Starting a career in the legal profession is intimidating. I am consistently impressed by the credentials of my brethren in this job. Whether it is my colleagues at Fox Rothschild, fellow University of Pennsylvania Law School alumni or the various attorneys with whom I interact by networking or litigating, I have found that lawyers tend to be exceptionally bright people with interesting backgrounds and diverse experiences. While the growing number of brilliant lawyers certainly contributes to the prestige of our profession, there are increasing pressures from all sides to stand out from the crowd.
Those who started before us and are now in enviable positions — partners, general counsel, etc. — have set the bar quite high, becoming renowned in their fields and building significant books of business, casting large shadows over young attorneys who are racing to catch up. Those behind us — law students, summer associates, etc. — are working harder than ever to advance in an increasingly difficult job market. Those among us — fellow young lawyers — are vying for experiences that will help propel their careers forward. This creates a dilemma for young lawyers seeking to distinguish themselves.
Whether a law firm associate, a junior public interest or government lawyer or even a sole practitioner putting up a shingle, young lawyers are all looking for ways to increase their experience and grow their practices. Doing so, however, often means venturing into unfamiliar territory, by wading into new areas of the law or handling different aspects of a legal matter. As young lawyers seek to gain experience by tackling new and challenging work in order to develop their skills and showcase their talents, they are often met with the tough task of managing competing priorities while ensuring timely, high-quality work product. Junior and midlevel attorneys, for example, must regularly balance competing assignments from multiple supervising attorneys. Likewise, sole practitioners, senior associates and junior partners who are now advising clients and making strategic decisions must coordinate their matters to avoid conflicts and overlapping deadlines. The practice of law is a service business where your reputation, knowledge, experience and skills are the keys to your success. We are all trying to impress and advance our careers by being everything to everyone. Yet, in doing so, young lawyers can set unrealistic expectations, take on too much and end up in a much worse position.
Personally, I am always looking to take on new challenges. While I began my career as a white-collar and securities litigator, I am now focused on handling cases that span a more diverse spectrum of legal issues. From this, I hope to add depth and breadth to my practice, such that my services would appeal to a wider range of potential clients. Since setting this goal, I have already worked on cases involving contract disputes, employment disputes, defamation claims, products liability issues and legal malpractice issues. I am also taking on more cases that involve Pennsylvania state law issues, as opposed to the federal law issues to which I had been more accustomed.
Likewise, I often seek out new tasks or assignments with which I have little or no experience. In doing so, I am hoping to increase my litigation skill set and become a more seasoned lawyer. For example, I have recently been the first drafter of various legal briefs and court filings, with which I previously had only limited experience. Also, recognizing that I only have a few depositions under my belt, I am actively pursuing cases that would involve more exposure to witnesses and clients. While I am confident in my ability to take on these new challenges, I have found that doing so can often lead to me being stretched thin, which I am still learning to guard against.
Simply doing good legal work is not always enough. Clients, partners and other supervising attorneys already assume young lawyers are smart and hardworking. As technology continues to advance, "fast-paced" is becoming an understatement for how quickly legal matters can progress. Facing pressures to consistently perform at a high level, while balancing competing assignments and matters that meet the goals of increasing knowledge and experience and learning new skills, young lawyers must manage themselves to meet lofty expectations. For myself, I have found that the key to successfully overcoming this prevalent challenge is managing expectations. While this can be a very challenging aspect of being a young lawyer, I have learned a number of important lessons that have helped me better manage the expectations of others, and, as a consequence, take control of my reputation and my career.
First and foremost, organization is key. Before becoming an attorney, organization had always been taken care of for me. In school, there were class schedules, syllabi and frequent deadlines that kept me on top of my schoolwork. This profession, however, has no set schedule. Thus, early on, I knew that I needed to take control of my own schedule, set my own deadlines and not let anything fall through the cracks. However, organization goes beyond just scheduling issues. Recently, I have been working on many different cases at the same time. To ensure that I am correctly prioritizing each matter and staying on top of each assignment, I make sure to keep my desk neat, my files organized and my to-do list updated. These can sound like simple tasks, but letting them slip can create clutter and confusion, and lead you to fall behind.
Second, time management is crucial. Start assignments early, especially if they are something with which you are unfamiliar or inexperienced. In this profession, especially as a young lawyer, we are constantly being asked to navigate unfamiliar waters. By putting even just a few hours into a task right away, you will get a much better understanding of the issues involved. You can then ask any necessary follow-up questions early, before it becomes embarrassing to do so later. Further, you will get a better sense of how long something is going to take you to complete. Estimating time is extraordinarily difficult to do, especially as a young lawyer working on an unfamiliar assignment. However, we are constantly being asked how long we think it will take to finish a task, so that an internal deadline can be set. By starting a project early, you will be in a position to better estimate the time it will take you, and, subsequently, you will better manage expectations and deadlines. Also, I have learned to expect the unexpected in the legal profession, as you never know when the next project or matter will step through your door. Getting on top of an assignment from the start will help prepare you for when an urgent or emergency assignment pops up.
Third, communication is essential. This lesson goes hand-in-hand with estimating your time. In an effort to seek out new and challenging work, young lawyers can find themselves overwhelmed, having taken on too much. It is extremely important to understand your limitations and be brutally honest with those for whom you are working. Overpromising leads to underdelivering, which is never a good outcome for a young lawyer. While prioritization can help balance a heavy workload, it is only effective when everyone is in on it. Thus, keep others regularly informed of your schedule and workload whenever possible. And do not be afraid to say no; you can only do so much.
I have found that clients and supervising attorneys like being updated on my progress, which shows that I am staying on top of the task at hand, and allows them to offer additional suggestions on how to proceed. Check in with other attorneys on your legal team, or with your client, after a certain period of time, which will help manage their expectations of when and how to expect your final work product, and may even result in going another direction with the assignment before more time is spent pursuing a faulty strategy.
Additionally, do not hesitate to ask questions. For example, I have found that it is often helpful to understand the reasons behind internal deadlines, as what seems like a fake deadline may actually have been set because that is the only time a supervising attorney has in his or her schedule to review your work. Lastly, if you start getting overwhelmed, seek out help early, before it is too late.
As young lawyers work to carve out their place in the legal market, it is important to seek out as many learning opportunities as possible, by handling different types of matters, taking on a diverse range of legal issues and working on a variety of tasks. Doing so will increase your experience, making you more appealing to clients and more attractive for internal advancement in your company or law firm. However, keep a long-term view and understand the importance of maintaining your reputation as a reliable attorney. This business is as much about building confidence as anything. Effective organization, time management and communication will allow you to manage the expectations of your clients and superiors, giving them confidence in you and being able to rely on your work.
Christopher M. Varano is an associate in the Philadelphia office of Fox Rothschild who represents clients in a variety of litigation matters at both the trial and appellate levels.