Finding the Perfect Fit: Determining Which Practice Setting Suits You Best
Most attorneys practicing for any length of time have switched settings once or twice before finding the one that best suits them. In my case, I started with a relatively large firm by Nevada standards, worked briefly in a very small firm, and then made the move to my current position as an in-house counsel with a private company. Most of my friends have embarked upon similar employment journeys, with many taking on roles as government attorneys along the way. As attorneys, we all share a common career rooted in the practice of law, although how and where we provide our services can differ greatly.
As an attorney in the early stages of your legal career, you may be wondering which path to pursue and may likewise be looking for guidance on how best to navigate that course. Although I certainly do not purport to have the best answers to questions such as these, I can share some thoughts on what has worked for me thus far in my career:
- Honestly, and continually, assess your career goals. Although this may sound like a no–brainer exercise, it can be a starting–off point for some deeper soul searching. For example, many readers who are currently working as associates in law firms may think that the logical end goal for their career is to achieve partnership status within that firm, end of story. Before ruling out any other potential opportunities, take an honest evaluation of this proposed career path. Are the partners at your current firm not only financially successful but also happy in other areas of their lives? Do you feel that you are being given adequate guidance at this early stage in your career in order to be able to achieve the goal of partnership within a reasonable time frame? Can you see yourself being accepted by the partners at your firm as an equal player whose opinions and contributions will be valued and acknowledged?
If you can answer “yes” to these questions, congratulations! It sounds like you have found a firm that fits you perfectly! If not, don’t panic. Perhaps you should take a moment to reach out to a senior associate for a frank discussion of your concerns. If you don’t already have a partner mentor within the firm, it’s probably time that you sought one out. Or perhaps it’s time to dust off your resume and test the waters. The bottom line is that you owe it to yourself to make sure that you are working in the best possible environment for your continual development as an attorney. You’ve worked very hard in the competitive educational environment of law school to make it this far and you owe it to yourself to ensure that this hard work pays off by best positioning yourself for a successful career. That career may be with law firm or it may not—either way, it should be somewhere you feel appropriately challenged by the work that you are given, valued for your unique contributions and, above all, happy with the overall working environment. After all, as you undoubtedly know by now, you will be spending much more time at work than anywhere else for many years to come!
- Find a good mentor . . . or two! Once again, this may sound like something that goes without saying, but it’s important enough to emphasize again. Having a mentor to bounce career concerns and aspirations off will give you invaluable insight. Experience really is the best teacher, and talking to someone who has already been down a career path similar to yours can result in learning about pitfalls while you still have time to avoid them. An effective mentor can be someone with whom you work, someone from your law school, or a trusted family member. The key to finding a good mentor is finding someone that you trust and with whom you can speak frankly. If you can find more than one person who fits this description, even better! Just like the old saying, two heads are definitely better than one. Soliciting advice from more than one source, especially about something as important as your future career, makes practical sense.
- Don’t be afraid of change simply because it is different. This really is easier said than done. Change is scary, especially if you have been doing things a certain way for a period of time. But that shouldn’t stop you from making a change necessary to achieve your professional (and therefore personal) happiness. Although this phrase has become cliché, it really is never too late to change. For example, I know of an attorney who had commenced his career as a litigator and, after practicing as such for several years, decided that he would rather work as a corporate attorney. Rather than thinking this avenue was forever unavailable to him because he began his career in litigation, he took the time necessary to develop his legal skills in the corporate law arena and became arguably one of the best and widely respected corporate law attorneys in my home state. Life is full of change—it’s what keeps things interesting! You are probably not the same person that you were back in law school, and odds are you won’t be the same person years from today. If you find yourself yearning to focus on a different practice area or move to a different practice setting, take the time to research the steps required to make that transition. If after your investigation you find that you are still interested—go for it!
- Always remember where you started. Every experience in life helps to shape and define who we are today. Likewise, each experience in your legal career will determine who you eventually are as an attorney. Regardless of where you end up, always remember the first law firm/government entity /corporation to hire you. It was that organization that recognized your potential as a new attorney and was willing to take a chance on you, usually without much prior law-related work history on which to base its decision. The first employer you have is most likely the one that will show you the ropes and give you the basic set of skills that you will continue to develop throughout your practice of law. It never hurts to acknowledge this employer’s contributions when you receive compliments on your skills later in your career. Also, maintaining contacts with the people who gave you your first break can help you throughout your career in many ways: these people can act as a referral source and can provide invaluable guidance as needed. If you are lucky, as I have fortunately been, you may even develop genuine friendships with these fellow attorneys that will continue to blossom, regardless of where you work.
Overall, it’s important to remember that the practice of law is more than just a job: it’s a true profession, which means that your colleagues are most likely individuals who care just as much about your development as a professional as you do. As a young attorney, don’t be afraid to reach out to these people for advice—you’ll most likely be pleased with the response!
Jennifer Sloan Hilsabeck is associate general counsel for American Nevada Company, a Greenspun family company that was founded in 1974. ANC is a major developer of commercial office centers, retail centers, master planned communities, and mixed-use projects in Nevada, and is currently developing new planned communities in Arizona and Texas aggregating approximately 7,000 acres. In addition, she is currently a member of the Leadership Advisory Board of the American Bar Association's Young Lawyers Division and has been appointed to serve as a Young Lawyers Division Liaison to the General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Division as well as the Business Law Section of the ABA. Within the GP|Solo Division, Jennifer also currently serves as Chair of both the Young Lawyer and the Corporate Counsel Committees.
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