– and what to do about them. Justine Gerrey’s article in Proctor, the Queensland Law Society’s magazine for the profession.

A newly minted lawyer may start their career under supervision, but there is still a lot of independent initiative required.

Sometimes, that independence combines with inexperience and results in seemingly simple mistakes which, once revealed and rectified, tend to leave the rookie rather embarrassed by their naiveté.

This is the writer’s personal reflection of the ‘top five’ simple errors encountered in the first year of practice.

Most of us know to ensure our scope of retainer clearly states what we intend to do for a client – itemising the work involved, detailing the steps involved and what will influence them, and so on.

What is often forgotten, though, are those items specifically not included within your retainer (or, more significantly, your estimate of fees to carry out the work in your retainer). It’s important to step back and evaluate what steps an average person may think you would take, which you may not (and why not).

How I solved it: This issue is most easily solved at the taking-instructions stage. Make sure you ask your client “what do you want me to do for you?”. If they mention something outside the usual scope and you’re not sure whether it is within your remit, tell the client, make a note, and then discuss it with your supervising solicitor. Then you’re in a position to make a judgment call whether to undertake that additional work or not, and if so, whether that affects your estimate of fees for the matter.

This is mentioned in every article about ‘traps for young players’, and it is mentioned here simply because the issue is all-pervasive – the new lawyer is undervalued, their on-paper contribution to their employer firm is not commensurate with their practical workload, and no real assessment is possible of a new lawyer’s performance.

How I solved it: This is an ongoing issue, not just for new lawyers, but for all professionals. Rather than assessing the ‘bottom line’ of what you think the work is ‘worth’, step back and think about how long you think it will take you to complete the work (for example, stage 1 preliminary assessment, stage 2 draft for client approval, and so on).

Once you know how long it will take, then you can calculate how much this will cost at your hourly rate, and have a more practical assessment of how much your work is ‘worth’ to the client.

If you aren’t able to calculate how long something might take you, or aren’t confident in your assessment, then sit down with your supervising solicitor and ask them how they calculate fees (for example, in stages, baseline fees for certain matter types, etc.) to assist in building a framework for yourself.

Of course, new lawyers can also let the pendulum swing too far the other way, and rather than undervaluing their time, they commit themselves to undertake work well outside the scope of experience for a new lawyer. You should approach all work with a ‘can-do’ attitude, but you also need to know your limits.

How I solved it: Open communication with your supervising solicitor and senior staff is crucial to ensuring you don’t bite off more than you can chew. Be aware of the areas of law other lawyers at your firm practise or focus on. Sometimes you can best assist your employer firm by referring the client to another solicitor within the firm, rather than trying to provide an all-round service by yourself.

Fresh out of our degree, new lawyers are usually excited to get stuck in, start using all those important phrases and arguments. Most new lawyers are well versed in the plain English movement, but it is easy to slip into legalese all the same, especially if you’re nervous and want to sound professional and important to a client.

The other common error is to get lost in the minutiae of a matter – still thinking you must ferret out every arcane argument and follow every tangent to its bitter end. While this can be a useful research exercise, it is usually of little use to the client. All clients just want a ‘simple answer’.

How I solved it: When drafting a letter of advice, start by stating exactly what question you’re answering; repeat the client’s instructions back to them by way of ‘this is what this letter is advising you on’. This helps keep the focus of your advice on what the client actually wants to know, rather than diverting into every nook and cranny of what you know.

Again, it’s easy to go too far the other way – focus so much on the big picture that you lose sight of the day-to-day management of a matter. New lawyers are usually acutely aware of deadlines like court filing dates or contract deadlines, but the simpler time frames can get lost in the shadow of these looming potential crises. Next thing you know, a client is phoning asking why they haven’t heard from their lawyer in a month, and they don’t care what other work you might have had on.

How I solved it: A regular ‘bring up’ or review system is crucial for all new lawyers. Each and every file should have a reminder, even if there are no deadlines or due dates. This ensures you look at the file at least once in a while, and can communicate to the client so they know they’re not forgotten. This doesn’t have to be a full-on file audit, just a quick review once a fortnight to check when the file was last acted on. If it’s been a while, chances are you should either be doing something, or closing the file.


Obviously every new lawyer will have a different experience in practice, and some will avoid certain pitfalls, only to run afoul of others. These ‘top five’ mistakes were those most frequently made (or almost made) by the writer in her first year of practice.