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New Associates: 4 Things You Can Do This Year to Shape Your Legal Career

By Lauren Smith

Are you evaluating your chosen path? Here are four actionable steps to help younger associates build their new legal careers.

legal career

During the past year, many lawyers — both those starting out and those who are more established — have spent time reflecting on their legal careers, taking stock of where they are today and where they want to be. The pandemic has helped us put the many facets of our lives into perspective.

Associates newer to the profession may be reevaluating their chosen path, focusing on setting long-term goals. For some, those goals may include making partner or starting their own firm. For others, the in-house path and a general counsel role is a more attractive goal. And for those seeking greater flexibility and work-life balance or the opportunity to carve out a particular niche, freelance or contract work may be equally fulfilling.

While there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to a legal career path, it’s a smart move to think about what makes sense for you and your personal goals. Every new associate — and every lawyer — should develop a plan with actionable steps to shape their career path.

No matter what your goal may be, here are four things to think about as you plan your legal career.

1. Find a Mentor

Even without a pandemic, it’s normal for first-year and even second-year associates to be left fending for themselves. Finding a mentor, either within your practice or elsewhere, to help guide you is a priceless advantage. In addition to being a wealth of legal knowledge, a good mentor can help you navigate other elements of your professional life, such as expanding your network or generally exploring career opportunities. Additionally, a mentor — or several mentors — can help you pinpoint what skills you need to achieve your goals and provide guidance on developing those skills.

Related: “New Lawyers Should Have More Than One Mentor” 

2. Advocate for Yourself

Assuming partners and managers are all-knowing and will acknowledge your achievements without being reminded of them — or that they’re focused on your compensation — is often one of the biggest oversights less experienced associates make.

While managers and mentors can sing your praises internally and help you overcome hurdles in your career, you have to take the initiative and advocate for yourself. This includes showcasing ways you’ve gone above and beyond for the firm to position yourself for promotions and increased responsibilities ahead of annual reviews.

Related: “Pro Tips for Your First Assignment as an Associate”

Advocating for yourself also includes knowing your worth and being prepared to ask for what you deserve. Third-party resources, such as the National Association for Law Placement’s Associate Salary Survey, can be useful tools to benchmark how your compensation compares with industry averages.

3. Foster Your Network

While being a rainmaker doesn’t come naturally to everyone, helping to market the firm and contribute to its growth is often a way for associates to accelerate their legal career progression. Doing so can help further demonstrate to firm leadership that you are a valuable asset and someone who cares about the firm’s well-being and client pipeline.

Most firms don’t expect brand-new associates to begin bringing in new clients. Still, it is never too early to learn business development skills or begin building your network — whether you are in private practice, in-house or especially a freelance attorney.

Related: “Business Development Starters for New Associates”

While in-person events, happy hours and conferences used to be prime networking opportunities for associates, the pandemic has highlighted the importance of leveraging your online network.

Make time to enhance your social media profiles and become active on LinkedIn. This includes staying in touch with contacts, expanding your network, sharing your firm’s news as well as posting comments and insights relevant to your area of expertise. LinkedIn is a great platform for marketing yourself as an expert in your field and making connections with prospective clients.

Keep in mind that while virtual networking efforts can help bring new business to your current firm, doing so is also an investment in yourself. Staying engaged with your network and positioning yourself as an expert can also help position you for additional career opportunities that align with your long-term goals.

Related: “LinkedIn Profile Update: How to Stand Out in Actionable Steps”

4. Continue Your Education

One of the best ways to advance your career is to sharpen your skills and learn new skills that align with the work you’d like to do ultimately. Associates — and all attorneys — should always be learning. Fortunately, many continuing legal education programs can now be completed online. Don’t be hesitant to ask for time or reimbursement to pursue a CLE course that will help you do your job better, as that’s in the best interest of your firm. Many internal law firm professional development programs are in flux, given the remote nature of work during the pandemic. Advocating for yourself includes advocating for your professional development.

Related: “3 Ways for Young Associates to Get Off to a Fast Start”

Revisit Your Goals Periodically

As you advance in your legal career, remember to check in with yourself and your mentor to assess whether your priorities have shifted and if updated goals are in order. You can always pivot along your path in pursuit of your long-term goals.

And when you find yourself achieving a major milestone, take time to enjoy the moment — but don’t take your eyes off your goal.

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Lauren Smith Lauren Smith

Lauren Smith is a principal for the National Partner Group of Parker + Lynch Legal, where she represents individual partners, counsel and groups in connection with partner hiring and office openings nationwide. Lauren also recruits attorneys at all levels for the Washington, D.C., market. Before joining Parker + Lynch, Lauren was a litigator with Venable LLP and worked as in-house counsel for a real estate company in Los Angeles. Follow her on LinkedIn and @ParkerLynch

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