around the bar
March 15, 2013

Young Lawyers: Strategies for Success in Your First 5 Years

The first five years of practice are critical developmental years, said Joanna Garcia, shareholder, Carlton Fields, and moderator of the ABA webcast “What’s Next? Professional Development Strategies for Lawyers Trying to Get to the Next Level.”

“In many ways, these first five years can make or break you as an attorney, and these are the years where you will build and manage your reputation and will learn the fundamental skills of being an attorney as well as the soft skills that are required for you to be successful in your practice,” Garcia said.

Panelists Lacy Durham, tax manager, Deloitte Tax LLP, and Ashley Wicks, an attorney with Butler, Snow, O’Mara, Stevens & Cannada PLLC, are two young lawyers who shared the keys to making the most of the first five years of your practice.

Developing fundamental lawyering skills is important during this stage, Durham said. “While in law school, you’ve learned a lot of different techniques about learning how to write well, learning how to speak well, but remember that’s all in isolation,” she said. “Once you graduate law school and move into your first few years of practice, it’s a bit different because you throw people into the mix. You can be the best writer in the world for your legal professor, but when it comes to writing for different partners and writing for your clients, the setting and the atmosphere may be different.

“One of the things I focused on a lot in developing those core competencies was legal writing, communicating with clients and teamwork,” she added.

Craft a professional development plan, Wicks said, noting that everyone’s plan is going to look a little bit different. “It will depend on where you practice, your area of practice and what your ultimate goals are,” she said. “You want to identify achievable goals and action items … and you want to constantly update your professional development plan to figure out if you’re doing the right thing, if certain methods are efficient, and measure your end success.”

In developing your plan, you have to know what your position entails, Durham said. “As young attorneys, we get so bogged down in the work that we don’t really understand how doing the work affects our overall career,” she said. “In developing that plan, it’s important to know what the goals are of your organization. You need to know what your managers expect you to do. Once you are equipped with all of that information, you can weave that in to develop specific, achievable goals for yourself.”

Measuring your year-end success is critical, she emphasized. “You’re going to be your biggest advocate,” Durham said. “You have to be able to show people what value you bring to your organization.”

Seek out experience and don’t be afraid to ask questions, she added. Don’t be afraid, if there is something you’re interested in, to let your desires be known. “I have found in my career that some of the best opportunities I’ve had are something I’ve asked about, not something that was given to me,” Durham said.

Be enthusiastic about those opportunities and show initiative, and begin to develop your “soft skills,” Wicks said.

“We are not taught soft skills in law school,” Durham added. “What we’re talking about is how you conduct yourself as a professional in a professional environment.”

Examples include how you conduct yourself during a happy hour or dinner (Did you overindulge?) or how you interact with senior associates and partners. “Young lawyers suffer a little bit from not knowing how to communicate and how to act when given responsibility,” Durham said. “Know that you’re being watched in every situation and that people are evaluating you.”

Take advantage of opportunities to interact with people, including mentors. Some firms may assign a mentor, but that shouldn’t stop associates from seeking out additional mentors as needed, according to Durham and Wicks.

“Sometimes your firm may assign you a mentor, and that person’s personality may mesh with you and be an asset to you, or it may not mesh with you,” Wicks said. “Sometimes you’re going to have to seek out a mentor. You can have more than one mentor. I have 10 mentors, and each one serves in a different capacity.

“I have a mentor at my firm, a mentor that’s African-American, female mentors — sometimes the relationship will be formal or sometimes informal,” she added. “You start those relationships by asking to go for coffee or lunch, asking questions and listening and making it a mutual exchange. But know that the relationship is your responsibility. Over time, your relationship will become a friendship where they might say, ‘Hey, let’s go to lunch.’ But when you’re starting out, that relationship is yours to nurture. Be courteous to them. You’re trying to build a relationship.”

One of the best ways to find mentors is to look up people you aspire to be, Durham said. “Figure out what they are doing and seek them out,” she said. “The Internet is our best resource. There’s so much information out there at your fingertips. You can get a person’s life history and their career path by simple Internet searches and LinkedIn. Don’t be afraid to use those tools, and when you find a characteristic that you think would make you better, don’t be afraid to seek that person out.”

In addition to finding a mentor, networking is vital to your career as a young attorney, Durham noted. “Networking is going to be your business in the future,” she said, describing a relationship with a colleague from law school who became a vice president at a major corporation. She kept in touch with the colleague, which led to “a significant amount of business” and a referral for additional business. “It proved to be very lucrative.”

For information on developing your career in years six through 11 and 11 and beyond, see the webcast here. The webcast was sponsored by the ABA Business Law Section, Institute for the Young Business Lawyer, Young Lawyers Division, Section of Intellectual Property Law and the Center for Professional Development.