Few if any of us accidentally stumbled into the legal profession. Becoming a lawyer takes planning, preparing, and completing a number of (seemingly never-ending) challenges. From studying for and passing the LSAT, to filling out endless law school applications, attending (and surviving) law school, completing internships and summer jobs, studying for months for a bar exam, passing a (or multiple) bar exam(s), filling out job applications/drafting resumes, interviewing for hours (probably days or weeks, if you add up all the time spent), and landing a job. And that’s if all goes according to plan. But after we enter our profession as young lawyers, for whatever reason, many of us back off from diligently planning our careers (I know I’m guilty!).
Sure, we all plan in the abstract to make partner, go in-house “down the road,” enter into academia, start our own firm “someday,” dive into politics, or work just long enough to pay off student loans… eventually. We think that if we work hard enough, success will come. And it may. But why be passive about our career paths and risk failure?
As a young lawyer, creating a professional development plan can be a game-changer. Below are tips others have shared with me as I’ve created and refined my professional development plan, a process that has simplified my work life and sharpened my career focus. But first, do you need a professional development plan?
Why a Professional Development Plan is Important
Having a plan is important for every attorney. Why? We all have highly marketable skills. No matter the area of law in which you practice, you (or someone else, if you’re fortunate) invested a not-so-insignificant amount of funds, time and effort into your education and success to date. You deserve a return on that investment.
During your first several years as a lawyer, you typically control little about your practice (including your workload, your assignments, and your clients). As a young lawyer, you’re likely beginning many new things all at once: a new job; transitioning into the workforce (or, for some, transitioning back into the workforce); developing a professional identity; learning practical legal skills, and calibrating a new work-life balance. This all may be overwhelming at times. Your professional development plan is something you can control and provides stability for you as your career evolves. Creating a plan also creates a career path. A professional development plan provides you with a sense of direction and allows you to imagine and design your professional future.
Creating a Professional Development Plan
Drafting a plan seems daunting at first (I’ve been there). There is not a one-size-fits-all formula for developing a professional development plan. Each plan is as unique as the attorney who creates it. To get started, here are some helpful tips others have shared with me as I’ve drafted and refined my plan.
You still have a demanding job to do, and you have to be excellent at it. A good professional development plan builds on itself and evolves, so don’t try to do it all at once. Progression doesn’t have to be linear, and it’s ok to meander a bit, especially at the beginning of your career. Of course, if you have clarity about your exact career path, that’s great too. Creating and implementing a professional development plan is not just about what you say you’re going to do; it’s about taking action and making it meaningful.
Make It Personal
Lawyers must possess certain universal skills. Among other things, we must be able to communicate effectively, think critically, and be persuasive advocates. Within those capabilities, we all have individual strengths and weaknesses. What’s more, some of us are extroverts, others are introverts, some are a blend: extroverted introverts or vice versa. Find what energizes you and what drains your energy. Do you like going to “traditional” networking events like happy hours and chatting up people you may not know, or does that sound like pure torture? Do you seek opportunities to speak in court or would you rather not? Do you enjoy writing, or speaking, or teaching, or all three? Rank your work from favorite to least-favorite tasks, and write down how you can strive to maximize your favorite work and minimize your least favorite. Any reasonable answers you come up with are fine, so long as they are sincere—your answers will provide insight into who you’d like to be as an attorney. In turn, these conclusions will shape your professional development plan.
Define Core Areas Important to You/Your Mission
Identify critical areas of focus. Excellent client service, developing a local and national marketing plan and contributing to a collegial work environment may be most important to you. You may value developing a pro bono practice, desire to break into a specialty area of practice or commit to community service. Whatever the conclusions, design your plan to touch on all of your passions, and create specific goals for each area.
Collaborate With Others
Asking for input on your professional development plan is a great way to identify potential mentors and sponsors. Reach out to practitioners you admire to ask and understand how they succeeded. Talk to your contemporaries at other firms and businesses, and law school friends about their practices and goals. Don’t forget to pay it forward—when the time is appropriate, pass along all the knowledge you’ve cultivated to younger attorneys.
Making a professional development plan is not a “set it and forget it” exercise. To make your plan work for you, you must review it regularly. Review it quarterly on a formal basis with another person and monthly on your own. During these check-ins, assess the prior month or quarter in terms of how many hours you worked and what type of work were you doing during those hours. Which cases or assignments generated the most excitement? What events or extracurricular activities did you find most invigorating? Are your goals still important and realistic, and, if not, why not?
Find Your Excitement!
If you’re not excited about your plan and goals, you will have trouble finding the motivation to pursue them. Challenge yourself to design a professional development path that you think will get and keep you enthused about your career.
A Good Professional Development Plan Can Simplify Your Work Life
Despite the initial outlay of effort and time, creating and following a professional development plan can simplify your work life. I’ve seen this play out in many ways, but all fall under three general categories: 1) you have a framework to follow; 2) the plan provides clarity; 3) staying on plan saves time and reduces stress.
First, a plan is your blueprint that demonstrates what you value. After designing your plan, you’ve identified actions you believe you should be taking to accomplish goals important to you. Now just do them—easy!
Second (and this was a big one for me), having a professional development plan gives you permission to say “no” to certain things. As a young lawyer, it is very tempting to join every group and organization, attend every event, and become involved in activities simply because you’re asked to get involved. I won’t tell you not to do that if you find that energizes and motivates you. For those who don’t find that level of involvement energizing, however, having a sense of your career path empowers you to tailor your activities to your specific goals on that path. If it doesn’t help to achieve a goal, politely declining is an appropriate and healthy response.
Finally, and most practically, having a plan and checking in periodically has helped me write my annual self-assessments. I am never at a loss for words when it comes time for my annual review. I have my professional development plan handy, heavily annotated with what I’ve accomplished throughout the year and what I aim to accomplish in the following year. If for no other reason, the amount of time this saves me during the holidays drafting my self-evaluation makes my professional development plan absolutely worth it.
About the Author
Jennifer L. Cree is an associate of Landis Rath & Cobb LLP in Wilmington, Delaware, where her practice focuses on corporate bankruptcy and restructuring, bankruptcy litigation and corporate litigation. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.