On the one hand, you want to demonstrate a degree of confidence – at the very least that you’re not utterly terrified, likely to become a quivering wreck in the face of any kind of pressure.
On the other, a certain amount of humility ensures that you don’t rub everyone up the wrong way (in particular since many of them will be your managers and bosses) and keeps you in a state of mind that allows for growth.
Too much of either quality inevitably becomes irritating to people around you. Excesses of bravado make you come across as obnoxious, difficult to deal with and arrogant. Too much humility and you find yourself constantly asking for validation from others (which you probably won’t get), and if you fail to say something that needs to be said you might also fail your clients along the way.
So here are my tips to try and navigate the two big islands and avoid crashing into either.
Fish Size, Pond Size
Let’s take a second to acknowledge where lawyers generally come from.
First, you’ve achieved good grades in school. Alternatively you’ve done another degree already to earn your way into an LLB or a JD. This means, at the very least, you’re somewhat clever, or work hard, or both.
You’re then stuffed into a cohort of similarly bright, hard-working individuals and spread out into another bell curve. Higher achievers of this cohort are particularly bright, or particularly hard working, or (most likely these days) both.
At this point you’d be justified in convincing yourself that you’re the bees knees. But truthfully, you’re a tiny baby about to jump into a massive sea full of thousands of similar people, most of whom have been playing this game longer than you.
So take a self-awareness pill, and brace yourself for the fact that you don’t really know much at all just yet.
You’re not at the end of your education yet.
In fact, you’ll never be at the end of your education if you’re doing things right.
If you approach your workplace and your colleagues as amazing sources of things to learn then your life will be much more enjoyable.
If you Need to Speak Up… Ask a Question Rather than Make a Statement
So let’s say you’ve just been asked to investigate X. You commence your investigation and realise that, almost certainly, X isn’t what you need to be looking at and instead you need to be looking at Y.
You could do this: change the topic, and deliver a memo dealing with Y rather than X together with an explanation of why X was wrong.
Or you could go back to your instructor and tell them what your concern about X is (and be prepared – be fairly sure you’re right don’t go in there with a half-baked thought or expect to be sent back to work…). And here’s the kicker, you then ask a question: “have I misunderstood what you were after, or do you think I should spend some time looking at Y?”.
This means you are doing your job, but not assuming that your instructor didn’t know what they were talking about. Questions give room for the other party to answer without feeling like they need to defend their position.
And bear in mind… you might be wrong, so asking a question can avoid embarrassing correction as well.
I can’t begin to describe to you the number of times I give someone detailed instruction, background and information about a task only to have them come and ask me a question that I’d already answered five minutes later.
Or perhaps to come back with an answer to a question I didn’t ask, with information I didn’t need.
This costs the firm money, and me precious time that I can never get back.
Nothing demonstrates that you have too high an opinion of yourself than not listening to someone when they are speaking to you.
This will be true in 20 years when you are a senior lawyer, just as it is now.
But for the time being, learn to listen. Don’t listen to respond, listen to understand. Don’t leap in with your opinions, facts or comments unless you need to. Just listen.
And if you need to say something… ask a question.
Don’t Bug People
One of the things you probably won’t get as much of as you might like in a legal career is positive reinforcement.
After all – we do a lot of work every day.
Just because you did a good job, you probably won’t get a “good job” every time. Many young lawyers find this frustrating, especially since they’re not really sure whether they have done a good job or not.
If you’re lucky, you’ll have a supervisor or mentor who offers regular positive and negative feedback, designed to help you fill in the blanks.
But if not, I strongly suggest NOT constantly asking “how did I go” style questions to everyone around you. It’s pretty annoying.
How is this relevant to the topic? Often large doses of false humility are actually disguising a broader self-esteem issue.
Law firms aren’t social media. Often, no-news is good news, but not always. If you’re concerned about something in particular or you’re getting no feedback of any kind for long stretches of time, then set up a meeting with someone relevant for the purpose of discussing it (rather than wandering into their office randomly and catching them off guard with your questions).
But generally, try and get out of the mindset that you need someone to validate your efforts every hour. If you’re struggling with that, perhaps spend a bit of time figuring out why. Is it actually about your firm and your performance, or is it more about how you feel about yourself?
It could be both, but it’s worth asking the question.
Looking back, I admit I probably had more confidence than was warranted. I’m sure this made me say and do some stupid things that put people off side in my younger days, and I’ve learned from that experience.
How have you learned to walk the tightrope of confidence and humility?