Lessons Learned in Criminal Law

I recently read Adam Dodek’s post for Slaw entitled “Letter to A Future Lawyer” where he provides some great words of advice to those being called to the bar. The piece reminded me of a document that I kept on my laptop during my articling that was titled ‘Lessons Learned.” As I fumbled through some of the various procedural mazes of the courthouse, my goal was to only make each mistake once. For the last seven years I have learned a lot more, and here are my best seven tips for those lawyers joining the ranks.

1. Be nice.

This may not be the most intuitive piece of advice to those entering an adversarial field, but I maintain that it is amongst the most important. Be pleasant with your colleagues, be nice to court staff, be courteous to judges. Nobody likes dealing with someone who is unpleasant and unreasonable and you may need their help. Of course, be zealous in representing your client, but continuing to be respectful to everyone you deal with will make you a more persuasive advocate.

2. Invest in your reputation.

This is a piece of advice that I picked up at a Criminal Lawyer’s Association in my first year of practice: treat your reputation like a piggy bank. You might add to it with a 5 dollar bill when you win a big trial, but every time you show up on time and prepared, you add a nickel. These small things add up, and it’s important to have a stock if you need to ‘withdraw’ from that bank for whatever reason.

3. Stay for coffee.

If you wander around the courthouse in Ottawa, you’ll likely find a gathering of defence lawyers around the Tim Horton’s. Eventually, someone will stand up and sigh, “I guess I should get back to work…” but the reality is that those coffee breaks can be just as significant as ‘real work.’ Hashing out cases with colleagues can be an important complement to research and having differing perspectives can be helpful as you tackle new issues. It can also end up in referrals and agency work, which are great ways to build a practice.

4. Find mentors, great and small.

Mentors can be integral in learning the ropes in any new job or profession. But mentorship doesn’t need to be a formalized process with a senior member of the bar. It can emerge in all sorts of ways and with different types of people. In my experience, it’s helpful having someone just a few years ahead of you that you can turn to with the questions you might not want to take to a more senior lawyer. And realistically, it’s the junior lawyers who are ‘in the trenches’ who are most likely to have their finger on the pulse of the procedures in the courthouse and can be the most helpful.

5. Prepare prepare prepare.

I articled for a very senior lawyer whose pre-trial discussions with Crowns and judges often started with a chat about their kids, hockey and other small talk. They would eventually move to the file itself, but it was clear that he had established and strengthened relationships over the years. As a new lawyer, you simply won’t have that history behind you, but you can start to earn credibility by being prepared. Know your files inside and out, know the relevant case law, know the local practices and policies. Show people that you are diligent and trustworthy and build the relationships from there.

6. Own your mistakes.

There will be times that you make mistakes but instead of sweeping them under the rug, own them. In my experience, it is much better to be upfront about having made an error and start working right away to fix it. (And of course, aim to only make each mistake once!)

7. Just keep learning.

I recently dealt with a procedural headache involving a client and turned to a colleague for advice. The next day, I saw him and explained the (happy) outcome. His response was “Great! Now you can file that away so that the next time you have a similar situation, you know what to do. That’s your value-added.” With every file and every novel issue, we gain experience that helps us with the next one. So whether it’s keeping up to date on cases or legislative changes, or simply filing away these procedural solutions, the key is to keep learning.

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