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SPILL: Advice of Counsel

  • December 05, 2019
  • Emily Sinkins

While our professional lives are shaped by multiple people and experiences, there is often one piece of sage advice – whether it sprang from a teacher, a colleague, or a mentor – that was timely and true enough to be career changing. Below, OBA members share the best piece of advice they have ever received about practising law.

Get busy building

Successful lawyers take action – early and often – to form career-buoying connections. Knowing that at the outset can make a big difference, according to Jessica Feldman Chittley, a partner at Bales Beall LLP, who took these words of wisdom to heart: "You don't build a practice sitting at your desk.”

This sentiment is echoed by a fellow OBA member who notes, “The best piece of advice I ever received from a colleague that has proven to be career changing, was to build my own book of business as fast as I could as a junior associate. The strategy has been very successful in building my career.”

Trust and be true to yourself

With so many rules – written and unwritten – governing how they conduct themselves, lawyers, particularly those early in their careers, sometimes feel they have to stifle their natural instincts to conform to a standard.

When she was “a young and eager female lawyer trying to make my mark,” Carissa N. Tanzola, a partner at Filion Wakely Thorup Angeletti LLP, gained some helpful insight on this score. “I had been given the opportunity to practice my cross-examination technique in the presence of experienced litigators, including one of my then colleagues. I thought I had to appear tough. Serious. Behave in a way that didn’t necessarily come naturally to me,” she recalls. “After, my colleague gave me the most important and valuable feedback of my career to date. She conveyed that I could achieve what I wanted by being true to myself and not coming across as being difficult. Did I want to smile?  I should. Did I want to convey empathy? I should. I have taken her advice with me every day since and have realized I can be a strong and fierce advocate and professional without compromising my true self.”  

Rely on your own resourcefulness

“‘Why are you asking me? Figure it out.” This directive-cum-advice was given to Saba Ahmad, of Saba Ahmad Barrister Professional Corporation, by a “cranky former boss,” proving that not every useful morsel is delivered with a spoonful of sugar. “It was dismissive and cold,” she acknowledges, “but I follow the advice every day of my professional life. It's my job to be the expert. Lawyers must internalize that advice in order to be effective.”

A similar call to ingenuity combined with a listen-first approach inspired Elizabeth Hall, OBA executive director, who claims as her best bit of legal career advice: “Find out what your client wants and then figure out how to ask for it.’”

Accept the natural limits of your role

Lawyers are a tenacious lot, but sometimes you’ve just got to know when to let go. “The best advice I ever got was that we can't make up a client's mind for them and it is not our job to tell them what to do,” says Aaron Grinhaus, LL.B., J.D., LL.M. (Tax), Grinhaus Law Firm. “Our job as lawyers is to advise of risk and present options. If you've done that and the client chooses to disregard and take risk, that is her or his prerogative and there is no need to get upset. This advice has saved me A LOT of stress!”

Move on from your mistakes

Anyone new to practice, feeling the weight of expectation, can use a healthy dose of perspective. “When I was a young associate, my mentor, who was a senior partner in the practice, gave me a piece of paper to put on my wall that read ‘We are not neurosurgeons. When we make a mistake no one dies,’” says Gabriela Ramo, senior immigration lawyer at EY Law LLP. “His lesson was that when something goes wrong, we need to keep perspective and remember that our errors or issues can usually be dealt with and corrected. So instead of wasting time panicking we should go about solving the issue as fully, effectively, and quickly as possible.” Ramo has paid that perspective forward. “I have shared this advice with the many young associates and others I have had the pleasure to work with and mentor over the years, and it has always helped.”

Don't be shy about sharing your achievements

"Don't hide your light under a bushel,” is advice that Adrian Ishak, senior corporate counsel at Global Labour & Employment, has come to heed. “Though it originally has religious roots, one of the first partners I worked with shared this thought with me to say that we are a profession of boasters and that if we aren't constantly talking about our work to our colleagues, it will go unnoticed. I learned the hard way that she was right and have gone about changing that going forward.”

Take time to re-charge

We all know that shouldering the responsibilities of a stressful job in an often adversarial environment puts lawyers at risk of burnout or worse, but it’s often hard to detect the toll these pressures are taking until it’s too late. Downtime and self-care should be a regular part of any effective lawyer’s routine. Keep in mind this caution from a mentor of Ivan Merrow, associate at Glaholt LLP: “Take care of your number one client: yourself.”