“Ten things every young lawyer should know”… “What a young lawyer should do right now” … “Things I wish I’d known as a first year associate”… These are just a few of the titles found in a Google search for “what young lawyers should know.” A lot of good advice for new and young lawyers can be found on the internet. It should go without saying that doing great work is a must, but many experienced lawyers will attest that great work has never been the determining factor for success in a law career.
Thousands of new lawyers write well, research thoroughly, and put in the hours. Yet many of these people find themselves stagnating in their careers after only a few years. The mistake they make is focusing solely on the technical competencies necessary for lawyers, while giving short shrift to the relationship building and mastery of soft skills that an upward trajectory demands.
Like everyone, partners and other senior lawyers gravitate toward those who appear confident, who demonstrate competence, and who make a good impression. And most importantly, they gravitate toward those who make themselves indispensable. In short, they have an ideal colleague in their heads, and meeting that ideal is the goal. So, what does that look like?
First, a young lawyer must brutally self-assess to ensure she is ready to be a true professional colleague to more senior lawyers. This means dressing appropriately, speaking confidently, and presenting yourself as a peer, while at the same time being mindful of your position in the hierarchy, being readily available at all times, and most importantly anticipating the senior lawyer’s needs.
It is not enough to do everything that is asked of you, rather you must make yourself an invaluable right hand to those that matter and can make a difference in your career. This is the secret sauce that is never articulated: identifying and earning the trust of a champion makes all the difference.
Many firms, particularly large ones, welcome their new associates by assigning mentors—ostensibly someone who can provide advice and guidance. Mentors are great, but they usually are assigned randomly based on practice area or firm hierarchy (i.e., senior associates assigned to junior associates, partners to associates within their practice group), and they generally have no personal investment in the protégée’s advancement. While they can help navigate the newness of the firm environment, these are not the people who are going to advance a lawyer’s career.
The most important relationship to nurture is one with a person of stature who will put themselves out on your behalf. What does that mean? It means identifying a senior lawyer whom other lawyers respect, and cultivating a professional relationship with them. Do this by being available, reliable, anticipatory, respectful, and eager to make this person’s professional life easier. The more your partner can rely on you, the more they will invest in your success, both within the firm itself and as a lawyer. And such an investment pays tangible dividends. As Kenneth O.C. Imo explained in his 2013 Law Practice magazine article, Mentors are Good, Sponsors are Better, “Sponsors can do everything that mentors do but also have the stature and gravitas to affect whether associates make partner. They wield their influence to further junior lawyers’ careers by calling in favors, bring attention to the associates’ successes and help them cultivate important relationships with other influential lawyers and clients—all of which are absolutely essential in law firms.”
Once you have proven yourself, this sponsor or champion will advocate for you with other partners; will actively seek out development opportunities for you; and will run interference on your behalf when something inevitably goes wrong on a case or in relationship with other lawyers. And that is the key: young lawyers need their own advocate within the firm.
Such an advocate or champion is especially vital for young women lawyers and lawyers of color. Notwithstanding the changes in legal demographics over the last 20 years, the vast majority of partners in law firms continue to be white men. As we all tend to gravitate toward those who are most like us, the white male paradigm perpetuates itself via an informal sponsorship. For this reason, all savvy young lawyers must realize the onus is on them to be proactive in finding a sponsor.
Firms are notorious for assuming that women partners or partners of color will do the informal sponsorship for their younger counterparts, but this assumption does a grave disservice to both those partners and the young associates. First, the generally small number of partners of color could not possibly assume responsibility for all the young diverse lawyers and maintain a successful law practice. Second, this assumes that gender or color is the defining characteristic that binds an entire group of people, completely ignoring characteristics like temperament, background, school affiliation, and others that create affinity groups. And finally and most germane, white males continue to be the group in power, thus they must be expected to assume the roles of sponsor or champion for the vast majority of young lawyers because they have the influence to facilitate advancement.
For all the gentility and dignity that define a law firm environment in the popular imagination, firms are brutally Darwinist when it comes to advancement, particularly in this day and age of tighter profit margins and more tenuous client relationships. While unspoken, “one strike and you’re out” holds true for almost every professional interaction with a senior lawyer. Rarely do partners give young associates a second chance once faith is lost. Identifying and cultivating a relationship with a respected partner who can advocate on your behalf and champion your place in the firm is a vital part of surviving and thriving as a young lawyer.
About the Author
Susan Brooks is an attorney and management consultant with over 25 years of experience in law and legal administration.