Thank you for sharing!

Your article was successfully shared with the contacts you provided.
Congratulations! The years of preparation, hard work and discipline have paid off with a law school degree and a first-year attorney position. However, now is not the time to relax. This article suggests actions that every first-year attorney can (and should) take now to have the career he or she wants in the future. It also provides information on what some law firms and other legal employers are doing to help their beginning lawyers develop professionally. Professional success is a two-way street, requiring action on the part of both the law firm and the lawyer. A law firm can help its attorneys achieve success by defining its performance expectations, by integrating those expectations in its practice and by providing professional development support. An attorney can succeed by defining what success means to him or her, by knowing what the firm’s expectations are, by having a plan and following it and by remaining flexible. Before considering the respective roles of law firms and lawyers in achieving professional success, let’s consider what clients and law firms have taught us about what it takes to be a successful lawyer. First and foremost, lawyers must command the law. The good news is that U.S. law schools provide every first-year lawyer with many tools that will be useful going forward, not least of which are knowledge of the law and core skills in legal research, writing and analysis. The bad news is that knowing the law and competence in core or “hard” legal skills are not enough to be a successful lawyer. Successful lawyers also command business acumen and “soft skills,” including practice management, client service, business development and people skills. While the particular mix of soft skills may vary from one legal environment to another, all practice environments require them. Now let’s consider the law firm’s role in helping attorneys achieve success, step by step. The first step that law firms can take to help their attorneys succeed is to define their expectations for success. What particular mix of competencies does the firm expect of its attorneys at given seniority levels and practice areas? Unfortunately, unlike law schools, firms rarely set out for their attorneys the equivalent of major and minor degree curricula and graduation requirements in a nice tidy book for delivery at orientation. That situation is changing, however, as firms recognize that taking the time to define their performance criteria and communicate them in writing makes sense for individual attorneys, the firm and the firm’s clients. By defining a common set of skills, both the attorneys and the firm can better focus their professional development efforts; more efficiently acquire necessary skills and knowledge; and, in turn, better meet client expectations. As an attorney, it is important to bear in mind that firms may employ different terms to describe their requirements, including, “performance expectations,” “development frameworks,” “competency frameworks,” “benchmarks,” “career paths,” “curricula,” “skills guidelines” or “objectives.” In addition, firms may measure not only skills, but also knowledge and behavior. Other differences may involve the way law firms determine their expectations. Some firms take a top-down approach, by having the most senior lawyers set out their expectations for study by more junior practitioners. Other firms take a bottom-up approach, asking attorneys at all levels what they understand the firm’s expectations to be. There also are many hybrid approaches. None of these approaches is right or wrong. What is important is that a firm define its expectations in a way that is consistent with the existing firm management and leadership structure. Performance guidelines that are just copied or borrowed from another firm will not work. Measuring hard and soft skills Despite the differences, there are similarities in the way law firms measure attorney performance. These assessments generally will cover legal, or “hard skills,” development-often by department, practice area or specialty such as litigation, mergers and acquisitions or real estate. These yardsticks will probably be familiar to most young lawyers, as they cover topics addressed in law school-for example, a junior associate might be expected to draft a simple assignment agreement, while a more senior associate is expected to negotiate and draft a complete set of asset-purchase closing agreements. Law firms may also measure business acumen and soft skills, topics rarely covered in law school. Accordingly, performance guidelines that describe how people, practice management, client service and business development skills relate to success as a lawyer can provide valuable insights to an attorney. For example, many first-year associates have heard that firms require one to develop a “book of business.” Performance guidelines can help them understand how to go about developing business and how that “book” relates to the firm’s bottom line. In the first few years of an attorney’s career, most of her time will be spent developing competencies in the hard skills essential to her success going forward. As attorneys progress in their careers, they will have more direct responsibility for client matters and the business of the firm and, therefore, will spend more time developing their business acumen and other soft skills. The second step, once a firm has defined its expectations, is to help associates succeed by integrating those expectations into its practice and culture. The firm’s expectations need to be fully understood and supported by its attorneys. They must inform the assignment of work, provide the basis for regular feedback and performance reviews, and be taken into account in reward and promotion decisions. If there is no buy-in throughout the firm, then the expectations, as written, will have no value. Finally, a firm can help an associate succeed by providing in-house professional development support that is aligned with the firm’s expectations. This support goes well beyond the model of 20 years ago, when one simply was reimbursed for the cost of attending a continuing legal education course once a year. Most firms provide training opportunities, both live and online, on hard, technical topics. Increasingly, firms are also providing training in soft skills. In addition, firms may offer access to developmental resources in the form of traditional or online libraries. Finally, many firms provide professional development support through mentoring, coaching and career counseling. In all cases, the best practice is for firms to clearly align their developmental support to their expectations. Now, let’s look at the attorney’s role in achieving success, which also requires several steps: Step 1: Define success. As Aristotle said, “First, have a definite, clear practical ideal; a goal, an objective.” Before taking a deep dive into the work at hand, each first-year associate should reflect on what success as a lawyer, as opposed to as a law student, means to him, personally. Remember, unlike law school, where the institution defines success for its students, once in practice each lawyer can and must define success for himself. In defining personal success, it may help to think about where one wants to be in five years’ time. It also helps to get as much diverse work experience as possible early in one’s career. Step 2: Know what the firm expects and know how the firm defines success. As we have discussed, some law firms not only have defined their expectations, but have committed these expectations to writing. Where this is not the case, it is up to the attorney to seek information about what is and is not expected of her. This does not mean just asking questions; it means observing and listening actively about what and who are the real organizational drivers and how they affect individual career development. Step 3: Have a plan. As the aviator and writer Antoine de Saint-Exup�ry said, “A goal without a plan is just a wish.” A good professional development plan comprises SMART-specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound-objectives that enable an attorney to advance toward his goals, step by step. Ideally, these steps should be aligned so that one advances one’s personal professional goals and meets the firm’s expectations at the same time. Setting specific goals An example of a SMART goal that might be appropriate for a first-year attorney who needs to develop his public speaking skills might be as follows: Within two weeks from now, identify an opportunity to speak at an internal seminar for 10 to 15 minutes on recent developments in the area of XYZ law. Within four weeks from now, find a live or online course or reference book on presentation skills. Within eight weeks from now, research and prepare the presentation on XYZ law and present it. Step 4: Take action. Once one has a plan, the next steps are to commit the plan to writing, take action to implement it and periodically assess one’s progress against the plan-once a month or so is about right. In implementing a plan, one should refer not only to the firm’s performance guidelines, but also should take full advantage of any professional development support the firm offers. If a firm does not offer much in the way of professional development support, then it is up to the attorney to identify and develop his own professional development support network. While this network might include various live and online training resources, its most important element is a more experienced senior attorney whom one respects and admires and who is willing to act as a mentor. Step 5: Finally, be flexible. As the late businessman Curtis Carlson, founder of Carlson Companies Inc., said, “Consider a goal as a journey rather than a destination.” Life happens and things will change, both personally and professionally. Sometimes these changes will bring opportunities that may exceed one’s own expectations for success. Sometimes these changes will bring setbacks that require one to adjust one’s goals. Carlson also said, “Every year I set a new goal.” In either case, the advice a mentor once gave a first-year associate, just three months into practice and faced with an opportunity to try out a new practice group, is appropriate here: “At any given moment you can only make a decision based on the opportunities available and the information known to you at that time. Therefore, make the best decision you can and know that that very few decisions in life are truly irrevocable.” As a first-year attorney, one may feel both exhilarated by the opportunities and overwhelmed by the high expectations of firms and clients. However, more and more law firms are taking steps to help their lawyers understand more clearly what is expected of them and to provide them with professional development support to meet these expectations. Taking advantage of the professional development opportunities that firms offer while remaining vigilant and flexible in pursuing one’s personal goals are the keys to achieving professional success as a lawyer and enjoying the journey. D. Marie Wagner, an attorney and solicitor, and Kathryn Lippert, a solicitor, are both global directors of learning and development at Baker & McKenzie. Wagner, based in Houston, is responsible for the professional development activities at a global level of the firm’s nine North American offices. She may be reached at [email protected]. Lippert, based in London, is responsible for the professional development activities within the firm’s global practice and industry groups. She may be reached at [email protected].

This content has been archived. It is available exclusively through our partner LexisNexis®.

To view this content, please continue to Lexis Advance®.

Not a Lexis Advance® Subscriber? Subscribe Now

Why am I seeing this?

LexisNexis® is now the exclusive third party online distributor of the broad collection of current and archived versions of ALM's legal news publications. LexisNexis® customers will be able to access and use ALM's content by subscribing to the LexisNexis® services via Lexis Advance®. This includes content from the National Law Journal®, The American Lawyer®, Law Technology News®, The New York Law Journal® and Corporate Counsel®, as well as ALM's other newspapers, directories, legal treatises, published and unpublished court opinions, and other sources of legal information.

ALM's content plays a significant role in your work and research, and now through this alliance LexisNexis® will bring you access to an even more comprehensive collection of legal content.

For questions call 1-877-256-2472 or contact us at [email protected]


ALM Legal Publication Newsletters

Sign Up Today and Never Miss Another Story.

As part of your digital membership, you can sign up for an unlimited number of a wide range of complimentary newsletters. Visit your My Account page to make your selections. Get the timely legal news and critical analysis you cannot afford to miss. Tailored just for you. In your inbox. Every day.

Copyright © 2020 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All Rights Reserved.