Advice to a Young Lawyer - Three Key Steps To Building Your Professional Career

I recently had lunch with a young attorney with a local IP firm to discuss her career goals. We were paired through a mentor program. I find it a pleasure to chat with attorneys at the start of their careers, when everything is possible.

During our lunch, she asked for my thoughts on the three things every young attorney needs to know to be a success in private practice.

The three keys to success? A provocative question. I've been a lawyer for over twenty-five years, and to repeat an old joke, I still don't have it right, that's why I'm still practicing.

I knew that wasn't what she wanted to hear, so after some thought I came up with my list of three. This advice applies to all fields of law or other professions. The steps are simple but not easy. But they can be fun. Good luck.

1. Become a good lawyer.

This is your first job. Learn all you can about your area of practice. Get all the experience you can handling matters of clients. Treat the partners you work for as if they are your clients. Communicate. Be responsive. Provide good work product. Know the latest case developments. Anticipate needs. When reporting on a problem, propose a solution. In short, learn to be a great lawyer. You have to have the knowledge and skills necessary for the job.

2. Network.

Practicing law is a relationship business. It's not enough to have knowledge and skills. You need to know people. And people need to know you. Keep in touch with classmates. Meet other young lawyers. One may end up general counsel for GE. Treat opposing lawyers with courtesy and respect. Conflicts happen and result in referrals to good lawyers who keep in touch. Get involved in a civic groups: community, school, church, whatever. Get involved in professional associations: ABA, local bar, state bar, etc. Participate, don't just join. Keep in touch with the people you meet. Excellent lawyers are overlooked everyday because no one knows them.

3. Build credentials.

What you know and who you know is important, but it's not enough. You also need to establish a reputation as an expert. It's a given that you're a good lawyer, that's the starting point. You need to establish credentials so that your network of potential contacts can justify recommending you to their companies and others. Write, teach, speak, chair committees, win cases, whatever is the best fit.

If you can make it a habit to do each of these things in the early years of your career, you'll be well on your way to a successful career, as a partner, leading your own practice, or running an inhouse legal department, whatever your goal.

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