How to Have a Successful Career in the Law

The world has changed, and along with it, some of the rules that used to be reliable measures for a successful career. These days, even if you start your career at a large law firm and have equity partnership as your goal, it is not a given that you will join the ranks of those shareholders. Even if you work really hard, give up your weekends and vacations, and do what is expected of you, it is not a given that you will avoid outplacement. What can you do to try to keep your career on the strongest possible trajectory?

Lawyer

Here are three key concepts to keep in mind as you chart your career in these rocky times.

  1. Start Your Career in the Right Direction.
  2. Know What is Expected of You as a Lawyer.
  3. Watch Out for Career Traps.

Start Your Career in the Right Direction

People do a better job when the work they do suits their personalities. It is not always possible to get a perfect match, but the closer you can get to doing work that you have both an aptitude for and an interest in, the more likely it is that you will do well on the job, have better reviews, and have greater job/career success over time.

The sooner you can identify your career “sweet spot” the better, because it is hard to change your career direction once you have developed core competencies, skills, and knowledge that align you with that career direction. This is true even in terms of the practice area you are learning. Once you are in a niche, it can be difficult to extricate yourself from that specialty. Even if you are certain that you could quickly learn a new content area, that does not mean that a potential employer will want to spend the time and the money to help you retread or retool or get up to speed. For that reason, the skill set you develop within the first two to three years of practice is the one you have to peddle in the job market when you are looking for a new job. So you want your practice area to be the best match for your career sweet spot as possible, and you want to make that determination as early as possible in your career.

How can you do that?

Some people know their interests and aptitudes. They know what they like to do and they know what they do well. Other people are not as certain. For anyone who is uncertain, it makes sense to engage in self-assessment work either with or without a counselor to assist them. There are testing services such as Johnson O’Connor and others that help people to clarify these issues. There are many books that address this issue, including but not limited to: Do What Your Are by Tieger and Tieger and What Can You Do With a Law Degree? by Deborah Arron. Most career counselors should be able to help clients identify the career directions that are best suited to their aptitudes and interests.

One of the very best ways to figure out the right choice for your career direction is to simply talk to people doing the work you think you want to do. Ask them penetrating questions such as: What do you like about what you do and why? What do you dislike about it and why? Tell me five things that surprised you about working in this practice area/job/career. If you had it to do over again would you pick the same job/practice area/firm, why or why not? If you pretend you are an investigative reporter and ask tough questions, that could help you to figure out whether a career direction will suit your needs. You want to figure out your career goal and, if possible, take a job that advances your goal.

Of course, in a less robust market there may be fewer choices about where you begin your career. You may have to take the job you can get. Even if that is the case, if you know where you want to go eventually, it is easier to navigate your way to achieve your goal. Some large firms allow new associates opportunities to try out different practice areas and make a choice. Others do not. If you can, try to pick a firm that allows this and gives you a say about the group you join. Smaller workplaces may not have the specialization of the large firms, which can mean that every new associate is a jack-of-all-trades. That has both good and bad aspects, depending on what you want to achieve in your career. If you have to start off at a job that does not move you in the right direction, that’s okay, but work to move your career in the right direction as swiftly as possible. In short, know what your career goal is so that you can move closer to it and work to achieve it.

Know What is Expected of You as a Lawyer

From the minute you start your career you want to hit the ground running. Many newly-minted lawyers working at law firms complain that they do not get to work with clients. But in fact, new associates do have clients. Their clients are the partners they work for. And just as all lawyers must do when they work with clients, the new associates need to create trust, do their very best work, and please their partner/clients. The job of the new associate is to be the expert on the law.

In addition, associates need to set their own goals for performance development and find ways to get the experience they need to advance. Many associates do not realize that the firm will not do that for them, and are disappointed when they receive less than stellar reviews because they are missing certain skills they were supposed to have developed. This includes finding mentors on your own. Even if the firm has a mentoring program, it is a good idea to find additional supportive partners for different purposes and touch base with them when questions arise, being careful not to become a pest.

Eventually, to succeed in the private practice of law, lawyers have to bring in business. In general this is not an expectation for about five to seven years, but the groundwork for business development has to be laid in the early years of practice. This groundwork is friendship and trust relationships with potential referral sources, including other lawyers both within and outside the firm who might refer business.

By mid-career (about seven to ten years into the practice of law) you want to be a presence in the legal world. That means you join bar associations, and write and speak so that other lawyers know who you are and recognize your niche practice area. It is also essential that you create a spotless reputation for doing good work in an ethical way, and that you work well even with opposing counsel. What goes around comes around. Lawyers who create animosity and enemies often find out too late that their legal neighborhood is very small and that people will gossip. A high degree of professionalism goes a long way.

In a lawyer’s later career, it makes a difference if he or she can play well with others. You do not want to be the partner from hell. Everyone knows who is nice and who is not nice out there in the legal work world. If you develop a reputation for being impossible to work with, that can limit your options for career growth and movement to a different workplace.

All too often partners have a problem with delegation to junior partners and associates. They hold onto work or become micro-managers for fear the work will not be done properly. Because of that tendency they run into time constraints and overcharging issues. If a partner can teach and train support staff to do their jobs the right way from the beginning, delegation becomes easier. The effort to teach and train the next generation of lawyers coming through the pipeline has to be adopted as a “best practice,” despite the amount of time it takes the beginning. It saves time in the long run.

Watch Out for Career Traps

As I watch careers evolve over time, I have seen a number of mistakes that hurt lawyers as they navigate their way through relatively perilous waters. What are some of those special problems?

First, many lawyers are content to become service partners. They are the handmaidens of the partners with business. About ten years ago that role was not as problematic as it is today. These days a service partner may not be considered essential to the health of a firm. When pink slips go out, it is rarely the partner with business who gets served, it is the partner without business. And when he or she tries to find a new firm, the first question is: “What portable practice do you bring with you?” Loyal clients are the basis for power at a firm and mobility in the marketplace, not to mention the potential option to go in-house with a client.

Second, some lawyers do not keep up with their networking activities. They become isolated. If that happens, they lose the ability to be well positioned for a job search if one is required. They also lose out on business development opportunities by being off of the radar screen. Some attorneys are shy or introverted and have trouble staying active in their legal neighborhoods, but if someone has the ability to be a good friend, he or she can be a good networker. No one has to be an extrovert to make and sustain trust relationships in a legal neighborhood. However, some people have to force themselves to participate in professional groups and keep setting up lunches with people they know and people they should get to know. The benefit is great and the cost of avoidance is too high when it comes to networking to stay relevant.

A third quagmire can be proficiency in a practice area that is too backwater. There are areas of practice that are not getting the “workflow” that other areas are enjoying and will continue to enjoy. For example, if an attorney represents railroads and there are fewer and fewer clients to serve, that lawyer might need to transition into another transportation niche or other practice area to be able to develop practice. That transition should be based on already-acquired skills that can be further developed. For example, a lawyer who has a practice doing procurements for the government may be very good at closely reading and analyzing contracts, laws, or documents. That lawyer might be able to transition to compliance work by asserting that these skills and core competencies transfer well.

Fourth, some lawyers, especially at large firms, have the potential to develop clients but the clients they could work with are unable to pay the hourly rates demanded by a big firm. If that is the case a careful calculation must be made: does the ability to develop practice necessitate a move to a smaller firm that would accommodate the needs of the current or potential clients? The benefit of practice development is so great these days that a move to a firm that welcomes the smaller or mid-size clients might be smart.

Fifth, some lawyers are working in firms where they feel like they do not fit in, but they do not know what to do about that. Every firm has a culture and some firms are tolerant about differences. Others are not. When there is a cultural misfit, often a lawyer who is not fitting in well will feel that he or she is being passed over for the good work, or that he or she is not included in group activities. Aside from being uncomfortable, that cultural misalignment can spell trouble for a career. The person who is not getting good work is going to fall behind others who are being chosen to do more interesting or challenging assignments. Is this prejudice? Perhaps. But more often than not it may be unconscious on the part of those people in authority. They would say that they simply feel more comfortable with the favored lawyer, or they firmly believe that the favored attorney is more competent. Discovering the truth of the matter is next to impossible. However, if you are in a situation where you are not getting good work, that should be a big red flag. There might be steps you could take to remedy the situation, but if there is a basic cultural misalignment, you really might want to look for a different workplace where you could truly excel.

These are only a few of the pitfalls that can create special problems for a lawyer’s career, but they are common problems that I have seen in my counseling practice fairly consistently.

Conclusion

A successful career in the law is achievable with planning, foresight, and effort. The best way to achieve success is to:

  • Identify your career sweet spot and your goals early in your career and forge a path that is calculated to get you there.
  • Understand what is expected of you in your early, mid, and late career.
  • Do your level best to avoid the career pitfalls that could impede your progress.

Suggested Reading:

Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks by Grover Cleveland

The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ by Daniel Goleman

Emotional Intelligence 2.0 by Bradberry and Greaves

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey

Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, second edition. Stone,Patton, and Heen