When trying to determine the best path to a successful legal career, legal professionals turn to a variety of resources to uncover the secret sauce to reach the top. But with so much information saturation, finding these nuggets can be too time consuming and unsatisfying. Cue the “Top 10” list. While there are so many variables that create a successful professional – important information boiled down to a short list of concise points can be immensely helpful for the busy professional. Sometimes these lists are “Eh”, other times they are a must-have reference.
I recently spoke at an event attended by legal interns for several prominent companies and law firms. In my presentation I provided my advice to these newbies, which consisted of the Top 10 most essential things they needed to know and do to excel as lawyers. The exercise prompted me to create a customized list for those who are already out of the professional gate:
The Lawyer Whisperer’s Top 10 Best Pieces of Advice To Build…and Maintain a Successful Legal Career.
1. Always Work To Create Career Leverage.
If you want control over your career, you must have leverage. It puts you in the driver’s seat of your present and future. Why is leverage so important? Because the lack of it can create fear, anxiety, helplessness and desperation – all of which can set the stage for bad career choices.
So what creates the greatest leverage in today’s profession?
For the law firm lawyer, it’s cultivating a robust book of business, being an expert in a specific practice area, possessing powerful personal and professional relationships and being in a position of power. Leverage can also be created by timing, scarcity and need.
For in house lawyers, some of the same characteristics apply but there are additional ways this group creates leverage. They include: developing a diverse set of substantive skills, having a strong compensation package, becoming an expert in an emerging practice area, having well branded employers, the right seniority, a great network and powerful “friends”. A top-flight reputation is also key – as is an all-around likeable personality.
Without leverage, you will be relegated to a reactive career path, which will compromise success. So always work towards building leverage wherever you are. If you keep your finger on the pulse of the market, you will always have your bearings on how leverage is currently defined and the path to build it.
2. Don’t Let Fear Govern Your Career Choices.
A lawyer’s natural wiring is to constantly assess risk. While this is a skill that is essential to being a good lawyer, it often times creates a fear-based mentality when personal and professional choices are in play. And fear is the enemy of a good choice. While it is a powerful emotion, it is important to separate your feelings from your ability to objectively assess important career decisions. This is extremely difficult to do, but if you want to make the best choices going forward – it’s a must.
3. Understand the Changing Profession…and Adapt.
This profession ain’t what it used to be. And the playing field continues to evolve, which is unnerving today’s lawyers. Instead of sticking your head in the sand and pretending that it’s yesteryear, be proactive in understanding the direction of this change so you can better prepare yourself to remain relevant, secure and marketable. How to do this? A few examples include: Talk to recruiters, stay current on corporate, law firm and lateral partner happenings, read the news, analyze the job boards, join local executive/legal groups and attend meetings on current events; and stay connected with your network.
4. Learn How To Communicate Effectively.
I’m not talking about writing a great brief or drafting a killer contract. This is about the words, tone, judgment and messaging you use when speaking with or writing to another person – at any-time, for any-thing.
Words are powerful. Tone is powerful. And the skill a person possesses when using them can be the difference between getting the job or getting dinged, receiving a higher offer or getting it pulled, getting a raise or staying flat; keeping your client or losing it. Effective communication is also about being concise…and relevant.
The vast majority of individuals are not naturally gifted in the art and skill of effective communication. It’s something that needs to be learned, practiced and honed. There also needs to be a commitment to continuously improve. So place this on your priority list and you’ll see amazing results.
5. Work Hard.
Despite the jokes, the legal profession is one of the most elite professions on the planet. It isn’t easy to become a lawyer. The LSAT, three years of grad school and then a hellacious bar exam (some lasting three days) serving as the final arbiter of one’s worthiness to be a licensed attorney. Even if you are not an attorney, working in the legal profession is rigorous and expectations are high. So why is it then, that an increasing number of these elite professionals don’t expect to work hard?
Anyone in any profession who possesses elite status: athlete, musician, chef, inventor, writer, humanitarian…has to work hard to get there…and stay there. Lawyers are no exception. In order to learn the most substantively, hone your writing, drafting and negotiating skills, understand business and service your internal and external clients in the most effective way, you have to work hard. It doesn’t mean you can’t have a life. But it does mean that you will have to manage your expectations and dispel yourself of the belief that you are entitled to a perpetual flow of spectacular “work/life balance”. If you don’t, your ability, career and compensation will top-out below the bar.
6. Set Goals, Create a Strategy…and Execute.
It used to be that once a lawyer joined a law firm, his/her path was set. Not much was required in terms of career planning. You work your tail off and try to make partner. End of story. This is not the profession of today. Lawyers have many more options and the playing field has leveled. So a greater number of lawyers can compete more effectively for jobs and clients. The profession is also more Darwinian than the profession of old. And those who can’t keep up are at risk. So in order to maximize your success in the legal profession, you need goals. You need a strategy. And you need to execute. The goals can be short term 2-4 years and they can…and usually will change. So revisit frequently and tweak as needed.
7. Cross Your T’s and Dot Your I’s on Professionalism.
There’s a growing and disturbing trend in the legal profession that involves the decline of professionalism and courtesy. Being on the receiving end of such poor behavior can be frustrating and at times…infuriating. If you want to stand out from the crowd and increase your chances of career success, buck the trend. How? Be transparent, send thank you notes after interviews, express appreciation to…and for others, be responsive, keep appointments, don’t act entitled, be friendly and treat everyone with respect, be on time for commitments, say thank you, don’t waste people’s time, do what you say you are going to do. The list goes on, but these are the biggies.
8. Keep Developing as a Professional.
Whether it is learning new practice areas, improving your writing, building your brand, educating yourself on a new industry or trying your hand at speaking, the professional who continues to grow and develop enhances his/her marketability, builds leverage and is overall…a happier individual. So as you move through your career, ask yourself: What would I like to learn next? What interests me, but I’m afraid to pursue? How can I become a better lawyer/business partner/colleague? How can I provide better service? How can I grow my practice? Make your list and start tackling it.
9. Continue to Develop Your High Quality Network.
We’ve all heard it a thousand times and the reason why we’ve heard it a thousand times…is because it’s true. Those with the best networks have competitive career advantages in the market. They are referred more job opportunities, more connected, build more successful practices; and can enjoy wider spread recognition and reputation. And remember, a great network is not all about “Me”. Helping others is good for the soul – and when the time comes, your favors will be returned. Regardless of how robust or anemic your group of professional peeps is now, it is critical to continuously keep your network fresh and meaningful.
10. Stick To Your Values.
Throughout your career, you’ll encounter plenty of opportunities to compromise your values. And with a profession going through massive change, you may find fear or other drivers tempting you in the wrong direction. But sticking to your values is important for long-term career success. The professional world is microscopic and one wrong move can cause major damage. In addition, going against what you believe to be right or not fighting for it will cause you stress and unhappiness. If you encounter a situation where you’re not sure, listen to your gut. It’s your Jiminy Cricket on what’s right and what’s not.
No Top 10 list can encapsulate everything you’ll need to consider as you journey down your professional path. This one is no exception. But it does provide the most critical action items you will need to incorporate into your practice to get to the top and stay there. So keep this list handy – whether in a desk drawer or in a file folder and review it from time to time. It will serve as a reminder and keep you on track for your climb to the summit towards your Top 10 career.