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The mystery of the assigning process has baffled associates since the creation of the billable hour. Why one associate is assigned a high-profile matter while the other receives a “needle in a haystack” research assignment is often an unanswered question. The assigning process, however, is one of the keys to professional success. As you begin your career, whether in a specific department or rotating through various practice areas, the assignments you receive are the first stepping stones to success. Each assignment or string of assignments may lead to your chosen field, or to a new direction. A successful senior partner practicing in the real estate area once told me that his focus on real estate was truly happenstance. On his first day as a first-year associate, he was quite nervous and feeling queasy. On the way to his new job, instead of arriving early for the initial orientation (which was his plan, as a type-A personality), he decided to continue walking around the block to dispel his nausea. On his way around the block, he ran into an old college buddy and chatted it up for a bit. By the time they said their goodbyes, although his nausea had subsided, he was late for his first day! As he tiptoed into the large mahogany conference room, the hiring partner (who was doling out their first assignments) handed him the last assignment on the list, with the name of a real estate partner to contact for his first assignment. That very assignment set the stage for his career as a real estate attorney. Another colleague of mine graduated from law school in the early 1990s, when bankruptcy practices were booming (as they are today). She started her career in the bankruptcy department, and although she enjoyed the restructuring side of the practice, she was not thrilled with the litigation aspect. After two years of practicing bankruptcy, the corporate world reignited and the corporate department began tapping associates from other departments. My friend took on a corporate matter one day that kept her busy for the next three months. From then on, she became part of the corporate team. One corporate assignment changed her entire career. She realized that her skills overlapped with others in the corporate department, and her interest in negotiating and closing a transaction was clearly her strong suit. She found her niche and was lucky enough to make the switch. Keep in mind that the assignment process is not always so arbitrary. There are numerous things you can do to direct your own career, to ensure that you are obtaining the experience you desire. You can request work in a particular area, with a specific attorney or client, or within a niche practice. You should also think about the following factors as you make your way. 1. Assess your strengths and weaknesses and focus on what practice area uses your skills and personality. Think about what type of work you enjoy, and your personality and style. Are you a good writer or researcher? Are you detail-oriented or a big-picture person? Do you like the theatrics of the courtroom or the solitude of the library? Are you comfortable stating your case and arguing your position? Are you a good negotiator? Do you like to mediate and bring people together? Are you adept at analyzing the practical application based on a set of rules or a code of law? Try to match your skills and personality with a practice area. If you are unsure about what you like and what you’re good at, consider investing in a personality style indicator such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator Test. Eva Wisnik, president of Wisnik Enterprises, has administered the Myers-Briggs test to more than 2,000 attorneys in the last 10 years, many of them new lawyers. Wisnik advises that this tool provides an awareness of your personality traits that allows you to adapt the way you communicate to others. The test gives you an understanding of how personality traits relate to certain work styles, and can assist you in determining which practice area matches your personality. 2. Seek out assignments of interest by taking the initiative and requesting specific assignments or client matters. Don’t be timid about requesting specific types of work or certain client matters. Assigning partners will applaud your initiative, especially if you’ve done your homework and have some knowledge of the assignment and the client. Think about how you would add value to an assignment and relay that information to the assigning partner. One midlevel attorney suggests that you check the “new client” memo or e-mail that is often circulated for purposes of a conflict check to keep tabs on what assignments may be available. Make it a habit to review the new client list and follow up if you see a client or matter that interests you. More important, make sure you have the experience and skills to contribute to the assignment. Be able to back up your request. 3. Don’t fade into the woodwork — be visible (and I don’t mean “face time”). Even if you are one out of 90 first-year associates starting this fall, don’t try to go unnoticed. Everyone is watching you as a first-year associate and assessing your skills, so embrace the limelight and perform. You don’t want to be an unknown commodity in a firm that values your analytical legal skills. The unknown or mystery associates are often those who don’t survive economic cuts in times of uncertainty. Make yourself known by producing your best work product and getting to know as many people at the firm as you can. If you do good work, your reputation will travel like wildfire and your name will come to the forefront whenever assignments are considered. 4. First impressions are lasting. Your first impression is an important one — so make it good. Obviously, you should always do your best, but you should be particularly mindful of your work product during your first year as an associate. Although you may not know the intricacies of the law, you are expected to focus on the presentation of your written and oral work; thoroughness and attention to detail should be your strong suit. When you are a junior associate, the assigning process is often based on reputation, so having a good one can lead to the more-interesting work. 5. Strive to be one of the associates everyone wants assigned to their matter by giving 100 percent to each assignment. Why is it that certain associates are always busy? Some are continually assigned to interesting or high-profile matters. How do they do it? A corporate associate recently told me that at a deal midpoint, she would ask certain partners about upcoming matters. Usually, there is one she is interested in working on, and she makes it a point to keep that partner apprised of her availability. Because she communicates her interest in a matter, when her deal closes, more often than not she is assigned to that new matter. She likes to focus on a certain client or industry so as to sharpen her skills and build upon her prior experience. The clients like that, too: They save money by using an attorney who is familiar with their business and feel more comfortable dealing with the same attorney. 6. Focus on a particular industry, client, or niche. Start to focus on a particular industry and word will travel fast that you are knowledgeable in that area; assignments in that particular industry will come your way. Don’t be concerned that you are limiting yourself, just read everything you can about the industry and the law surrounding it. When you focus on an area of the law that you have an interest in, you are more likely to read about it in your spare time. A midlevel attorney advised me that he enjoyed corporate work, but in his “other” life wanted to be a rock star (don’t we all). He played in a band in college and thought seriously about pursuing his rock ‘n’ roll dream, but took the conservative route instead. In practice, he decided to focus on corporate law, specifically entertainment law, and now has several clients in the music business. Although he did not become a professional musician, he is involved with bands and new music and is recognized as a specialist in his field. 7. Set professional benchmarks for yourself and be diligent about achieving those goals. You need to take control of your career — because no one else will. Even if you have a mentor at the firm who is accessible and interested in your career, no one else can motivate you or monitor your development like you can. Come up with a plan that measures your progress in six-month increments, and review it on an annual basis. Setting benchmarks for yourself will help gauge where you are in your professional development, and will push you to gain additional experience on a schedule. Every six months, you should make a list of all the skills, projects, or experiences you would like to acquire in the next six months. For example, by the end of my first year as a corporate attorney, I was committed to understanding a stock purchase and asset purchase agreement from the buyer’s and the seller’s perspective. My goal was to be able to dissect each section and understand what I was drafting. I wanted to identify the sections that a buyer would focus on and the sections a seller was not willing to give up. I wanted to understand each section in preparation of the schedules to the agreement, which at the time was my primary function. At year’s end, look back at what you’ve accomplished in order to assess what you would like to accomplish in the future. Setting goals within a time line is a sensible way of charting your career and ensuring your professional development. The side effect is that you will receive interesting work and will be recognized for your enhanced skills as you reach each benchmark. JeanMarie Campbell, a former corporate attorney, is in charge of legal recruitment and professional development in the New York office of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld.

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