I remember when I was about to start my first job at a law firm in Philadelphia. I was 25 years old, had just finished a clerkship, and wanted to hit it out of the park. I read books on how to be a great associate: what to do (and not do!), how to bill, get assignments, and get ahead. After practising as a young lawyer myself, and now in talking to both associates and partners every day as a legal recruiter, here are 9 things I would recommend to more junior attorneys today to do well, advance your career, and yes – still have a life!
1. Put time into your work and maintain attention to detail
It is crucial that you take the time to proofread: memos to the partner, responses to discovery, pleadings, even emails. You want to instil confidence that you can be trusted with assignments, no matter how small. The partner doesn’t want to spend time combing over your work to make sure you crossed the “Ts” and had uniform font and formatting, let alone grammar or spelling mistakes. Don’t be late on a deadline, but know that it’s better to turn in excellent work product at the time it’s due than average work product a day or two early.
2. Ask for help
It’s not a wholly unfair characterization that attorneys can be, by nature, creatures of confidence. Young attorneys are full of ambition and drive. To some extent, this is great. But don’t let your confidence shadow the fact that you don’t know everything and will need to ask for guidance. It’s called the practice of law for a reason – it requires ongoing practice! You’re not expected to have all the answers the minute you step into the firm, or even after the first few years. The best attorneys, whether second-year associates or senior partners with multi-million dollar books of business are attorneys that know enough to know they don’t know it all. The best attorneys bounce ideas off one another and practice with the presumption that two brains are better than one, and three brains are better than two. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t accomplish things on your own or constantly step into a partner’s office asking questions that you could have worked to find the answers on your own. Find the balance.
3. Find the right mentor
When I was in law school, my grandfather, a career litigator, told me that the most important thing wasn’t where you went to school, it was your boss in your first law firm after taking the Bar. Finding a great mentor isn’t just about learning how to get ahead in your current firm, although that’s part of it. Finding a mentor means recognising an attorney who you admire. Is s/he a rainmaker bringing in great business and working with exciting clients and on great deals? Is it someone who is humble and brilliant, and the go-to attorney within his or her field? Try to work with this person. Get a sense of how they conduct themselves and their business, and mirror how they relate not only to their clients, but to fellow attorneys at the firm, opposing counsel, and support staff. Learn from them and you will go far.
4. Don’t just have a speciality, have a niche
You will be significantly more valuable to your firm, and to prospective clients, if you develop a niche within your speciality. Are you a Labour & Employment Attorney? Try to build a niche focusing on FLSA or wage and hour claims, or become the go-to associate to draft and edit handbooks or do workplace training.
5. Be respectful and you will be respected
There are many ways to practice law, but I know without a shadow of a doubt that it is possible to practice law in any practice area, and to practice it well while being respectful to your colleagues, your support staff, and your adversaries. Your name and reputation are powerful, and it’s up to you how you want to be perceived in your field. Protect your reputation; it takes a career to build and one thoughtless move to put it in serious jeopardy.
6. Think about developing business from the get go
Take advantage of networking opportunities in your city. Stay in touch with law school classmates, since they can be a great source of client referrals down the line. Recognise that everyone you meet is a potential client or source of business. Talk about your business when appropriate, be respectful and kind, and build the relationship – you never know where it may lead. If you seem excited about your work, people will be drawn to that and want to talk to you about it. Give talks, write articles, conduct CLE seminars, and maintain an active LinkedIn profile. Remember that it’s not about getting business, it’s about providing a service and helping others. When you show genuine care for and interest in helping others, the business will come to you. Read books and articles about how to market yourself and start practising those tools. Developing your business is a marathon, not a sprint, and like a retirement account, the earlier you start honing this skill and building relationships, the more you’ll have to show for it in the future.
7. Take the time to get practical experience and training
You have to bill 2,000 hours a year and you’re already working 12 hour days to stay on track. I hear you, and I get it. I’ve been there too. But you’re never going to learn everything you should be learning by sitting behind your desk all day. Take the opportunity when you can to attend arguments on the motion for summary judgment you helped draft, and bill your time to legal training. Ask to sit in on the client meeting. Take on a pro bono case, even if you’ve surpassed the pro bono hours that will count towards your yearly billing requirement. You will become a substantially better attorney if you take the initiative to learn as much as you can.
8. Ask for feedback – and actually listen
Most firms will provide annual or biannual associate reviews. Be respectful, listen to the constructive criticism, and don’t be defensive. The feedback is there to help you, not make you feel stupid. Could the attorney have said it a little nicer? Maybe (probably). But take it in stride, thank them for the feedback, and apply it going forward. You also can always ask for feedback in between these formal reviews. After completing a detailed assignment, ask the partner or senior associate how you did and how you can improve your skills.
9. Find the work-life balance that works for you
If you’re sitting in your office 14 hours a day, your eye is starting to twitch, and you realise you forgot to eat lunch for the third day in a row, you’re not doing anyone any favours. Get a good night’s sleep, enjoy your basketball league, have a glass of wine with your friends or significant other after a hard day’s work. If you don’t take time for yourself, you will be tired and miserable, your work will absolutely suffer, and you will burn out after a few years. Trust me. Be as productive as possible during your work day (which yes, may be longer than a standard 9-5), but it’s up to you to find the balance.