Taking ownership of your career growth will lead to more fulfilling opportunities — but ownership doesn’t mean doing it all on your own.
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One of the most pernicious myths for young lawyers is that someone will teach you everything you need to know about practicing law, and 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.
While taking ownership of your own career growth is not a panacea, it can definitely lead to more possibilities for fulfillment.
So here are some tips for how to take ownership of your career growth early on as a young lawyer.
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.
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.
By the way, being open to receiving feedback is important for career growth.
It does not serve you to ignore it and keep doing what you’re doing (stunt your own growth) because you believe you are God’s gift to the practice of law. It’s also 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).
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 options if you want to continue to grow.
Make a List and Ask for Opportunities
If you follow me, you know that I love a good list. Similar to the Done List, where you list all the experiences and work you’ve done, you can create a “skills” or “experience” list, listing 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 have a Department of Labor audit or defending a wage and hour claim.
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 the fulfilling career you want to have, as a young lawyer and beyond.
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