As a young lawyer, it’s your responsibility to take charge of your career from the moment that you graduate from law school. After all, if you’re not going to nurture your career, who will? Whether you think you’ll ever open your own firm or merely want to get the most out of your law firm experience, there are a few things you can do to get your career going on the right track from the very beginning.

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.

The clerks in the courthouse and the people working behind the desk in the records room or at the bank are all good allies. They usually know ‘the system’ better than anyone. Knowing them helps get things done.

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 far ahead of the game. Building business is, ultimately, all about relationships and trust. The earlier you begin to build those relationships, the better off you (and your career) will be.

  • When you meet people, begin thinking about what you can do to help them, rather than what they can do for you.
  • Maintain your relationships with the clients you come into contact with.
  • Accompany others on client meetings to see how they handle clients and how business gets done.
  • Get involved in something you’re passionate about.
  • Become active in the bar association; make connections with other attorneys in the community who might serve as mentors, strategic partners or referral sources.

Learn about your client, their businesses, and their problems

Being a lawyer is all about helping other people, whether you are 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.

Build relationships within your office

Relationships are not only important for client development, they’re important within your office, too.

  • Get to know the specialties, 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.
  • Keep those relationships and connections alive if and when you change jobs – don’t burn your bridges with those at your old firm. Your old boss may be your best referral source in a new practice.
  • 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.

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? 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?

Develop good relationships with staff. A good secretary or assistant often has a lot of “pull” with higher-ups, and they usually know the inside “scoop” about the firm.

Be an effective employee

Often, as a young lawyer or associate, you’re the one the work flows down to. Make yourself valuable:

  • Listen carefully to instructions as they are given – TAKE NOTES!
  • Ask intelligent questions and repeat your understanding of the assignment.
  • Find out what the deadline is and advise your supervisor of any conflicting (or potentially conflicting) assignments to establish priority.
  • Ask whether there is a particular time or point of completion at which you should check in and ask whether the supervisor has a ballpark figure for the time it should take to complete the task.
  • Follow up with your supervisor for feedback and to learn the outcome of your work.
  • Ask for criticism as well as praise.
  • Look for opportunities to volunteer without being asked.

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. 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.

Don’t neglect your family and friends

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.

Develop your reputation

As a lawyer, your reputation is everything. Integrity and credibility go a long way. This 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. Develop a system for following up on all of your commitments. If your firm doesn’t have a good system in place, create your own. Integrity goes a very long way in establishing relationships.

Learn the art of apology

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 and partners. Rather than hiding your mistakes, learn how to ‘fess up, apologize and find out what it will take to make it right. Then do it.

Don’t just sit around waiting for work to land on your desk. Ask for it. Seek out the clients and the kinds of work you want.

If your firm works 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.

Keep learning

  • Attend CLE programs in your area of practice to learn from others in the field.
  • Try attending seminars on other practice areas.
  • Take courses, read books, listen to audio on all subjects, not just those that you think will help you in your area of practice.
  • Look to other industries. Expanding your horizons will always make you more creative and innovative.
  • Be an observer. Want to learn how to do a deposition, try a case, handle a closing, or negotiate a contract? Ask another attorney if you can follow along and see what they do – or observe on your own time.

(photo: Image of confident businessman from Shutterstock)

Allison Shields
Allison Shields is a law practice coach and consultant with Legal Ease Consulting, Inc. She writes the Legal Ease blog and the Lawyer Meltdown e-newsletter.

1 Comment

  1. This is good advice. It also works for solo attorneys, just have to find the mentors in other places.

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