‘Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’
‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat.
‘I don’t much care where —’ said Alice.
‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat
– Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Many of us begin our legal careers like Alice – asking someone else to give us the directions to our legal career. Unfortunately, for new lawyers who don’t know what they want to get out of their legal career, the Cheshire Cat’s answer is all too familiar.
Developing long-term career goals is an iterative process and one that requires much thought and deliberate action.
That’s not to say that you need to have everything figured out on day 1. Au contraire, mon ami. There are some lucky few who have a clear plan in place and are able to begin executing it as soon as they’re called to the bar, but for most people, the road to success (however you define) is rarely linear. Long-term career goals are developed with the benefit of time and experience. For instance, you may begin at a large law firm doing commercial work and realize that you need more client contact to continue developing as a lawyer, so you move to a smaller firm or even in-house to develop those skills. Then maybe you find that you’re not wild about the industry you’re in so you find a position in another industry that is aligned with your interests. Developing long-term career goals is an iterative process and one that requires much thought and deliberate action to ensure that you become a well-rounded lawyer (and person).
For new lawyers, the more important goal-setting task you need to undertake is to determine what you’re going to accomplish in your current position or the position that you hope to secure after your call to the bar. Naturally, your first question may be – how do I do that if I don’t know what is expected of me? Let me put your mind somewhat at ease: you’re expected to become a good lawyer, preferably a great one. Of course, that begs the question of what does being a good or great lawyer mean? What would that look like?
Well, I can’t tell you exactly what that might mean for you, but the number one thing that new lawyers need to do is develop. Develop their skills, develop their judgment, develop their professional persona. And, I’m going to suggest that the best way to do that is to create a professional development plan. If you’re not sure what areas you need to develop, start with your local bar association. The Law Society of Upper Canada publishes the Entry-Level Barrister and Solicitor Competencies as part of the licensing process. This is the bare minimum of what you should know/be able to demonstrate as a new lawyer. Take a look at those lists and see what areas are unfamiliar to you. Undoubtedly, there are some things on that list that you forgot about as soon as you took the licensing exams, so start creating your development plan with those headings.
Now, if you’ve already been in your job for some time and have received feedback about what areas you need to develop: great! Lawyers are notorious for not providing feedback in a timely or productive manner, so be happy that you have a starting point. Start your development plan with those issues. If you’ve been at your job for awhile and haven’t received any feedback – ASK! What are you waiting for? The BIGGEST MISTAKE you can make as a new lawyer if to not ask for what you need, be it feedback or any other kind of support. However, don’t feel that you are entitled to these things. With the exception of feedback, there are many reasons why you may not get what you want and they may or may not be good reasons for you to consider other employment options, but the key here is to make sure you feel comfortable asking for what you need to continue to develop your legal skills. As for feedback, there are limits: don’t ask for feedback every time you send an email. Also recognize that in a busy practice, it may take some time to get the feedback you need. Figure out the best way to ask for it and be reasonable in how/when you ask.
As a side note, if you don’t feel comfortable asking or you’re actually scared to ask, think long and hard about why that might be the case and make it your goal to either a) overcome the fear/anxiety of asking for what you want or b) find a firm or company to work for where you feel comfortable and secure (as much as possible) in your employment.
I will go into more detail about development plans in a future post, but for now, just know that developing your skills and judgment are the key goals for every new lawyer and the development plan is the best way to track your progress toward those goals.
What goals do you think young lawyers should try to develop? What are the key skills that a lawyer should be working on in the first 2 to 3 years of practice? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!