Just because you’re a young lawyer doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t take charge of your career from the moment that you graduate from law school. In fact, it’s your responsibility. After all, if you’re not going to nurture your career, who will? Whether you think you might someday open your own firm or you merely want to get the most out of your career, there are three major ways to get your career going on the right track from the very beginning:
- Build and cultivate relationships
- Never stop learning – and using what you’ve learned
- Hone your skills
Build and cultivate relationships
Relationships are at the core of what you do as a lawyer. It’s never too early to begin building relationships that will boost your career.
Your secretary may be your best ally in your firm. The same goes for the clerks in the courthouse or the people working behind the desk in the records room or at the bank, etc. The people who are the ‘first line of defense’ can often be the best and easiest way to get things done. They usually know ‘the system’ better than anyone. It sounds simple, but being nice to people in those positions will go a long way. Remember that just because they're 'non-lawyers' doesn't mean that they are somehow less than you.
Secretaries, clerks, etc. have usually been around longer than you and know things like where to get information or supplies you need, who knows the most in the office about a particular area of the law, what the filing guidelines are, how to find things in the computer system, etc. They can also be valuable sources of information about personalities, i.e. when is the best time to approach a particular partner with a question or issue, etc.
Develop good habits
As a lawyer, your reputation is everything. That means the little, day to day things, not just the big things. Integrity means doing what you say you’re going to do, when you say you’re going to do it. That means you’ve got to develop a system for following up on all of your commitments. Whether your firm has specific software or systems in place, you’ve got to have your own personal system so that, when you tell a client (or a partner in your firm) that you’re going to get them an answer by a certain date, you do it. Integrity and credibility go a very long way in establishing relationships.
Cultivate the ability to deal with a crisis
Integrity doesn’t mean that you’ll never make a mistake. But how you deal with mistakes, unforeseen circumstances or crises says a lot about your character, and ultimately carries a lot of weight with clients, colleagues, partners and others. Rather than hiding your mistakes, learn how to ‘fess up and apologize and find out what it will take to make it right.
Begin business development activities
You may think that, as a young lawyer, you can’t do anything to bring business to your firm or to become a rainmaker. Don’t make that mistake. Having the opposite mindset puts you very far ahead of the game. Building business is, ultimately, all about relationships and trust. The earlier you begin to build relationships, the better off you will be.
Regardless of who you are or how long you’ve been an attorney, you’ve got connections and relationships, and you keep making more in your day to day life. Don’t think that business is just business and personal is just personal. Those lines aren’t so defined any more. When you meet people, begin thinking about what you can do to help them, rather than what they can do for you. You never know when you might be able to provide help – even if it’s help that doesn’t have anything to do with your practice. You may be surprised at how effective you can be at helping others – and how much that brings you in return – if you’re genuine and you have integrity.
Maintain your relationships with the clients you come into contact with. Often, existing clients are more important than new ones; you never know when a contact at an existing client will go to a new company and have the ability to send business to your firm, or when a formerly ‘low level’ contact gets promoted and has more control over where their legal business goes. And of course, maintaining the firm’s existing client base is important in itself.
Ask the more experienced lawyers in your firm if you can accompany them on client meetings to see how they handle clients and how business gets done in your office.
There’s no better way to build relationships than getting involved in something you’re passionate about. You never know where business will come from or where the next opportunity will arise.
Join committees at the bar association – these are learning opportunities and opportunities to make connections with other attorneys in the community who might serve as mentors, strategic partners or referral sources.
Build relationships within your office
Relationships are not only important with clients, but they’re important with other lawyers, particularly with lawyers inside of your office. Get to know the personalities, the legal skills, and the diverse personalities within your firm. A good relationship with a higher level attorney provides many opportunities.
If you have an opportunity to socialize with other attorneys in your office, take advantage of it. If your firm has tickets to a bar association event or other function and you are offered an opportunity to attend, do so. That ‘face time’ with other attorneys, particularly outside of the office, can be invaluable.
The relationships you build within your firm can last throughout your legal career, even if you move on to other endeavors. Keep those connections alive if and when you change jobs – don’t burn your bridges with those at your old firm. Even if you leave due to a problem or conflict or because you didn’t like something that was happening at your old firm, part ways with integrity.
Don’t neglect your family and personal interests
Your personal and family relationships are important to your career, too. Life isn’t all about work. You need the support of your family and friends. Make sure you continue to cultivate your relationships outside of work to stay healthy.
You can't build genuine relationships unless you're genuine. Trying to be someone you're not, or someone that someone else (like your mother, your law school professor, your girlfriend, or your best friend) wants you to be, rather than who you want and know yourself to be ultimately always backfires. It's hard work, and added to the regular pressures of being a young lawyer, it can be crippling. It's much easier to establish bonds with others when you're being yourself. When you're truly passionate about what you do and/or who you're doing it for, it will be easier, more enjoyable and ultimately, more successful. Make sure you're following your own path.
Never stop learning – and using what you’ve learned
The only way we continue to grow is by continuing our education. Attend CLE programs in your area of practice to learn from others in the field, but try attending seminars on other practice areas, too. You may find something else you like, or you may be inspired to find ways to make connections with attorneys in other practice areas that complement yours.
Take courses, read books, listen to tapes on all subjects, not just those that you think will help you in your area of practice. Often, the best ideas come from other industries. Expanding your horizons will always make you more creative and innovative.
Law school doesn't (and sometimes can't) teach you everything you need to know as a lawyer. All of us leave law school with 'gaps' in our education, both in our chosen area of practice and in the business of being a lawyer. Seek to fill those gaps by attending lectures, reading, and seeking out information on topics including the business of law, finance, billing, practice management, marketing and business development, among others.
Learn about your clients, their businesses, and their problems
Being a lawyer is all about helping other people, whether it’s helping them solve a problem, prevent a problem or take advantage of an opportunity. The more you know about your clients, the better you’ll be at identifying their problems and opportunities. Clients like to work with people who show an interest in them as people or as businesses, not just as sources of revenue. Find out what’s important to your clients.
Learn about yourself
Pay attention to what kinds of clients you like working with, and what kinds of matters you like working on.
Trying out different types of cases, even within one practice area, will not only help broaden your horizons and provide you with new experiences, but will also help you determine what your strengths and weaknesses are – where your skills lie, what you like to do and what you excel at. It will also help you to ascertain what kind of people you like working with – both inside and outside of the office. What kinds of clients do you like working with? Which clients do you relate to the best?
Find out how things work within your firm
There’s a lot to learn about who’s who within your firm and how things work. Who gets promoted and how – what have those people done? Is partnership something you want for yourself? If not, are there other options or opportunities for advancement?
Are you interested in a particular aspect of firm life? Does the firm have committees that associates can join? If you have no committees, which partners or associates work on which projects within the firm? Can you approach them to work with them on a particular project, whether it involves substantive law or firm management?
Use what you’ve learned - everything can be used more than once
Use what you’ve learned. If you’ve handled a case with a novel issue, prepared a motion using recent research, or tackled an issue with a particular client that might come up with other clients, re-use what you’ve done. I like to call this ‘repurposing.’
Repurposing can be done substantively, by using the same research or basic forms, etc. for similar clients. But you can get even more ‘mileage’ from your work by thinking outside of your individual cases. Turn that motion into an article for a legal publication, create a case study for your firm’s website, write up the case study for trade publications, etc. Educate others in your firm - do a memo or ask if you can do a short presentation to the firm on a timely issue that you’ve tackled. Or use the information to educate clients in a seminar, newsletter or just a quick email to a client that may face a similar issue in the future.
Don’t forget to ask others in your office whether they’ve handled a particular issue or obstacle before; see if there are samples of forms, letters, motions or other documents in your office so that you don’t have to re-invent the wheel. Learn from other attorneys’ experience. But take some initiative when speaking with older attorneys; they like to see what your thought process is and whether you’ve given the issue some time.
Volunteer to write articles; ask if a partner or more senior attorney in the firm will let you work on an article with them for publication.
Using what you’ve learned will help you retain the knowledge. By following some of the suggestions above, you'll build your credibility and your reputation - and help build your business as well.
Hone your skills
Build your technical legal skills
Don’t just sit around waiting for work to land on your desk. Ask for assignments. If there are particular clients you’d like to work with or specific kinds of cases or transactions you’d like to take on, ask for them, or ask to ‘shadow’ another attorney.
Doctors have the advantage of a residency, in which they have an opportunity to experience different areas of medicine to see what practicing in a particular area is ‘really’ like. Lawyers don’t have that luxury. Often, that means that lawyers are at a disadvantage. The reality of practicing in a particular practice area is often much different than you anticipate. If your firm practices in more than one practice area, ask for assignments in different areas to broaden your experience. Not only will this give you a better idea of what you’d like to do with your legal career, but you’ll have some inside knowledge about what others in your firm are facing.
Be an observer
Watching others is one of the best ways to hone your legal skills. You’ll learn more about being a lawyer by watching other lawyers in action than you’ll ever learn reading a book or sitting behind a desk. It may mean you lose some ‘billable hours,’ (or it may mean that you’ve got to work longer to make up some of those hours), but it will be well worth it. Want to be a litigator? Go to the courthouse, find out where the trials are taking place, and watch a few. Take some work with you to do during the inevitable down time.
Want to learn how to do a deposition, handle a closing, or negotiate a contract? Ask another attorney if you can follow along and see what they do.
Ask for criticism
Law offices are extremely busy places, and sometimes young lawyers don’t get the feedback they want or need from others in the firm. Don’t wait until your yearly review to ask how you’re doing. Ask for feedback when you’re working with another attorney on a project or case. Ask if someone can review a motion or document that you’ve completed and give you some pointers.
Find a mentor
Find yourself a mentor, either within or outside of the office. A mentor is someone that can guide you and whose experience you can learn from. You can have more than one mentor – perhaps a mentor that will help you with your technical legal skills, one that will help you with your business development or client relationships, and/or that will help you navigate the office politics, etc. Mentors don’t have to be lawyers, either – you can have mentors from other businesses or mentors that are family members, former law professors, or friends. Having someone who can help guide you will help you keep things in perspective.
Seek outside help
Two of the best things I ever did for my career were hiring a coach and setting up 'mastermind groups' with other lawyers and business people. Both coaches and mastermind groups can help you identify goals and take steps toward reaching them. Both are safe places to discuss new ideas and test them out, to vent when things get tough, and to learn even more from your experiences.
[Update: Check out Build a Solo Practice, LLC, where Susan Cartier Liebel hosts Blawg Review #142, in the form of a Letter to a New Lawyer, incorporating lots of other blogs that give advice to lawyers.]