Events and Life Legal Mindsets

Advice for new lawyers about passion


I receive emails from young lawyers and law students asking me for advice on how best to enter the profession and focus on Internet/digital legal work, from time to time. I generally give the same answer and when I received an email from an aspiring lawyer recently, I thought I’d publish part of my response to her here too. The field I am in is attracting a number of new lawyers and this might help answer some questions they may have too.

One of the things I have learned about the law is that it is a pretty tough profession, both in the early years as well as later on in your career. In fact, I think the years after articles can be the hardest because you are well beyond the novelty of the work and if you are not doing work that inspires you, it can be a very difficult experience.

You’ll find that most lawyers hate their jobs and wish they could do something else. I was determined to change careers when I was leaving my last employer in 2005 but opted to start my own practice until I figured out the next thing. What changed for me was introducing “new media” into my legal practice in about 2007 or so (it could have been 2008) and developing that into my current speciality. I am passionate about digital and social and when I started working in that space as a lawyer I rediscovered some of the things about law and that I really enjoy too.

Doing work you are passionate about will keep you going in tough times and inspire you to innovate and do really interesting work. Following your passions doesn’t always mean only doing the fun stuff because there is still a lot of drudge work to do. The big difference for me was not having that Sunday Morning Dread (the gut wrenching realisation that you are a day away from going back to work). I experienced that feeling only once or twice since August 2005 and only when I found myself in a very difficult position in my businesses and lost touch with my passion.

Doing the work you are passionate about makes getting out of bed and going to work an adventure because each day is another opportunity to do more of what you love and to explore new ways to do your work even better.

So my advice is to find your passion and follow that. You might have a complete sense of what that is or may not have the flexibility to pursue it just yet (very possible when you are pretty junior and are required to do all sorts of work your employers require of you) so find ways to feed that growing passion by reading as much as you can, writing about what interests you or just following people who are talking about the stuff that engages you. At some point it all starts to come together and you find yourself creating the kind of work that will drive you for years to come.

Legal Mindsets

In defence of lawyers and their fees

The Oscar Pistorius case discussion has shifted, to a degree, to the lawyers involved and the profit they are bound to make from this high profile case. This is a common meme in any high profile case and when talking about lawyers generally. It is also a pretty harmful meme and not necessarily for the reason you may expect.

This sort of case requires some pretty substantial legal resources and quality legal resources don’t come cheaply. The lawyers are almost certainly going to make a lot of money on this case but the work that goes into high pressure litigation is tremendous (I don’t really know what goes into a criminal case, I don’t do that sort of work) and the work is almost all consuming.

I understand criticisms of lawyers who stand to profit from these sorts of cases (and legal work, generally) and there are certainly plenty lawyers who do shoddy work and charge absurd fees for little value in return but there are many lawyers who are smart, work really hard and are worth every Rand they charge and then some.

The law is complex and it becomes more and more complex each year due to new legislation (lately, increasingly poorly drafted legislation), new developments and trends and changing norms which require a lot of skill, experience and focus. We live in a society that is structured using a dizzying array of laws and regulations. Those laws may be unfair, unjust or even applied poorly but law informs the underlying structure of virtually everything you do. You are probably not aware of most of it but it is there nonetheless.

The problem with this notion that because lawyers charge a lot of money, they are evil manipulators who profit from human weakness and suffering is that, while true in some instances, it undermines the good work a great many lawyers do on a daily basis and that can often lead to lower quality work from well-meaning but increasingly pressurised lawyers. Constant criticism of legal fees frequently ignores the value in the work lawyers do. When you lose sight of the value in legal services, the focus shifts to cost and the pressure is always on reducing the cost as much as possible.

Reducing the cost can, in turn, pressure lawyers to compromise their work quality and that rarely goes well. Resisting the temptation to compromise on work quality despite the reduction of a fee for that work can be costly. It usually means spending more time on the work than the fee justifies (remember, much of the work lawyers do is time intensive and we still have bills to pay at the end of a month like you do) and that means billing less and less for work clients expect to be high quality.

Many lawyers do what they can to get by or even thrive by adjusting the quality of the work they do and the services they render to suit the fees they earn. To an extent, you can mitigate this by working smarter and more efficiently but that only takes you so far. Sometimes you just have to spend a couple hours properly analysing a document if you are going to be able to give good advice on it.

The end result can often be that clients receive less that satisfactory work (from both their and the lawyers’ perspective) for fees they still feel are high and don’t see the value they receive in exchange for those fees. This just perpetuates this perception of lawyers as leeches, sharks, vampires … you name it.

Thankfully there are great lawyers who either accept the additional stress of doing high quality work for low fees (and work ridiculous hours, sacrificing time with families, friends and even time to themselves to unwind) or who charge higher fees in return for having the mental and financial space to do great work. Both types of lawyers deserve tremendous respect because what they share is not wealth (not all lawyers are well off, more lawyers struggle with high debt and just get by than you may think) but integrity.

I don’t know Oscar Pistorius’ legal team but criticising them just because they will likely charge substantial fees to defend their client against murder charges and what those could mean for him disrespects the work they do and the work virtually all lawyers do. It also perpetuates the negative perceptions of lawyers and the cycle of more lawyers making poor decisions just to survive.