More modern work arrangements are not just for ‘millennial lawyers’

David Turner says that a stubbornly prevalent feature of law-firm culture is harming the whole profession and not just young lawyers

More modern work arrangements are not just for ‘millennial lawyers’
David Turner, vice-president of NSW Young Lawyers, says that a stubbornly prevalent feature of law firm culture is harming not just young lawyers, but the whole profession.

He’s talking about the culture that glorifies working at the expense of having a life outside of the law.

“The need to change that isn’t a need exclusive to ‘millennial lawyers’ though – it’s a culture which harms the whole profession,” he says.

In this interview, the young lawyer also talks about what makes his role as a barrister interesting and different, why he spends his spare time learning coding, and the unforgettable advice he was given by the partner he was working with when he was at Norton Rose Fulbright.

David Turner

Give us a brief overview of your experience and background.
I am a barrister at Edmund Barton Chambers. I came to the bar quite recently, in 2016. Before that, I was a solicitor in a large commercial law firm, working in insolvency and restructuring. That was a role with a mix of both transactional and litigation work. At the bar, I do commercial litigation work, particularly insolvency, equity, and corporations matters.

I am also the vice-president of NSW Young Lawyers, which represents barristers and solicitors under 36 years of age or in their first five years of practice, as well as all law students.

What attracted you to law?
At university, a lecturer told me that a career in the law is a career in applied ethics. I think that is part of it. I like talking about big ideas, and in litigation, you often end up talking about what the law should be, as well as what it is.

What legal profession figures do you look up to?
I’ve been fortunate to learn from some brilliant lawyers, and I look up to them. When I first started working as a lawyer, the partner I worked for taught me the importance of giving advice that isn’t just legally correct, but commercially sound as well – academically perfect but practically unhelpful advice is useless to a client. I try to keep that pragmatism front of mind in my practice today.

What do you want to achieve in your career and what has been your biggest achievement to date?
Coming to the bar. Not because the bar exam was difficult or anything like that, but because it was a big adjustment to come from a large law firm, where you have really incredible support and resources, to a mode of practice where, although your colleagues are a great support network, you are really on your own and need to take full responsibility for managing your practice, and for the forensic decisions you make.

Do you think firms are addressing millennial lawyer’s needs? What are your hopes and aspirations in terms of working environments for the future?
That depends on the firm. There is such a diversity of kinds of law practices now – not just in their size but in their structure and culture. There are firms that are run by millennials.

Careers in the law are notorious for the demands they place on one’s time. Some firms are very good at ameliorating those demands by taking more modern, flexible approaches to work. Others really aren’t, and still have this fascination with “facetime.” Regrettably, I still think there is a culture in some practices that glorifies poor prioritisation, and encourages lawyers to boast about how little they sleep, or how few weekends they get off. The need to change that isn’t a need exclusive to “millennial lawyers” though – it’s a culture which harms the whole profession.

What makes your role interesting and different?
As a junior barrister, you often take on cases that are outside of your comfort zone, or that come in at very short notice. It’s a great test of your advocacy skills, to pick up a brief on an urgent matter and argue the case just hours after that.

Something I like about commercial litigation in particular is that often you have to learn a lot about someone else’s industry to completely understand the case. It’s pretty interesting to live in someone else’s world for a little while, before you move on to learn about the next thing.

What has been your biggest faux-pas in your career?
I have never committed a faux-pas in my career, and my observation of social convention is, without exception, flawless.

Does anyone ever answer this one honestly?

What’s your weirdest professional encounter?
All lawyers are a bit weird in their own way, so these are pretty difficult to rank.

What are your interests outside of work?
I have no formal education in it, but I recently took up coding. I have a rudimentary understanding of a few different web development languages now, like HTML, CSS, Javascript and Python.

I’ve heard coding described as a skill for the future that will be as important as literacy and numeracy. While lawyers used to come up with solutions that were bespoke for each client and matter, information technology will commoditise a lot of those legal solutions. If our profession doesn’t get on top of the technology that makes that possible, someone else will.

Those last two paragraphs probably tell you I’m a massive nerd. I play a lot of video games, when I have the time, and sometimes when I don’t have the time, actually.

Related stories:
Here’s one way law firms can retain millennial lawyers
Young lawyer hopes for a more connected and collaborative law firm future

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