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Lessons Learned in Criminal Law

I recently read Adam Dodek's piece for Slaw "Letter to A Future Lawyer" where he provides some great words of advice to those being called to the bar. The piece made me think about the lessons that I've learned along the way, and I've been reflecting more on this, as today is the anniversary of my call.

The piece reminded me of a document that I kept on my laptop during my articling that was titled 'Lessons Learned." As I fumbled through some of the various procedural mazes of the courthouse, my goal was to only make each mistake once. For the last seven years I have learned a lot more, and here are my tips for those lawyers joining the ranks.

(While my experiences are related to my practice of criminal law, I think these tips are easily transferable to other areas, and maybe even other industries.)

1. Be nice.

This may not be the most intuitive piece of advice to those entering an adversarial field, but I maintain that it is amongst the most important. Be pleasant with your colleagues, be nice to court staff, be courteous to judges. Nobody likes dealing with someone who is unpleasant and unreasonable and you may need their help. Of course, be zealous in representing your client, but continuing to be respectful to everyone you deal with will make things way easier.

2. Invest in your reputation.

This is a piece of advice that I picked up at a Criminal Lawyer's Association in my first year of practice. It goes like this: your reputation is like a piggy bank. You might add to it with a 5 dollar bill when you win a big trial, but every time you show up on time and prepared, you add a nickel. These small things add up, and it's important to have a stock if you need to 'withdraw' from that bank for whatever reason.

3. Stay for coffee.

If you wander around the courthouse in Ottawa, you'll likely find a gathering of defence lawyers around the Tim Horton's. Eventually, someone will stand up and sigh, "I guess I should get back to work..." but the reality is that those coffee breaks can be just as important as 'real work.' Hashing out cases with colleagues can be an important complement to research, and having differing perspectives can be so helpful as you're building your practice and tackling new cases. It can also end up in referrals and agency work, which are great ways to build a practice.

4. Find mentors, great and small.

Mentors can be integral in learning the ropes in any new job or profession. But mentorship doesn't need to be a formalized process with a senior member of the bar. It can emerge in all sorts of ways and with different types of people. It my experience, it's helpful having someone just a few years ahead of you that you can turn to with the questions you might not want to take to a more senior lawyer. And realistically, it's the lawyers who are in the trenches of bail court and plea court who are most likely to have their finger on the pulse of the procedures in the courthouse and can be the most helpful.

5. Just keep learning.

I recently dealt with a procedural headache involving a client and turned to a colleague for advice. The next day, I saw him and explained the (happy) outcome. His response was "Great! Now you can file that away so that the next time you have a similar situation, you know what to do. That's your value-added." With every file and every novel issue, we gain experience that helps us with the next one. So whether it's keeping up to date on cases or legislative changes, or simply filing away these procedural solutions, the key is to keep learning.

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