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Student Lawyer

Professional Development

Professional Competencies: Your Key to Success in Law School

Tamara Patricia Nash


  • Professionalism goes beyond compliance with the Rules of Professional Conduct (or avoiding legal malpractice and law-breaking).
  • Organization can make or break your career.
  • Communication is an art rather than a science. It takes a lot of practice.
Professional Competencies: Your Key to Success in Law School

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Law school spends the bulk of time teaching us legal doctrine. Yet when we graduate and embark on our first legal jobs, we’re expected to know much more beyond the black-and-white letter of the law. We’re expected to be the master of an array of skill sets, including many professional competencies we were never explicitly taught and often have never been exposed to.

This realization surprised me when I, a first-generation law graduate, embarked on my first legal job, a judicial clerkship. Now, having practiced for 10 years, I’d like to share tips and tricks I’ve picked up during my legal journey—some small and some big, but all relevant to your experience as a law student and eventual member of the legal profession.

First, I’ll begin with this baseline: It’s OK not to know everything the minute you graduate law school, especially very nuanced things that fall into professional competencies like effective communication, networking, professionalism, mentorship, career advancement, and organization. With every experience, you’ll learn and grow and add more to your toolbelt.

With that said, let’s jump into a few pointers I wish I knew before starting my legal career journey.

Professionalism Is More Than Rules

Professionalism goes beyond compliance with the Rules of Professional Conduct (or avoiding legal malpractice and law-breaking). While professionalism isn’t defined in the Model Rules of Professional Conduct, to me personally, it means working skillfully and effectively and advancing a set of moral beliefs, such as justice, fairness, and compassion.

As you advance in your legal career, you’ll be able to flesh out your professional identity and values and how you define professionalism. I encourage you to embody professionalism through big and small acts, including:

  • following all rules of conduct and rules of the profession
  • seeking guidance when you’re uncertain of a course of action
  • being mindful of how you engage on social media
  • introducing yourself to everyone you encounter with equal respect
  • observing office culture and communication styles and adapting appropriately
  • minimizing workplace distractions, including the use of your cell phone

Organization Can Make or Break Your Career

Once you begin your first legal job, you’ll realize that staying organized is important. This means keeping track of your notes, files, deadlines, and clients. I learned the hard way that deadlines can and will sneak up on you if you’re not diligently tracking them.

I encourage you to learn your office’s filing system. If there isn’t one, create your own for your files. Also, create a process for taking notes in meetings and then incorporate those notes into your client files. Trust me; you don’t want to be caught in court or in a meeting unable to remember the details of a plea agreement or settlement because you failed to write it down or, worse, opposing counsel attempts to pull a fast one and you’re unable to check their statement against a written record.

Next, I encourage you to learn to live by your calendar, whether paper or electronic. Your calendar is an extraordinary tool—when you use it. It helps track deadlines, meetings, reminders, and important events all in one place.

I keep my calendar color-coded. For example, everything has its own color: work meetings, bar association meetings, reminders, personal matters, miscellaneous appointments, etc. I even schedule daily breaks in my calendar so I don’t accidentally overbook myself and burn out.

Finally, I encourage you to keep track of all substantive projects you work on in a work log. This is incredibly helpful to track your workload and stay on top of the status of your cases.

Strive to Communicate Effectively

First, know that communication is an art rather than a science. So it takes a lot of practice. Communication is the linchpin that connects lawyers to their clients, enables them to advocate effectively, and helps them navigate the complexities of the legal system. It’s essential for presenting arguments and persuading judges, juries, and opposing counsel.

Some tips I’ve picked up along the way are:

  • Set expectations from the start.
  • Communicate early and often.
  • Listen, listen, and listen.
  • Offer feedback.
  • Ask questions and make suggestions.
  • Show empathy and curiosity.

When it comes to email communication specifically, I encourage you to:

  • State important information at the outset using the subject line.
  • Address the email appropriately and use formal titles (for example, Dear Mr. Jones, Hello Judge Jones).
  • Use a greeting and closing.
  • Communicate any necessary action or answer to a question in the first sentence.
  • Separate multiple questions or multiple answers into numbered paragraphs.
  • Check for tone, which can sound very different than it would in a letter or personal conversation.
  • Reread and edit your email before you send it; don’t put in an email what you wouldn’t say to someone in person or what you don’t want to be held accountable for in the future.
  • Be aware of reply all, carbon copy (CC), and blind copy (BCC) and their purpose.
  • Include a signature that identifies your full name and your title.

Network with Sincerity

Networking isn’t about mindlessly collecting business cards and asking strangers for a job. It’s about making real, genuine connections with people, and it’s important for long-term success.

As you look to build and cultivate relationships, know that you can network anyplace and anytime—with past employers, alums of your school, bar associations, CLEs, through volunteering, and so much more. Remember, when it comes to networking:

  • Seize every opportunity to make a meaningful connection; you never know when it’ll pay off.
  • Take advantage of bar associations and volunteering; the more you put your name and face out there, the more your professional reputation will grow in the legal community.
  • Prepare for each event by researching who will be attending.
  • Always be authentic.
  • Remember the basics, such as a firm handshake, making eye contact, and thanking people for their time.
  • Master your elevator speech.
  • Follow up after you make the initial contact with a brief and warm email.

Carve Your Path to Career Advancement

As you progress through your legal journey, you’ll inevitably ponder how to advance your career. This can be tricky because there’s often no blueprint or set path. However, I’ve learned that the following tips have been helpful:

  • Solicit and welcome feedback as much as possible. This requires that you’re receptive to learning and that you make yourself available when your supervisor is, as well. Remember, don’t take feedback on your work personally.
  • Cultivate an “I Love Me” file in which you document all your substantive work (including trials, major projects, initiatives, and major clients from every job) and all your major accomplishments and compliments. This will be a helpful reminder when it's time to request a raise or promotion.
  • Be courteous to everyone, from custodial staff to the judiciary. When necessary, send thank you notes to those who’ve helped you out (for example, if the clerk flagged a mistake in your filing that saved you lots of time and your client money, send a brief thank you note).
  • Look for opportunities that advance your professional vision and goals and leave you professionally fulfilled (don’t just do what you think is expected of you). Know that finding the right fit in the right place is worth it.