Transitioning to lead counsel: How junior lawyers can make the leap

Transitioning to lead counsel: How junior lawyers can make the leap
The first few years of legal practice are tough. But once you’ve got a handle on the job, the next step is to transition to more senior roles. This transition can be summarized in two key steps: 1) Build hard skills; and 2) Earn your employer and/or client’s trust to take on lead counsel roles.

1)    Build hard skills

If you want to take on a more senior role on your files, you need to have the skills to back it up. For instance, if you are litigator, a first-chair role includes being able to prepare witnesses, anticipate evidentiary issues, argue and respond to objections and compel a judge or jury with a convincing story. For a transactional lawyer, running point on a deal includes being the first point of contact for clients and opposing counsel, drafting and negotiating agreements, understanding market terms for key provisions and finding the best position for your client, finding creative solutions for all parties, being familiar with the applicable legislation and managing and delegating to more junior lawyers.

Practice, practice, practice

These skills are acquired and honed with a lot of practice. Consider taking on a pro bono file or smaller mandates at a discount to advance your skills. Many firms are supportive of junior lawyers taking on files solely for the purpose of letting them build hard skills.

Identify appropriate stretch assignments early on

Feeling ready to take on a more senior role but still have a few critical skills you need to develop? Create a list of things you have not yet done and want to do, and seek these opportunities out with your employer (e.g. examining a witness in chief or preparing a client for cross-examination). By completing tasks like these (and doing a great job), you’ll instill confidence in senior lawyers and clients around you, which will lead to increased responsibility and an eventual transition to first chair. Being proactive about the specific types of experiences you want will also show that you are thinking critically about building your skillset.

Find time

You want to build those hard skills and show you can be lead counsel, but you’re worried about finding the time to do so? The first step is to reduce the time spent on tasks/assignments you’ve already mastered. Know how to do an officer’s certificate or resolution? Perhaps it is time to delegate that task to an eager student or more junior associate. There’s a diminishing gain from doing tasks or assignments that you’ve already done several times. If there is something you’ve done more than once and doing it yourself is not critical to the file, delegate it.

2)    Earn trust

Once you have the necessary skills, you need to earn your employer’s and client’s trust before you can take on a lead counsel role. This doesn’t happen overnight.

Act the part

A key component of a successful transition is to act the part (which I suppose is in keeping with the adage “dress for the job you want”). What does that mean? For me, it means that I no longer say things such as, “I’m just a junior.” If someone asks if I am ready for a certain opportunity, I say yes without hesitation. I make sure my opinion is heard in meetings.

Highlight your experiences

Make sure you tell people about the occasions where you did act as lead counsel so as to build the perception that you are always ready to act in that capacity. For example, keep your employer up to date on the pro bono/small files you’ve been managing by yourself, especially if you’ve had court appearances or had drafting responsibility for critical deal documents.

Market your unique value proposition

While you may not be the most senior lawyer, there must ultimately be a good reason why a client should entrust you with the lead counsel role. Consider emphasizing your unique value proposition in business development activities: Do you have a particular subject matter expertise? Is your familiarity with technology going to save your client money?

Any other suggestions?

Atrisha Lewis is a litigation associate at McCarthy Tétrault LLP in Toronto. Passionate about advocacy, she has a broad litigation practice where she works on commercial, professional negligence and intellectual property matters. She can reached at and Twitter: @atrishalewis

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