of the scheme that is for a reason. Don’t be an idiot. CHECK WITH YOUR SUPERVISOR.
- When you find yourself thinking “this would be an amazing case to have on my CV! I could take it all the way to the Court of Appeal**”… STOP. Talk it through with someone who has been doing it for more than five minutes. You don’t get any glory for crashing and burning in the Court of Appeal. The exciting prospect of a “big case” can wreck your objectivity.
- If your case depends on overturning a Court of Appeal or Supreme Court / House of Lords authority – you might be right. But check with someone more experienced.
- If you have a nasty sicky feeling in the pit of your stomach that you are out of your depth – you might be right. Or you might just be a really fantastic young lawyer with a smidge of imposter syndrome. But you don’t know until you check. SO CHECK.
Here’s the thing. I’m fifteen years call. They call me a senior junior. I still get that sick feeling in my stomach sometimes. I ask for help or a double check from colleagues all the time. Sometimes from contemporaries, and sometimes from those more senior than me. A good lawyer is open to the idea that they might be missing something, that there might be another way to approach a problem, and can see the value of a fresh pair of eyes. Phone a friend saved me from many scrapes as a junior barrister – use it. And never be ashamed to be smart enough to ask others what they think.
If you’re reading this and think it’s rubbish and it doesn’t apply to you: it does. Come back and read it again in 5, 10 years time and consider this: I told you so.
*Tenancies in common and joint tenancies roughly equate to the Scots law categorisations of common property and joint property. As for equity in general, good luck with that…
** For Court of Appeal, that would equate to the Scottish Court of Session.]