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10 Things Every New Lawyer Should Do—Right Now

The Careerist

October 29, 2013

Grover Cleveland and Katherine Larkin-Wong return as today's guest bloggers.  The author of Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks, Cleveland is a frequent contributor (click here, here, and here) to The Careerist. The president of Ms. JD, Larkin-Wong is a litigation associate at Latham & Watkins's San Francisco office.

Checking_Books_By Camilo TorresiStock[1] In our last Careerist post, we talked about "10 Things Every Summer Associate Needs to Know" based on lessons we gleaned from Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In—Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. But let's dig deeper and look at how Sandberg’s lessons apply to all lawyers—particularly those who are now settlling into a new job.

Here are 10 essential Lean In tips that all new associates should know:

1.  Start leaning in now. Sandberg writes that women shouldn’t opt-out of their careers. This applies to working at law firms too. Take personal responsibility for your work, your value, and your education at the firm. It doesn't matter whether or not you want to be a partner; being fully engaged will make the work more interesting. As Sandberg counsels, "Taking initiative pays off. It is hard to visualize someone as a leader if she is always waiting to be told what to do."

 2. Be sure you are providing value. More than ever, clients are focused on the cost of legal services and the value they receive. That means your work must provide value early on. You need to learn about your clients’ business and how your work helps solves their problems. Learn to anticipate senior lawyer and client needs.

3. Be confident. Be reasonable. Sandberg writes that "in order to continue to grow and challenge myself, I have to believe in my own abilities." The same is true for new lawyers. Of course, it is normal to feel overwhelmed as a new lawyer. But a defeatist attitude can become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Work to exude confidence: Prepare thoroughly and then stick to your guns—within reason. Being confident does not mean being cocky or careless. Nor does it mean being stubborn in the face of credible feedback that your strategy will not work.

 4. Watch out for your own interest, but be a team player. Young associates love to gossip about who's getting great assignments, and who's stuck doing document reviews. That's important information, because you want to be sure that you are getting challenging work. On the other hand, constant comparison can be destructive. So be careful, and do not make the mistake of failing to be a team player.

5. Seek honest feedback. As Sandberg points out, being aware of a problem is the first step to correcting it. But new lawyers often fail to get feedback until it is too late. You cannot assume that no news is good news. Asking non-threatening open-ended questions will help you elicit specific information: "What suggestions do you have for my work?" This shows you are taking responsibility for your work and that you want to do more work.

 6. Prioritize what matters to you. Like Sandberg, we hate the term "having it all." It is a false and unattainable goal. When you feel that your life is out of your control, you have to make time for what matters. It may be the gym, phone calls with friends, or date nights with your partner. Whatever it is, put it on your calendar and make it happen.

 One thing you should prioritize is business development, and you should start now. Carve out some hours each month to attend events, write articles, or participate in a community organization. As you advance in your career, it will only get busier. Whatever your activity, make it a habit—now.

7. Make your life partner a real partner. Sandberg talks about the ways that she and her husband have juggled their demanding jobs and family. There is no single right answer or checklist to achieve this. But if your goal is to be a successful attorney, you will need help, and it should start with a partner who shares and supports your goals.

 8. Don't worry about things that don't matter. If you are giving your law practice your all (as you should), some things in your personal life are likely to fall by the wayside. Sandberg writes that you have to prioritize—and then try not to worry if the unimportant things don’t get done. Let go of mundane tasks, like folding laundry or dusting, or at least don’t fret about doing everything yourself.

A highly successful partner advises in Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks about maintaining balance in her life: “I get in the office early and work a full day. I spend my evenings and weekends with my family. And someone else handles every other aspect of my life.”

9. Take stock of your career—often. Sandberg focuses on achieving long-term goals; at the same time, she has an 18 month plan. You need to develop a plan to enhance your skills and your network, both for the short-term and longer term, and your idea of a dream job may change over time. By improving your skills and building relationships, you enhance your value over the long-term. And that in turn creates more opportunities.

 10. Acknowledge others. Sandberg didn't write about this; she showed us. Her acknowledgments section is over 10 pages, and she is careful to give personal details about everyone involved in Lean In. This is an excellent model to follow as a young associate. Get to know everyone in your office—attorneys, staff, building security. Thank those who help you—and do it with a personal touch. A coffee card or box of chocolates can go a long way toward ensuring a rock star staff member is willing to help you again.


E-mail  Vivia Chen: vchen@alm.com     Follow her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/lawcareerist


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I would say to look at the work you are doing and figure out if you love the niche. Lawyers careers are planned out in the beginning.

Most newly minted lawyers get a job or internship at a local firm in a various niche, and end up having a career specifically in the niche of their first job.

So it's really important to be cognizant of what you're passionate about before you gain all this experience in a vertical that goes in the opposite direction.

Great article! Everyone, not just newly minted associates, should bookmark this piece and reference it often!

The best. Thank you for your continued mentor-ship....

Excellent advice. My favorite is to acknowledge and connect with everyone at the firm. It makes firm life more enjoyable and human, and pays off in surprising ways.

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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