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Professional Growth

Three Tips for Owning Your Career as a Young Lawyer

By Meyling "Mey" Ly Ortiz

New lawyers need to take ownership of their career growth early on. Here’s how.

One pernicious myth about becoming a lawyer is that once you join a firm, “someone” will teach you everything you need to know about practicing law. As long as you keep your head down and “do what you’re supposed to,” success will come. That someone could be your law school, your law firm, or a supervising or mentoring attorney.

But the truth is, hoping “someone” will teach you, without doing more yourself, is not an effective strategy. Trusting this myth can have career-crushing effects — from being passed up for partnership to hating the practice of law.

Instead, new lawyers must take ownership of their career trajectory and be proactive about acquiring the skills needed to succeed. While shifting your mindset and taking ownership of your career growth is not a panacea, it can definitely lead to more possibilities.

Here are three tips for taking ownership of your career growth early on.

1. Find a Good Mentor

I know I’m biased because I’m a mentoring enthusiast, but here’s why I think finding a good mentor can really help your career growth. One of the hardest parts about being a young lawyer is that you don’t know what you don’t know and need to know. So you may presume that your experience is the only one to be had or that it’s just as it should be, that it’s “normal.” But if you share your experience with others (maybe even other young lawyers), you will better be able to assess your experiences with more context. I suggest you at least find a mentor where you work and one outside of where you work.

2. Ask for and Receive (Process) Feedback

Lawyers are notoriously busy people, and rightly or wrongly, feedback can be hard to come by. Busy partners don’t often take the time to explain the changes they make in documents or why they do what they do. Which is why asking for feedback (at the right time) is important. When you get a document with a lot of tracked changes or red marks, it’s incumbent upon you to review them and try to figure out why a change was made. Some of it may simply be stylistic — one space or two after punctuation or preferential word choices. I find it helpful to note these preferences for each attorney or client you work with so that you can better anticipate and meet their preferences.

Other changes or comments may be substantive. These you especially need to learn from. And if you aren’t sure why the changes were made, I suggest setting up a face-to-face meeting to ask and clarify — and be sure to state the obvious reason to the partner: “May I set up time to review the changes you made so I can do better next time?” By stating the obvious in this way, you increase the likelihood they will say yes to the meeting. You also establish your brand early as an associate who is intentional about their improvement.

Being open to receiving feedback is important for career growth.

It does not serve you to ignore good feedback and keep on doing what you’re doing because you believe you are God’s gift to the practice of law. If you ignore feedback, you will stunt your own growth. On the other hand, it’s not helpful to take feedback as a sign that you should quit the practice of law altogether. Our practice is exactly that. So pursue progress, but don’t chase perfection. There’s a difference.

Importantly, if you don’t get any feedback — no tracked changes or verbal feedback — be sure to ask for some. Even if the partner says, “Good job!” you might ask for something to work on, as well as something specific about what you did well (so you know to keep doing it).

Still being ignored? An important thing to note here.

An important thing to note here: If the supervising attorneys you work with won’t take the time, even after you have tried, that is still good information to know. If no one will invest in you, this tells you that your growth and career are limited where you currently work. Given that, you may want to look at other career options.

3. Make a Skills Checklist and Ask for Opportunities

If you follow me, you know that I love a good list. Similar to the “Done List,” where you maintain a list of all the experiences and work you’ve done, you can create a “skills” or “experience” list to track the skills or experiences you want to acquire or hone.

If you’re a budding litigator, your list may include taking a plaintiff’s deposition or cross-examining an expert witness. If you’re an employment lawyer, your list could include a Department of Labor audit or defending a wage and hour claim.

Read “The Power of List-Making”

Be intentional about building skills and experience.

Once you have your list, use it as a checklist. When opportunities arise, you can ask to take the deposition or work on the labor matter. It’s less about when you get the experience and more about being intentional about growing the breadth of your experiences. And once you’ve checked an item off this list, you can add it to your Done List.

With these three tips, you should be well on your way to a fulfilling career as a successful lawyer.

Related: “5 Traits of Successful Lawyers

Photo by Amol Tyagi on Unsplash

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Meyling Meyling "Mey" Ly Ortiz

Meyling “Mey” Ly Ortiz is Managing Counsel of Employment at Toyota Motor North America, Inc. Her passions include mentoring, championing diversity and inclusion, and a personal blog: At home, you can find her doing her best to be a “fun” mom to a toddler and preschooler and chasing her best self on her Peloton (her handle is Meybe if you want her to try to chase you too). You can follow her on LinkedIn and @Meybe_JD on Twitter. (And you knew this was coming: Her opinions are hers alone.)

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