The old ones are the best ones.

This article was originally published in the STEP Journal Volume 25/Issue 2.

I was recently asked to address a group of students at a university college on the approaches that have sustained me over the 30-plus years I have been practising law, which have largely been spent in wills and estates.

I observed that it has been a period of great and rapid change, highlighting the fact that Google has been part of our landscape for only the past 18 years. When I commenced practice, I had a secretary who used a manual typewriter, and now our firm utilises cloud-based computing and outsources much of the document preparation required.

Technology has become a critical component for every practitioner, an issue referred to by American scholar Tyler Cowen in his 2013 work Average is Over. Cowen suggests that a new social compact is emerging in which partnerships between people and computers will define success, or at least determine those who will be capable of rising to the top.

Approaches that have sustained me

While my remarks were directed to students about to commence their professional careers, for me, they have an element of timelessness, and I hope that some of them, at least, will resonate with readers of the STEP Journal. They are:

  1. ‘Keep calm and carry on’

This is on a poster prominently displayed in our office. To me, it says that there will always be a solution to every problem, although it may not be a perfect one. The important thing is to maintain a sense of calm and put energy into finding that solution. The other side of the coin is having the courage to make hard decisions, such as giving up other good-quality work to follow a specialist path.

  1. Maintain a disciplined approach

There are many distractions in professional life and life generally. Keep focusing on what needs to be done, whether it is dictating a file note immediately after a telephone conversation with a client, or making time to actively participate in professional bodies, such as your law society and STEP.

  1. Have good mentors in your life

You are fortunate if you can engage the support and influence of people whose judgment and skills you can rely on to guide and encourage you.

  1. Be a student for life

Develop knowledge and skills with the evolving needs of your career. For me, this has involved studying at Harvard Business School, international study tours and attending specialist conferences. There is a buoyancy and excitement in continuing education and skills development.

However, although the acquisition of technical skills is vital, the way you deliver those skills is every bit as important.

A recent edition of Australian publication Lawyers Weekly featured an article about a national law firm that has established a committee of young lawyers to identify the issues they struggle with, such as talking about fees and communicating effectively with clients. They then advised the firm’s senior management of the training they need to develop those skills, rather than senior management simply imposing what they thought was needed.

  1. Care about what you do

The extent to which you care about your clients and colleagues, and how you interact with them, significantly impacts your career.

A study undertaken in the US many years ago sought to identify what distinguishes a highly competent medical student from an average or poor one. High school graduation results, grades achieved at medical school, years in practice, age, gender and the medical school attended were all factors looked at, but no statistically significant correlation was found. The researchers were disappointed, but, when their work was reviewed, one feature of highly competent medical students suddenly stood out: they cared to be good at what they did. So, at the base of great competence, the researchers found great care. This aligns with the observation that great knowledge normally arises from great love of the subject.

I commend the approaches I’ve outlined above. To the degree to which I have applied them, they have worked for me. That said, a famous writer has observed that ‘We are all capable of more than we do.’ So, of course, I’m still developing in following these approaches.

Margot de Groot, Director.

 

The STEP Journal is the official magazine of the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners. The Journal provides news, reviews, opinion and technical analysis on trends and issues facing trust and estate practitioners internationally. Each issue is planned by a panel of industry experts. For more information, visit the STEP website.