The summer program activities of last year are long over and and a fresh
crop of lawyers are ready to start their first legal jobs. All that work,
study and preparation have brought them to this point. They're eager to
show that they are ready to practice law - and nervous and excited about
meeting the challenge.
Before they jump in, they might profit by a few tips for doing well not
just on the job but in building successful and satisfying legal careers.
• Associates are responsible for building their own careers. The first and
most important tip, the one that underlies all the others, is that a great
career is up to the individual attorney. Doing a good technical job of
practicing law is essential to success - this is an associate's first
priority. At the same time, it would be a mistake to put all one's time
into building technical skills. It also is important to spend a modest
amount of time on building one's career. Associates would be unwise to
leave the building and managing of their careers to an interested
supervisor, a formal or informal mentor, the firm's training and
development program or to chance. A great career is the associate's top
priority and no one else's. This is a do-it-yourself world, and by
following some simple tips, associates can create a great career for
Many good attorneys have thought that their success depended solely on
doing a good job. They ignored the important tasks of building their
careers, brands and relationships, and their careers suffered as a result.
Associates who manage their careers as well as their jobs, who make this
part of the way they approach their work, will build habits that can
ensure successful and satisfying careers and will offer important
contributions to their firms.
• Associates should figure out what career satisfaction means to them.
First-year associates are at the beginning of their careers, and their
ideas may change as they practice. Still, it is not too early for them to
start figuring out what they find satisfying. They probably already have
some ideas, based on law school, summer associate and other experience.
Associates who loved moot court competition may find that litigation is a
good fit. Those who enjoyed writing and creating intellectual arguments
may prefer appellate work. Others might have enjoyed the transactional
work they were involved in during their summer clerkships. For others, an
undergraduate major in math might suggest the intricacies and calculations
of tax law.
Associates can ask themselves some simple questions to get at the elements
of personal career satisfaction:
What are their greatest and most enjoyable skills? It's a good idea for
associates to look for things at which they excel, whether it's designing
computer programs, crafting an excellent piece of writing or managing a
project. Associates can identify those things they do particularly well
and enjoy most; career satisfaction does not consist of doing things that
one does well but hates doing.
What activities does an associate most enjoy? He or she can think back
over work, school and extracurricular activities to identify particular
tasks that gave the most pleasure. It is likely that they involve his or
her greatest and most enjoyable skills, so the answers to the questions
above can help here.
What roles does the associate most enjoy? Leader? Team member? Project
manager? Coach? Independent expert? Spokesman? The associate can think
back and identify particular roles he or she has found particularly
What rewards does an associate find most meaningful? Helping another
person? Contributing new ideas? Building something from scratch?
Professional recognition? Everyone assumes that money is the top priority,
but research consistently shows that it is not the prime motivator for
most people. Each associate needs to figure out what reward matters most
to him or her.
The answers can help an associate identify opportunities to build his or
her skills and practice in line with career satisfaction. The firm will
likely assign the associate to an area where it has a pressing need, but
being aware of one's own career satisfaction can help one build expertise
in line with one's personal career satisfaction over time.
• Associates need a career plan. A simple plan can help an associate build
his or her career in a focused and effective way. One's career plan can be
as simple as two lines on a piece of paper detailing what one hopes to do
and contribute in his or her career, and plotting how one hopes to build
one's skills and value toward that end.
How can an associate make himself more valuable to the firm and to his own
career development in the next year, in small and specific ways? What is
the one thing that he wants to work on? Maybe it is to improve his
speaking skills. How could he measure his efforts and progress? One way
would be to commit to giving a certain number of presentations during the
first and second halves of the year (with more presentations in the second
half) and to study the audience or supervisor evaluations of his
performance. The idea is to look for small, measurable steps that don't
consume a lot of time but that advance one's goal.
• Associates need to build their individual brands. One important way to
build a career is by building one's brand. What does "brand" mean when
applied to a lawyer instead of a computer or a bar of soap? It is one's
unique version of being a lawyer.
An associate's competitive edge from the start of his or her career
depends on the ability to differentiate oneself from the competition. The
people who get the best opportunities, mentors and feedback are generally
those who stand out from the pack. No partner with a plum assignment says,
"Bring me any junior associate." He says, "I need Carol, who always
delivers the best motions under tight deadlines." Generic lawyers need not
apply - and they certainly won't be chosen.
What kind of a brand can an associate hope for in the first year of
practice? Although it will develop over time, one can establish a brand
right away. It can be the brand of the go-to person who always delivers at
crunch time. Or perhaps it's the person who handles unusually senior
levels of responsibility.
At the most basic level, a brand can be defined by an associate's specific
accomplishments. Even in the first year of practice, an associate's
specific achievements and contributions differ from everyone else's.
Especially if the associate uses her definition of career satisfaction and
keeps short-term and long-term career goals in mind, she can seek out
assignments to build her skills and brand further in line with her goals.
• Track one's accomplishments. Part of managing a career and brand is
staying abreast of what one has contributed. An associate's
accomplishments are much more than meeting billing requirements, but it's
up to each associate to track his or her own progress.
A simple way to do so is to keep a document on one's computer desktop at
home to record each accomplishment, quantifying its importance whenever
possible. Did the associate produce a memorandum in record time? Did he
step in to assist with depositions for a senior associate who took ill?
The associate should take a minute at the end of each day or week to
update the document with his or her accomplishments. This record will take
next to no time to update, but will provide invaluable data for
performance reviews, compensation discussions and negotiations to take on
new responsibilities. It also will build one's confidence and ability to
demonstrate value to the firm. An added benefit is that it will help the
associate to develop the self-promotional tools necessary to become an
• Build relationships. Emotional intelligence, or interpersonal skill, is
twice as important to professional success as intelligence quotient and
technical skills. Leadership roles are almost entirely based upon
emotional intelligence. An associate can get his career off to the right
start by viewing relationship-building - with partners, associates, staff,
mentors, recruiters - as the important part of his work that it truly is.
It is wise to remember that any good relationship is mutual. One might not
believe that he has much to offer at the start of his career, but that's
not so. Associates should always look for ways to help others - and if
they can't think of a way to do so, they at least can ask how they can
help. The way to build a strong network is to look for opportunities to
help others; later, they will be more ready to reciprocate.
During an associate's first meeting with a mentor, the focus generally is
on educating the new attorney about the firm and the job. But the
associate can make it a give-and-take exchange by asking how he or she can
be of assistance to the mentor. Even if the mentor doesn't have a ready
answer, the offer will be remembered and appreciated.
• Communicate professionally. The ability to establish oneself as an
effective communicator is central to professional success. If a
supervising partner does not give clear instructions on how he likes to
work (and likes the associate to work), the associate should ask. The
supervising attorney otherwise might not consider it his responsibility to
orient the associate; frequently senior attorneys are too busy or
distracted to do so.
Better for the associate to organize his thoughts into a few clear
questions: How does the senior attorney like things done? How often does
he or she want the associate to check in? Does he or she prefer e-mail or
face-to-face communication? What are the senior attorney's expectations in
terms of deadlines, and what is his or her preferred format for the final
work product? Getting the information one needs is essential to performing
Consider the example of a superstar junior associate who ran into trouble
because she did not understand what a partner expected from her. When
asked to research an issue, she presented him with a set of alternatives.
He (and the clients) interpreted this as a lack of decisiveness and
confidence. What her supervisor expected (but never articulated) was that
she select an alternative and argue its pros and cons. By the time another
partner told her about her mistake, it was too late. Had she asked the
partner for his expectations and desired approach, her stellar career at
the firm would not have been cut short.
How to communicate
Regardless of the preferences of supervising attorneys, here are three
general tips about the importance of clear and professional communication:
First, a"draft" means one's best work, not one's first rough thoughts that
someone else (who has even less time or patience than the associate) will
fix. It's all right to ask for help, but the associate should make his
best effort first.
Second, the associate should convey a disciplined message in e-mails and
face-to-face communication so that others aren't irritated by rambling,
overlong messages. This conveys respect for others' time and helps to
clarify one's own thinking. It's a good idea to outline one's message
before sharing it.
Finally, it is a mistake to present a problem without presenting solutions
and a recommended alternative.
• Calendar regular time for career and brand building each week. It's a
good idea to reserve five minutes a week to identify another step in
meeting one's career goals, update one's accomplishment log or schedule a
networking lunch. This will help one to advance one's career goals, and to
build one's brand and career into something of pride, accomplishment and
The tips proposed in this article are small, measurable and not
time-consuming, but they will allow young associates to create a clear
road map to the careers they want. It is possible to have a great life and
a great career, and for newly minted associate attorneys, it is time to
Rachelle J. Canter is president of RJC Associates, a consulting firm that
works with law firms and corporations around the country. She has more
than 20 years of experience providing coaching and career transition
assistance to lawyers, and is the author of a career guide for attorneys,
Make the Right Career Move. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reprinted with permission from The National Law Journal © 2007 ALM
Properties, Inc. All rights reserved. Further duplication without
permission is prohibited.