First-years need a road map to career success

Publication: The National Law Journal

September 3, 2007

Rachelle J. Canter, Ph.D.

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 themselves.
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 satisfying.
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.
Document, document
• 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 effective rainmaker.
• 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 effectively.
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 great satisfaction.
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 get started.
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
Reprinted with permission from The National Law Journal © 2007 ALM Properties, Inc. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited.