Daily Dispatch

Your Career is Your Job

Advice Every First-Year Should Know and Apply

By | Nov.19.12 | Daily Dispatch, New Lawyers, Professional Development

In this three-part feature, Steven Taylor interviews Scott Westfahl about the approach Goodwin Procter recommends to new associates when it comes to building a successful career—whether they stay at the firm or choose a different path. His firm guides first-years toward success with a three-part vision for their future—one that places things firmly in their own hands. 

“When I came out of law school,” recalls Scott Westfahl, director of professional development at Boston’s Goodwin Procter, “I was told ‘Keep your head down, do good solid work and you’ll be elevated into the partnership and build a client base. Your career will work out very well.’ I don’t think anyone believed that was true for all people but we all felt that it was a reasonable possibility if we wanted it.”

Today things are different. First off, of course, the job market law grads face is tighter than it’s ever been. And young attorneys who do get a job at a law firm hear a different message—at least those at Goodwin Procter do.

Map Your Own Development

“We tell first-years this: ‘Look, you’re coming to a firm that’s going to give you a great opportunity,’” Westfahl says. “’We provide you a platform to do three important things:

  1. Build your legal and technical skills;
  2. Build your professional skills; and
  3. Build your network.’”

More generally, the message that Goodwin partners convey to new hires is this: You must navigate your own career and not wait for work to come to you.

How do you do that? Let’s start with number one.

How to Develop Your Legal and Technical Skills

Here are specific things Westfahl says associates can do to develop their legal and technical skills.

  • Seek out evaluations. Young attorneys need to pay attention, ask questions and be proactive about seeking out feedback on their work. Don’t wait for your formal evaluation to see how you’re performing or even for a senior associate or a partner to offer their assessment more informally. Be direct and ask them what you’re doing right and what you need to improve. In the 1980s New York City Mayor Ed Koch constantly asked his constituency a question that became his slogan: “How’m I doin’?” Using your own voice and line of inquiry, you should be asking the same thing.
  • The big picture is everything. Show interest in the client and the legal problem beyond the narrow scope of the assignment you’ve been given. That way, when there’s the opportunity to talk to the senior associate or partner with whom you’re working, you can engage him or her. “Get more context about the substantive area of law and how it applies to the clients’ problems,” Westfahl says. “Now that you’ve gone beyond legal doctrinal study in law school, you’re applying that doctrine and you want to understand the broader context.”
  • Stay ahead of the game. Once you gain this context, you need to anticipate what’s coming next in a case or matter. “Partners often say, ‘I look for the associate who tries to think two steps ahead,’” Westfahls says. “’They don’t always get it right but I want them to try to anticipate what I need and what the clients need, and I really appreciate that.’” It’s these associates, he adds, who get more of the coaching and mentoring time because the partners feel it’s worth it. And the associates’ development of technical skills is accelerated in that kind of learning environment.
Keep Reading

Part two of this series focuses on building your professional skills, and part three discusses how to nurture your professional network.

Steven T. Taylor is an award-winning journalist living in Portland, OR, who has written about the legal profession for nearly 20 years. He’s also a college professor who teaches non-fiction writing.

Illustration ©iStock.

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