Once we finish law school many of us dive headlong into our legal careers, whether it is working in big law, government, public interest, in-house, or in a sole practice. But how many of us really give much thought to what comes next now that we have “arrived” and how to succeed on our chosen path? The following five simple steps will help you avoid some of the pitfalls and missteps that can sideline your hopes of getting ahead.
Start by taking stock and determine where you are and how you got there. If you genuinely enjoy your work, success will follow and the advice outlined ahead can easily be implemented.
Ask yourself, is this the place where I would like to be? Do I enjoy what I am doing? If your answer to these questions is no, the road ahead can be quite rocky and an uphill battle. Start thinking about what you enjoy, what skills you have developed, and how you can leverage your talents into a more successful place.
Your legal training has equipped you with a number of great tools, chief among them: strong research and writing skills, solid communication skills, and an excellent analytical mind. Now combine these skills with your innate talents and go from there. Look around, do your due diligence, seek advice, and create a plan of how to get yourself from where you are to where you would like to be.
Once you have confirmed that you are on the “right” path, or at least a more enjoyable one, plan ahead. What skills do you need to build? Who do you need to meet? Where would you like to be in one to three years, three to five years, five to 10 years?
Most of us didn’t just wake up one morning and decide to go to law school. We probably had an idea that we wanted to be there and then we proceeded to sketch out a plan of how to get there and once we were there we developed the necessary tools and strategies to succeed. Why should your legal career be any different? Without a plan you could end up floating aimlessly within your organization and most likely within your practice.
Once again, look around, identify individuals who you see as successful, and map out a plan of how to get to know them, learn from them, and eventually get to where you would like to be in your career.
2. Establish strong relationships
Seek out mentors in areas that interest you and mentors who you see as successful — establish strong relationships.
Many of us probably sought plenty of advice before deciding which university to attend, which law schools to apply to, and which areas of practice to pursue. Senior practitioners, more often than not, are happy to share their stories with interested young lawyers. If it is an area you would like to gain experience in, leverage the relationship. While they are sharing their stories, establish a rapport and a connection that will allow you to ask to work with them.
However, do not only see them as a one-way resource, nurture the relationship so they can see you as a trusted go-to person. Just as important, develop and nurture strong peer relationships, remember your friends from law school and your colleagues — where will they be in five to 10 years? They may become a client, point you in the direction of your next opportunity, or even introduce you to your next “relationship” — client, mentor, or colleague.
3. Ask to be involved and follow up, follow up, and follow up some more
Be proactive in your career development — ask to be involved. Do not only ask your mentors for work and advice, ask those around you as well. Ask on matters you are already involved with. Ask to draft the next documents that are required, ask to attend the meeting with the client, ask to attend the hearing, ask, ask, and ask again. If you demonstrate a willingness to be involved and a willingness to take on greater responsibility, your colleagues will be more inclined to come to you when they need assistance on that new “big/interesting” matter that comes in the door.
Along with asking, make sure that you follow up. Follow up to find out if the work you provided met their expectations, if there is anything that you could have improved, if there is more to be done, and if you can be involved in the next stages of the file. Remember, your colleagues are your clients. What better way to develop strong client skills than by providing excellent service to your internal clients?
When your colleagues start singing your praises, the opportunities start to multiply as there are more “promoters” out there working on your behalf. And, what better endorsement could there be than an independent third-party promoter?
4. Offer that ‘value-added’
Provide excellent client service and a solid work product that will make your client’s job a little easier — offer that value-added.
Think about how your work will be used; anticipate what may be coming next and start working on it. However, beyond your immediate work, remember to share your talents and resources and become that go-to person for your clients and your colleagues. Let your clients, colleagues, and peers know that you appreciate their friendship and that you understand their needs.
Adding value in this way can be as easy as passing along an interesting article that you came across, checking in on them from time to time, sharing a lead, or pitching in when there may be little or no immediate return for you. Offering “free” advice can lead to stronger relationships and countless future opportunities.
5. Develop your personal brand
By providing excellent client service, a solid work product, and by becoming that go-to person, you are well on your way to developing a brand and a reputation that will speak for itself.
However, you must be consistent in your approach. As much as possible, you want your clients, your colleagues, and your peers to consistently sing your praises. That means giving your best at all times. Try not to disappoint and whenever possible manage expectations by keeping the lines of communication open.
Sometimes it may be unavoidable, but that is where your personal brand and your reputation come in. If you must disappoint, at least your clients know that this is a rare case for you. However, if it becomes more frequent, your brand and your reputation could be in jeopardy.
While getting ahead can never be guaranteed, the odds can definitely be increased. I hope these simple steps of taking stock, planning ahead, building strong relationships, being proactive, following up, adding value, and developing a consistent brand will help you get ahead on whatever career path you may choose.
André B. Bacchus is the director of professional development at Heenan Blaikie LLP who graciously agreed to fill in for our regular Career Path columnist Danya Cohen, who will return next time.