This will be one of the most challenging years of your professional career. You have chosen a profession in which there is little room for error and where reputations and relationships are a critical component of success. You have already demonstrated the technical skills to become a successful practitioner and are now officially a first-year associate.
Unfortunately, being a great lawyer requires more than just good technical skills. Lawyers with good “soft skills” are more likely to stand out as premier practitioners. Demonstrating sound work habits, communicating effectively with others and establishing a solid reputation all require strong soft skills.
Recognizing the importance of soft skills and devoting the appropriate amount of energy to developing them will ease your transition into law firm life, help distinguish you among your peers and build the foundation for a long and successful legal career. Here are some soft skills that will serve you well through the early months of your career and beyond.
This may seem obvious, but it is one of the most common mistakes made by young lawyers. Being present means being available to those around you at all times and being engaged in your work and your environment. Are you constantly on your iPhone or BlackBerry in the halls and during meetings? Do you engage in Gchat at work? Do you listen to music in your office? Do you have headphones on when you step into the elevator every morning? Is your office door always closed because you are buried in your work?
You might claim to be a skilled multitasker and say these distractions do not affect your attention or the quality of your work. While that may be true, these habits do in fact create the perception that you are distracted and not fully engaged in the work you are performing. Take the earphones out, turn the music off, avoid the urge to check Facebook every 10 minutes and keep your office door open. You want people to perceive you as completely focused, dedicated and available at all times. You will quickly discover that the more present and available you appear, the greater the opportunities available to you.
DO NOT COMPLAIN
As a junior attorney, you may be given work that makes you question the value of all of your law school training. Document reviews will seem endless; traveling for weeks on end will take a toll on your personal life; having all your meals paid for will get old. Do not complain about it — at least not where others can hear you, and definitely not in email. Most new lawyers have to pay their dues by working seemingly endless hours on projects for which they are less than passionate. Complaining about it will only annoy those who have had to suffer through it before you. Furthermore, there will likely be others in the trenches with you and complaining to them will only make the situation less tolerable.
It may not be easy, but try to make the best of it. Nobody wants to work with someone who complains all the time. It’s bad for morale, it’s bad for productivity and it’s bad for the positive reputation you are trying to establish. Performing well on the less glamorous projects will generally lead to opportunities on the more exciting ones.
PROFESSIONAL EMAIL ETIQUETTE
While at first glance it may seem easy, proper use of email can be one of the more difficult skills to master. Email is best used for answering a quick question, making a record of a conversation or sending a brief status update. Email is not ideal in situations where you want to convey any sort of emotion, solve a complicated and nuanced issue, or in situations where you would not want the communication to be shared with someone else. Once you hit send, you have no control over where the email will end up. It may not go further than the intended recipient’s inbox or it may be forwarded to several people you never imagined reading it. Always keep emails professional, as the person you are sending the email to might forward it to other attorneys or even clients.
Always double-check who you are sending the email to before you hit send. Mistakes related to unintended recipients are some of the most common in email communication. It will happen to you at some point in your career. Be aware of it and make it a habit to double-check the “to,” “cc” and “bcc” fields before sending. Also make it a habit to read the entire string of an email chain when forwarding something. You never know what could be lurking deep down in an email string. Use caution and common sense when forwarding anything.
Finally, you are strongly encouraged to avoid colloquial language, emoticons and unnecessary exclamation points. I can honestly say that I have never received an email from a partner or a client containing an emoticon. Do not use them in professional communications. Thanks!
DEVELOPING PROFESSIONAL RELATIONSHIPS
Before you have your own clients, some of the most important professional relationships will be with your assigning attorneys. Treat them as you would a client. Formality and deference are important. Their time is literally more valuable than yours at this point, so do not waste it. Arrive early and overprepared for all meetings. Be direct and concise in your interactions. Your job is to support them in order to best serve the firm’s clients.
Developing strong relationships with paralegals, secretaries and other support staff is also a critical component of your success and requires strong interpersonal skills. You will quickly learn that it takes many people to serve clients effectively. Most of the partners at your firm probably don’t know when the last mail pick-up is or how to electronically file something with the courts, but all of the firm’s secretaries and paralegals do. The support staff possesses a wealth of knowledge about your firm, the legal industry and even your clients. They deserve the utmost respect and professional treatment. Developing strong relationships with them will help you accomplish your objectives more efficiently and effectively.
WORKING WITH ASSIGNING ATTORNEYS
You have just been called to meet with an attorney regarding your first assignment. Now what? It may be some time before you are given your own case to manage. Your first few assignments will likely be discrete projects on large matters. The most important thing for you to do is to gain a clear understanding of the context of the assignment. Understanding the assignment within the framework of the entire matter will help you deliver the most useful work product. Do you understand what the client hopes to achieve? Do you know how much time you should spend on the assignment? What is the deadline? Should your work product be in the form of an email, a memo or just an oral report? If you do not understand something, ask. The worst thing you can do is spin your wheels and bill unnecessary time to a client. It is always appropriate to ask how much time the assigning attorney expects a given task to take so that you can establish parameters for your work. Make sure you understand the assigning attorney’s expectations for the final work product (structure, format, etc.) and the deadline so that you can prepare accordingly.
Now, take ownership of the project and run with it. Always be prepared to give the assigning attorney updates on your progress. Do not let a week go by without checking in — even if there is little to report. Demonstrating ownership of an assignment instills confidence. Never ask a question if you can find the answer yourself. If you encounter a problem that you are unable to resolve, raise it with the assigning attorney, but be sure to offer some possible solutions. Doing so demonstrates that you have thought through all of the options and have made a reasonable attempt to solve the issue independently. If you demonstrate the ability to manage your assignment efficiently and effectively, you will be given greater responsibility on the next one.
You should generally accept all work opportunities. Being too busy is not a reason to turn work down, unless you are physically unable to complete something within the allotted time. If you turn work down too many times, people will stop asking and you will soon find yourself longing for the days when you were busy.
You will make mistakes during the course of your first year. The most important thing to do after making a mistake is raise it with your supervising attorney. Trying to clean it up yourself could lead to bigger problems down the road. Minor mistakes can become very costly errors if resolved improperly.
BUILDING YOUR PROFESSIONAL REPUTATION
Protect your reputation at all times — it can make or break you. Avoid situations that might compromise it. Reputations are built or destroyed by word of mouth. Establishing a reputation within your firm may take some time, but word will travel quickly after your first few assignments. Never submit anything short of your very best work. Remember that others will be relying upon it. Simply being available for assignments can also impact your reputation. People will start to view you as a team player and someone who can be relied upon.
While building your reputation in the community is important, you should focus first on networking internally, as this is a critical component of building your reputation. Start immediately. Get to know your firm and its practice areas, learn everything you can about the firm’s clients and their industries, and get to know your colleagues. In doing so, you are building the foundation for strong marketing and client development skills. Keep abreast of legal developments and current events that might affect your firm’s clients. Use the resources available to you within the firm. Do not wait until you are up for partnership to finally start working with your marketing department. It takes time and effort to network, but it is arguably as important as performing excellent legal work, because if you do not have a source of work — internally and/or externally — you will find you have nowhere to showcase your excellent technical skills.
You will face many challenges in the first few months of your career, but if you keep these soft skills in mind, you will quickly establish yourself as a valuable resource, a team player and, above all, an excellent practitioner who adds value to the firm and its clients.
Katherine LePore Hamill is director of recruiting and development at Stradley Ronon Stevens & Young and is responsible for overseeing the recruitment, retention, training and evaluation of nonpartner timekeepers and staff. Her development responsibilities include managing the associate evaluation and compensation process; developing policies and procedures for associates; acting as a liaison between the associate body and firm management; and developing the firm’s professional development training programs for associates.