You didn’t learn it in law school and not many people are talking about it at your workplace, but as a young lawyer, you must recognize that self-promotion is a critical skill for your career success. You can’t just “put your head down,” do your work, and hope that your efforts will be adequately recognized later. Although engaging in self-promotion this early in your career may seem daunting and premature, learning how to effectively promote yourself is an essential part of building your reputation and developing your practice. And the sooner you start, the more opportunities you will create for yourself in your career.
What is effective self-promotion? At its core, it’s about communicating your value and worth as a lawyer to the people around you. While it would be nice if your efforts and talents were readily recognized, the plain truth is you must be proactive, and publicize your experience and capabilities so that others know what you have to offer. Effective self-promotion is a skill that requires thoughtful and consistent practice. This article discusses strategies for how you as a young lawyer can develop self-promotion skills and how to apply them within your organization and in the broader legal community. A comprehensive approach involves finding opportunities to demonstrate your legal skills and expertise, and communicating the positive results you achieve to the audiences that matter.
At the outset, it is important to recognize what is not effective self-promotion. No one wants to be around someone who brags too much or is constantly talking about him or herself. The key is understanding how to confidently inform others of your experience and skills. Which brings us to a critical caveat: your primary focus should be on developing legal skills through action and experience. No amount of “selling yourself” can overcome a reputation for avoiding work and underperforming as a lawyer.
Know Your Audience
Before you can put together your self-promotion strategy, you need to determine who your audience is. After all, the goal is to get others to learn about you. So ask yourself: Who is your target audience? The people you work with? Attorneys in other groups or departments? The leaders of your organization? Other lawyers in your community? Potential clients? Spoiler alert: as you progress through your career, your target audience is all of them. Let’s start in your workplace.
Throughout your career, you need to continually assess who in your organization has the most influence on your career. As a young attorney, this audience is most likely the direct supervisors at your workplace (i.e. partners on your cases, division heads, practice group leaders, assignment coordinators). This group is responsible for assigning you work, evaluating your performance, and making decisions about your promotion and compensation.
First and foremost: they must know who you are. Do not assume they know you simply because you showed up on day one. Introduce yourself, say hello at meetings, engage them in conversation, and invite them to coffee or lunch. In most cases, they will be glad to get to know you better and will appreciate your initiative in reaching out.
Next, build a positive relationship with your supervisors. Do excellent work. Speak up and take on challenging projects. In team meetings, be prepared and volunteer for new assignments. You should not hesitate to take on unfamiliar tasks. View them as opportunities to learn and master a new set of skills. Don’t just hope someone notices you—jump at the chance to contribute. Talk to your supervisors and assignment coordinators and tell them in advance you want to be considered for this work. When you deliver excellent results on projects that expand your skill set, you are building your reputation as a go-to lawyer and potential leader.
Also, take the initiative to move cases forward. Offer to prepare an agenda for team meetings. Suggest ways to organize and share information more efficiently with your team. If you are at a law firm, assist with non-billable projects. If a partner needs help with research for a pitch, raise your hand. Even better, offer your assistance before they ask for it. Let them know you are interested in the work they do, and that you want to help bring in that kind of work.
When it’s time for your evaluation, approach it as an opportunity to remind your supervisors of what you’ve accomplished. Don’t be overly modest and tone down your achievements, or be self-deprecating. Doing so understates your value and creates misperceptions about your contributions. If you wrote a great brief that won the motion, take credit for the work you did. If you organized a successful event that elevated the profile of your organization, tell them about it. Let your supervisors know about what you did and the results you achieved. It can be difficult to remember everything at the end of the year, so take notes throughout the year about notable assignments and key accomplishments.
Although you may come from a background and culture where humility is valued and talking about yourself may be considered shameful, do not let this prevent you from developing effective self-promotion skills. You will be evaluated only on what others know you’ve accomplished, and it is your responsibility to show them the results of your hard work and ability.
Expand Your Audience
Your workplace is not your only audience. Successful lawyers are known and recognized as experts in the broader legal community, and you should develop your own strategy for getting your name out there. A great way to do this is through bar associations and community organizations. But don’t just sign up as a member, get involved. Serve on a committee. Volunteer to work on a project, such as staffing a clinic, fundraising or organizing an event. You will be expanding your personal network and building your reputation as a lawyer and a leader.
Another way to raise your profile is to write an article. Publishing a paper on a topic of interest lets others know you have expertise on that subject. If your article appears in a news feed or pops up on a Google search, potential clients might contact you as a subject matter expert. You also can serve as a panelist for a presentation or a talk. Presenting to an audience not only helps you improve your public speaking skills, but can also further establish you as an expert on the subject. And, the more you publish and present, the more often you will be invited to do so, which further expands your reputation in the broader legal community.
As a young lawyer, it may be difficult to know how to get started. I encourage you to start small and work your way up. If you enjoy writing, approach a colleague or supervisor about co-authoring an article first. This has the added bonus of building a relationship with your collaborator. Once you have published the article, take the next step and give a presentation on the subject. Set up a CLE program at your workplace or submit a program for inclusion at a bar association conference and invite other speakers to join you. With this experience, you will be ready to take on bigger projects, like organizing a conference or leading a fundraising drive. While these are not purely legal projects, they provide multiple platforms to demonstrate you are an effective leader and problem solver who can deliver great results. You will be showcasing your skills to your community and developing your personal brand as an expert and accomplished lawyer. In other words, you will be engaging in effective self-promotion.
Telling Others About What You’ve Done
After you have achieved positive results and built a body of work, you need to make sure people know about it. You may feel embarrassed about sharing your accomplishments. Don’t be. Be confident in yourself and know your value and worth. If you don’t believe in yourself, why should anyone else? Be proud of the work you have done.
To self-promote effectively, recognize what is significant and is worth publicizing. In this era of over-sharing, people who send mass emails about every life event will ultimately be ignored. Focus instead on concrete, impactful results that you delivered. If you win a motion, negotiate a challenging deal, or settle a difficult case, tell people. This is not an invitation to send an “all attorneys” email. Rather, aim for your target audience: your supervisors, your department heads, practice group leaders, maybe even your clients. Describe the problem you faced and how you solved it. And always give credit to everyone who participated—no one respects a credit-hog. If it was a team effort, recognize and give credit to the entire team.
Remember to let others know when you attain important leadership roles. If you are elected to a board, send a short email to your supervisors highlighting how this role is good for your organization. If you win an award or other recognition, tell people about it.
Social media is also a good way to promote noteworthy results. Were you elected to a leadership role in a bar association? Post it on LinkedIn. You can also publicize events where you will be speaking, provide links to articles that you wrote, or share key victories that you and your team accomplished.
And do not forget the importance of your online biography. This is frequently the first place most people, including potential clients, will look to learn about you. Keep it updated and fresh—continue adding key achievements at least once a year. Set a calendar reminder to review and update your biography, maybe around the same time you are working on your evaluation. And make sure your online profiles are accurate and up to date. Having outdated, inaccurate information about yourself is not an effective way to promote yourself to others.
Success in any endeavor requires building relationships—few people have achieved career success entirely on their own. Seek out mentors and nurture those relationships. Developing a connection with a potential mentor takes time and requires you to take the initiative. Invite your mentor to coffee or lunch. Be mindful of their busy schedules and have in mind two or three issues you would like to discuss. Actively seek his or her advice and follow through on their suggestions, then keep them apprised of your progress. In addition, think about what you can do to help your mentor. If your mentor is in your workplace, offer to help them on projects at the office. Invite them to speak on panels or become involved in events that will be useful to your mentor’s career. Nominate your mentors for awards or other recognition. Strong and lasting mentor relationships are formed when you proactively find ways they can help you and ways you can help them.
Mentors can offer guidance as you navigate the twists and turns you will face in your career. As a young lawyer, mentors can help you land choice assignments or client interaction opportunities, as well as connect you with influential members in your organization or community. For those of you who might feel shy about announcing leadership positions or awards, they can spread the word for you, or simply tell people how much they admire and respect your work. And when you want to be considered for a promotion or opportunity, your mentors can advocate for your advancement.
Mentors do not have to be limited to people within your organization. You should develop relationships with people outside your workplace whose voice may have a direct impact on your career development. For example, if you build a good rapport with potential clients by working with them at a bar association, they may send you work or tell your supervisors that they want you working on their cases. They can also provide you with valuable insight about your career choices from their own experiences. Mentors are a vital part of any successful attorney’s development, and you must recognize the importance of partnering with them to effectively promote your value to your network.
Finally, be a mentor to others. You accomplished a great deal to get to where you are, and your experience and insight are invaluable to those who follow. Think about all the things you wish you had known when you were starting out—pass it on. Reach out to younger attorneys, law students, and non-attorneys in your organization and community. And don’t forget to promote your mentees’ accomplishments when you have the opportunity to do so. Effective self-promotion includes growing your network in all directions.
Effective self-promotion is a critical tool for building your legal career. I encourage you to try the methods discussed here and to consider other ways to elevate your profile during these early years of practice. Starting now will put you ahead of the game.
About the Author
Michelle Park Chiu is an associate with Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP in San Francisco, is a director-at-large of the Asian American Bar Association of the Greater Bay Area, and is a 2016 Leadership Council on Legal Diversity Fellow. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.