How to reach the top of the legal ladder


TO BE a successful lawyer an excellent knowledge of the law is, of course, expected. But it is the successful application of that knowledge that will get you noticed. Anyone can clock an impressive number of hours in the office, but it is the quality of the work you produce that will really make you stand out as partner material. Here’s my advice on how to make it to the top of a commercial law firm.

It is vital to learn early on how to negotiate with the other side of the case. No one (usually) wants an impasse, so resolving problems in your client’s favour is the real skill. Don’t be afraid to get some training if you feel you still need it. Preparation is key, make sure you have your arguments well rehearsed. You must understand what your client’s bottom line is and where there is room to compromise.

Organisation is important as you will have a challenging workload. Not only do you have to be on top of what you are doing, but you have to be seen to be on top of it. If people think you are behind, those who are giving you the work will lose confidence in you and you won’t get such important cases. When people give you tasks, make sure you know when they need them to be completed by. As with any job, if the tasks begin to pile up and too many people want everything done urgently, be honest and tell them what you have on and how long it will take. They will respect you for that.

It is amazing how many lawyers are academically brilliant yet oblivious to the commercial workings of their clients. Fine if you want to be in the backroom, not so great otherwise. You should have a good general understanding of the business world and understand how your advice works from your client’s point of view, especially if it is a corporate client. Demonstrating an understanding of how your own firm works is also essential, e.g. understanding the importance of business development, client-focused service, time recording, billing and cash collection.

In my experience there’s nothing worse than having a junior lawyer coming to me to say they couldn’t do the task they were given because they were unsure about something. By all means ask questions, but the best way to learn is to try and not to consider the red pen’s corrections as a knock back. If you have got it wrong, then learn from it and move on. I respect those who come to me with a draft document, showing that they have thought about the issues and considered some solutions – even if it wasn’t the answer I wanted.

Tim Care is a partner in the Public Services Practice at solicitors Dickinson Dees and was formerly with Freshfields, in London.