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. It’s advice every first-year should know and apply.
When young attorneys begin their career, they get loads of information thrown at them, meet a lot of “very important” people and enter a lifestyle that’s extremely different from the one they lived in law school. It can be overwhelming. But first-year associates can set themselves up not only to survive the often-frantic law firm environment, but to thrive in it.
If that’s their goal, they’d be prudent to follow the advice that Goodwin Procter gives to its new hires. Scott Westfahl, the firm’s director of professional development, offers a three-part recommendation:
- Build your legal and technical skills;
- Build your professional skills; and
- Build your network.
Last week, we covered the first skill set. Now, here’s number two.
Professional Skills Are Often Overlooked
“We emphasize professional skills to our young lawyers because these skills get overlooked a lot,” Westfahl says, adding that this category includes presentation, negotiation, business-judgment, leadership and project-management skills. What lawyers don’t understand, he says, is that sometime the skills they pick up “along the way” can make them incredibly well-suited to do any number of jobs inside and outside the legal world. His advice:
Don’t wing it—prepare to present. Presentation skills are key for any attorney. If you’re a first-year lawyer you need to be aware of this and practice presenting, Westfahl says. Put another way: Work on your presence. “If you’ve got to explain to a partner what you’ve found in your research,” he says, “think carefully about how to present that in a cogent way that creates a dialogue, where you and the partner or the senior associate can discuss a legal question at a peer level.”
Organize, organize, organize. At times you’ll be asked to be responsible for enormous amounts of data. You need to learn how best to assemble that information, make sense of it and create organization around it to help solve the legal issue. That’s a very powerful skill to have. “The ability to pull from lots of details the two or three key pieces of information—and explain why those are the key pieces—is a professional skill that can be useful in the legal arena and, really, in so many different areas of life,” Westfahl says.
Build rapport. Be conscious of what makes people—the lawyers at your firm, as well as clients—comfortable. One way, of course, is to actively listen and ask open-ended questions. “You want to work on your ability to have an engaging conversation,” Westfahl says. “Seize opportunities to do this. For example, you may have the chance to do some pro bono work, where you get involved and have the ability to interview a client. You should work to build a relationship with that client who has a legal issue or a business-judgment issue.”
Always Keep Track of Your Abilities
Legal recruiters will tell you that a common mistake lawyers commit when trying to make a career move is to write their resume in great detail, explaining what they’ve done in their legal practice. They don’t really step back, reflect and say to themselves, “Wait a minute. I’ve managed a couple of $100 million transactions; I’ve managed some significant due diligence teams; I’ve helped negotiate settlements and pro bono matters with meaningful results for clients.”
So from the start of your career, take notice, and write down exactly what you’re doing. “We tell our associates that it’s important to catalog the skills you’ve built as you go along and to think about where your passion is,” Westfahl says. “Know what your greatest professional-skill strengths are, and where you want to apply them.”
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.