You’ve landed that elusive role at a large commercial law firm. Few are fortunate enough to get the chance to commence their careers like this. You probably hustled your way through law school, with many sleepless nights and coffee-fuelled study sessions, dreaming of the day when you’d finally get that coveted piece of paper. And you got there. Congrats! Unfortunately, though, the hard work isn’t over. The next question is: how can you get on a proper progression track and maximise your chances for career advancement? What small things can you do to make the job work for you? And more importantly, what things should you avoid doing?
Many graduate lawyers enter the profession with huge expectations about the doors that will open to them. They can’t wait to experience the interesting, challenging and varied work that’s ahead of them. They’re excited to start building professional relationships with clients and colleagues. And yes, these times are exciting, but it doesn’t take long for reality to set in. There is no doubt that doing a stint in a commercial law firm will add value to your career – but the value is what you make it. The key to getting the most out of your experience is to be proactive, enthusiastic and curious.
Often, the day-to-day work doesn’t turn out to be as interesting as you expected. You thought you’d have ample opportunities to collaborate with your peers when in reality you’re just competing for work. For many young lawyers, this is not sustainable. Only the lawyers who are able to accept this reality and work proactively are successful in the long-term.
Why is this? Well, the top performers tend to come into the job with an attitude of enthusiasm and gratitude that their more entitled colleagues may not possess. This attitude impacts hugely on your progression and enjoyment of the job. You’ll establish better networks within the firm and build respect from partners and colleagues. These relationships are crucial to progressing your career.
It might be hard at first, but finding a way to check your ego at the door is the smoothest path to the success you’re looking for. For those who are committed to practice, with the goal of becoming a partner one day, here are 5 areas where the best associates shine.
They Have Realistic Expectations
It’s hard not to believe the hype about yourself, right? You were one of the best and brightest law students and a true high achiever. You outshone the competition and landed the top graduate role. You deserve to be where you are and you deserve all the great things you have coming to you.
For young lawyers, this is an easy trap to fall into. It is also something that can really hold you back from advancing in a large law firm. Stepping on toes might work in the short-term but, in the long-term, it’s a recipe for failure. The most respected junior lawyers are realistic in their assessment of themselves and of the day-to-day work they will undertake.
They know they have little real world experience. They know that this means they need to put their heads down, learn as much as possible and produce the best work they can before they earn the respect of more senior colleagues. They also understand that they are a part of the business and have to operate within the reality of this structure.
You don’t practice law in a vacuum, so taking a commercial approach to your work and outlook is a huge leg up.
They Are Patient
It can be easy to get ahead of yourself. You can be forgiven for expecting the very best work to be directed your way from day one. Firms are notorious for creating the misplaced expectation that you’ll be handed interesting work on a silver platter.
This usually isn’t the case, as workflows and allocation are complex issues. Remember, you have zero experience. You need to start at the bottom. You need to learn before you can step up. Building knowledge, experience and credibility is a slow process.
The best young lawyers recognise that it is all a process and that patience is key. Don’t let impatience prevent you from learning all the incremental skills that form the foundation of something much bigger. Importantly, start building your personal brand while you’re young, and it will reap dividends as you climb the ranks.
They Are Enthusiastic
Time and time again, senior lawyers and partners tell us about the importance of enthusiasm from juniors. Being genuinely enthusiastic about learning and doing the work is the surest way to ensure your success. Yes, even when you’re doing dull day-to-day stuff.
Being enthusiastic means that you bring a totally different level of energy to work. This is something that partners and senior associates pick up on easily. Turning your nose up at work you think is below you, or huffing and puffing about having to do menial tasks will get you nowhere. By doing this, you appear closed minded or unwilling to do what is required to succeed within the firm. This impacts the work that will be delegated to you.
Your learning and development is a long process. Try to be enthusiastic about whatever tasks are handed to you and learn as much as you can. This will make you stand out in the eyes of those in charge of your progression.
They Are Proactive
Young lawyers often have a misplaced expectation that their firm will deliver internal and external opportunities. Law firms are businesses and partners are very busy people, so they might not be in a position to make these things happen for you.
The most successful lawyers are proactive. They make the most of any opportunity that could separate them from the herd. They explore and learn about how the firm operates. They actively seek avenues for mentorship and discover ways to contribute in non-billable areas. They seek out these opportunities themselves and look to take advantage of them.
It takes effort and enthusiasm to achieve this. But, if you want to separate yourself from your colleagues, you need to seek out mentorship, business development opportunities, client facing time, seminars, and other ways to make yourself indispensable to the firm.
Actively position yourself as a doer – someone who can be trusted to get the job done. This gives you the opportunity to flex your autonomy and independent thinking muscles. By proactively taking part in activities that you enjoy you are already one step closer to making your career work for you, and not the other way around.
They Are Honest
For some, having the courage to speak up is the hardest part. It can be terrifying to put your hand up and ask for help, or suggest a different approach, but will anything change by remaining silent?
If those you work with don’t know that you are unhappy, for example, there is very little they can do to address potential issues or make the necessary changes to help you. So, be honest and seek out guidance from those in more senior positions. An open and honest approach to work issues can open doors and gain you the respect of your colleagues. Chances are, they may be thinking the same thing but lack the confidence to speak up.
Bear in mind that senior staff and partners in firms are time poor, so be selective about when you make an approach and how you raise the issue.
Given how competitive the legal profession can be, some of the above points may seem counterintuitive. But, in our experience, it is an approach that lends itself to long-term success in private practice.
While you have worked hard and achieved a great deal to get where you are in your career today, an element of luck also comes into landing an elite graduate role. Don’t lose sight of this fact – it will direct your actions in practice in a far more positive way: a little gratitude goes a long way.
What other personal qualities do you think are critical in building a successful legal career? Let us know in the comments!