Ten simple rules to get ahead in the law

Times Online, September 01, 2006

Summer is nearly over, but for the privileged few the fun is just about to start. I refer, of course, to those about to begin life in the law. They are but a month or so away from shedding their idle student lifestyles and contributing meaningfully to society. After all, what is more meaningful than entering the law? Be that as it may, it strikes me that the ingénues enjoying their last profession-free lagers could do with a few words of guidance. Here, then, are the top ten Dos and Don’ts for those about to be meaningful.

1. Do remember that you are a mere trainee. However bright you are, the partners are brighter. Their lustre will be compromised if you shine too brightly. Keep your insightful moments to a minimum.

2. Do not expect the senior partner to know who you are. On your first day, you will be whisked around the office to meet everyone by a helpful associate. The tour usually culminates in meeting the main man. He will shake your hand warmly and say the right things, but a few days later, when you bump into him in the lift, he will have no idea who you are. Peter Carter-Ruck, the senior partner of my first firm, insisted on calling me "Mr Ward" for two years. It was incumbent upon me not to identify myself correctly in his presence.

3. Do make a friend of the photocopier. You will spend long hours in its company, but familiarity must not be allowed to breed contempt. Be open-minded and receptive to the subtle attractiveness of this most misunderstood of inanimate objects.

4. Do not expect "client contact" to involve any more than saying "hello" and taking notes of dull and incomprehensible meetings. In the more progressive firms you might be allowed to answer the phone to certain carefully vetted clients, but for the most part yours must be a silent, watchful and benign presence. If a client speaks to you it is permissible to respond, but only in suitably anodyne fashion. Practice saying "Yes, I am enjoying life as a trainee solicitor tremendously," and "It’s a very welcome culture shock, certainly different from my lazy university existence," and, of course, "The partners certainly know how to keep their staff on their toes but tough though they are, they’re also fair and good people" as often as possible.

5. Do dress smartly. When you see one of the partners turning up in his cycling gear, and failing to remove it for the greater part of the day, do not assume that you can follow suit. Likewise, if a firm alleges that "smart-casual" is acceptable, bear in mind that unless you are blessed with immense wealth and natural style, you should stick to the suit.

6. Do not greet a request that you work yet another 23 hour day with anything other than profound gratitude.

7. If you are an attractive female, do make allowances for sexism in the workplace. The law is one of the last bastions of patriarchy, but the system works and should not be altered. Accept the senior partner’s friendly pat on your derriere with the equanimity it deserves.

8. If you are an attractive female, do not put up with sexism in the workplace. The law is one of the last bastions of patriarchy, but the system only works for the benefit of men and should not be tolerated. If the senior partner behaves inappropriately, consult a lawyer and contemplate the vast sum in damages potentially recoverable.

9. Do remember never to run along the corridors. Accidents can happen, and no one will thank you for knocking them flying. Stride purposefully from your desk to the library and back again, look preoccupied by legal complexities at all times, appear meaningful, but remember not to run. Not even at 5.30 on a Friday night.

10. Do not have affairs, get drunk and smash up restaurants. At least, not on work time. It might sound fun but the inevitable spell of unemployment following your dismissal for gross misconduct casts those moments of abandon into sharp relief. The only time such conduct is acceptable is once you have become a partner.

Follow these rules and you’ll get there. The world is the most meaningful of oysters.