Making the Mental Transition From Student to Professional

This article is by Ian Hu, claims prevention and practicePRO counsel at LAWPRO.

As a law student I struggled with the transformation to become a professional. For years I had survived as an unkempt academic, free to meander about and philosophize high-mindedly about the meaning of life. It didn’t help that I was the youngest of my brothers and consequently the least responsible. See – I still can’t take responsibility for my lack of responsibility in my “youth”. In my hubris, I wanted to be judged on the delusional brilliance of my thoughts alone, not by other people’s standards. Little wonder that despite on-campus interviews with more than a dozen firms, I landed not one job. I suppose it’s for this reason that I never advise aspiring lawyers to “be yourself” – if you were like me, you’d go nowhere. Since I lacked self-doubt, “being myself” was not the problem. I now offer, instead, this advice: be your professional self.

One of the marks of a professional is the ability to have situational awareness. By this I mean understanding where you are, who is around you, and what everybody’s expectation is. Can you play the role expected of you in a given situation? When you are about to meet a client, can you: understand the purpose of the meeting and prepare for it, arrive on time, dress appropriately, bring a notepad/laptop, greet the client properly, exchange pleasantries, build rapport, and listen and respond well? It is difficult, to borrow from Aristotle, to act appropriately at the right time, to the right extent, with the right motive, to the right person.

Cultural competence boils down to the same thing. Understanding how to fit in can help you succeed, whether it’s a Bay Street law firm or a small rural practice. Did you know that the average lawyer, regardless of firm size, scores in the top ten percentile on measures of skepticism? This is a profession that does not take exaggeration well. I am reminded of the young lawyer who appeared in court for the first time, advising that opposing counsel had acted with a vexatious and abusive hand by submitting a factum a few minutes late. The judge, fair but not unkind, responded by asking if the young lawyer had read and understood the factum, and if more time was needed for a reply. The young lawyer conceded that he understood the factum, was not surprised, and did not need to draft a reply. With the exaggerated position exposed, the young lawyer retreated.

Mindfulness also emphasizes awareness in the present. Being open and receptive to what is around you can make you a better professional. Clients come to lawyers with life problems which are then pegged into legal pigeonholes. Listening to their real concerns and uncovering their goals can ease communications between clients and lawyers. Listening, not speaking, is the heart of conversation. As communication failures are the number one source of malpractice claims, it seems communicating effectively is not as easy as one might think.

The journey from student to lawyer can be a time of tremendous growth. For many of you the opportunity to expose yourself to challenging situations, and to rise to the challenge, can be a fruitful and satisfying endeavour. It helps to be open, receptive, and aware.

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