Full time Lawyering

by Jinryu

About a month ago, I made the transition to full time work as a solicitor. It was a mostly smooth affair. In the past, I had already worked at [The Firm] full time as a paralegal, and at the [Big Firm] in Hong Kong.

The main difference was the intensity of the work. There’s a huge difference between the work you have to do as an intern or paralegal and what you do as a solicitor in a small firm– mostly that suddenly, your responsibilities jump tremendously.

Economically speaking, the main reason for this is that as a solicitor, you can now earn substantially more in billable hours for the firm than you can as a solicitor or paralegal. So while in the past, I did a lot of administrative work and legal research that goes behind the maintenance of the business and keeping up to date on things, being in the solicitor’s earning bracket for the firm suddenly means that you can do work so that the principal doesn’t have to do as much. It also means you’re way more responsible for things, because things go through far fewer checks between your keyboard and the client.

It used to be that while I was a paralegal or intern, I would do perhaps a couple of billable hours per day, and sometimes, only a handful in an entire week. Suddenly? Suddenly, almost 90% of my day is composed of billable hours.

Which means that accuracy of the work is essential.

WHen I was working at the Big Firm, I was told that I was overal an excellent performer– my only issue was “attention to detail.” It was best explained to me that this was professional work, not school, and that getting a “Distinction” or “High Distinction” was no longer enough– things just had to be perfect for the client.

This difference has been significant, because I’m someone who views efficiency as a paramount concern– and efficiency in most situations means that sometimes, big picture gains are more important than sweating the details.

This approach doesn’t work as a solicitor. Perhaps it might as an intern or a paralegal, or with the work I was doing in executive roles at [The Institute], but it doesn’t cut it when it comes to work that is going on directly for a client. I wouldn’t pay a doctor to get my operation “mostly right”, and conversely, nobody would pay my fees for something that’s mostly right either. Every part needs to be right– and yes, this means you lose effiency, but the language of the work is so important that errors can potentially lead to huge liabilities.

The shift from a mindset of “efficiency” to “perfectionism” is an interesting one– and kind of painful, to be honest. But I’m getting better at it, even though I’m making mistakes along the way.

I made a significant mistake about a week ago which would have had a not-insignificant effect on a matter. I was really embarrassed afterwards– but I was actually surprised that, not only didn’t my boss through me under the bus, but she actually stood up for me to the client. Confidentiality obligations means that I don’t actually get to say much more about the facts, but knowing that my boss is actually taking up a mentoring role and wants to grow me into the business is a good feeling. I don’t feel as scared to learn, and the learning feels like it’s for the sake of my craft as opposed to strictly for the avoidance of liability. It’s a healthy kind of balance.

I’m not saying that “efficiency” and “perfectionism” are necessarily incompatible. You can be efficient and get a perfect result. But oftentimes, nitpicking about the details takes too long, and time is money. What I need to do is have more respect for these details, built up my craft from the foundations, and the efficiency will come naturally.