New Lawyer Series: Set goals to succeed

‘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!


New Lawyer Series: Mentors, development and job searching

In their very first podcast, the crew over at interviewed Alan Dershowitz about his book “Letters to a Young Lawyer“. To be fair, I haven’t read the book, but it was an interesting interview and I thought there were some especially great points about mentors, including two red flags:

  1. Lawyers who advise you to do the same things they have done in their career.
  2. Lawyers who do things just because they have always done things, despite the lack of any evidence those things actually work.

These made me think of some especially important points for people who are either a) new lawyers currently looking for work and b) those who just completed the OCI process.

I cannot stress enough the importance of working for someone who believes in lawyer development. You will hear time and time again that, before you can think about honing your business development skills or becoming an expert in some field, you must first DO GOOD WORK. People have to be able to trust your judgment and know that when you give advice, you have done the due diligence and that the advice is based on sound legal principles.

You want to work for someone who will watch you fail (because you will), give you constructive feedback, and MOST IMPORTANTLY, let you try again.

What people don’t often talk about is how, as a new lawyer, you’re supposed to know whether you’re doing good work or not. In the case of trial lawyers, civil or otherwise, bad advocacy is a lot easier to spot than good advocacy. Good advocacy appears effortless and, well, it just makes sense: the logic of the argument is clear and advocate is persuasive. Even if you don’t agree with their position, you will understand their arguments and the facts that are important to the case. The important thing to take away from this is that this is a skill that can be taught and you should be looking to work for lawyers who are willing and able to teach you these things.

You can call them mentors or sponsors or whatever you like, but they serve the same purpose: they’re going to make sure that you’re getting the opportunities you need to develop your skills. Whether it’s drafting particular types of agreements or getting on your feet, you want to work for someone who will watch you fail (because you will), give you constructive feedback, and MOST IMPORTANTLY, let you try again. There are stories in every firm of partners or senior associates who ask for some vague thing, get back work product that they don’t like and then just assume that the junior lawyer is an idiot and vow never to work with them again. If you’re in a large firm, luckily there will likely be plenty of other people to work with, but if you’re in a small firm or working for a solo – you’re going to SOL real quick. Unfortunately, how to manage people, although perfectly teachable, is not something that is currently taught to lawyers.

At the end of the day, the partners are running a business and they can make whatever business decisions they want, including determining that you’re not a good fit for WHATEVER REASON and the best way to make sure you don’t end up in that position is to ask the right questions during the interview process (it really is true that the best defense is a good offense).

I’ll go into further details about what questions you should ask in my next post, but I’m sure there are some that I haven’t thought of, so tell me: what questions have you found to be effective at determining whether you’ll get the guidance and support you’ll need as a young lawyer? Do you worry that asking too many questions might take you out of the running?

Leave your answers and thoughts in the comments!