December 16, 2014 Articles

How to Become the MVP on a Professional Team

By Joy Isaacs

Whether you landed in a firm, an agency or government organization, or a business setting, successfully navigating through the early stages of your career will undoubtedly require you to become a member of a professional team. And if you are like most recent graduates (myself included), you likely do not have extensive experience in this arena. However, mastering this skill early on is critical, as effective collaboration can have a direct impact on the services you provide to a client.

First things first—what do I mean when I say “professional team?” A professional team can come in almost any form and have a variety of purposes. It might be a group of attorneys and staff assigned to a particular case. Or it might be a group of associates assigned to organize the office holiday party. Regardless of the team’s purpose, the common denominator in almost every professional setting is that developing successful teamwork skills is a necessity.

After interviewing a number of “seasoned” professionals from all cross-sections of the legal field, I’ve compiled a set of best practices for learning how to become the MVP on a professional team.

Understand Your Position
Being a member of a team requires coordinated and concerted efforts, so you must immediately figure out what your position is and how it fits into the overall game plan. Although it is easy to get distracted by conflicting demands, do not lose sight of your role in the team. A catcher’s job in baseball is to catch every pitch the pitcher sends his way. Similarly, if the single task you have been given is to figure out how to video conference in the expert witness for a client meeting, make it happen.

In our chosen profession, there is no such thing as over-communicating. The rest of the team needs to know exactly what tasks you have already taken care of and what is still left to do. Conversely, if you are unable to complete a task, communicate this right away so that it can be delegated to another team member. If you feel as if you are over-communicating, you are probably hitting the nail on the head. I cannot emphasize this enough. Communicate. Communicate. Communicate.

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help
You are a young attorney and feel the need to prove yourself. I get it. We have all been there. But asking for help is not a sign of weakness or that you have fallen short of a required standard. Rather, as my mentor often reminds me, a truly great attorney is cognizant of her own limitations.

Follow Through
Doesn’t it drive you crazy when someone says he’ll handle something, and he doesn’t? Every single “seasoned” professional I interviewed commented that she wished “millennials” had better follow-through. This one seems obvious—just do what you say you are going to do. If you have inadvertently bitten off more than you can chew, don’t just ignore a task and hope that it goes away. See my previous points on communication and asking for help.

Show Everyone the Respect You Expect
Members of a professional team will bring different job titles, experiences, and educational backgrounds to the table, and each is invaluable. Learn to respect and embrace these differences as each individual has something of value to contribute. This is especially key early in your career. If you treat people with respect, they are much more apt to go out of their way to help you when given the opportunity. For example, the legal assistant I was assigned to at the firm had over 30 years of experience and a better understanding of the inner workings of the legal system than I did as a freshly-minted law school graduate. On more than one occasion, she has saved me from embarrassing myself by making an amateur mistake in front of a partner. Treat everyone, from the file clerk to the chair of your firm, from the receptionist to the head of your organization, with the same respect with which you would want to be treated.

Have a Sense of Humor
Even though you are undoubtedly working hard to establish a solid reputation as a professional, you can and should keep your sense of humor intact. A well-timed celebrity jab or self-deprecating remark can lighten up even the most stressful situations.

Be Enthusiastic
You just got assigned to a document review that will last four weeks—oh, and did I mention it is in Montana? Get excited! The appropriate response is: “Awesome! I’ve never been to Montana before—this will be a great experience!” All right, you don’t really have to be excited, but at least act like it. Your positivity will not only inspire others, but also will be noticed by those further up the food chain. In a professional environment, you don’t want to be labeled the Negative Nancy. You want others to want you on their teams.

Establish Your Presence
Whether a team has already been put together or it’s only in its formative stages, don’t be shy in letting others know that you are willing and able to contribute to a team. If you are not happy that the only task you were given is to set up a video conference or to do a document review in Montana, do not whine about it. Perform the task given, and perform it well. It won’t be forgotten. Then, next time tasks are being delegated, speak up and let those in charge know that you are ready to take on more responsibilities. As Sheryl Sandberg would say, don’t hesitate to “lean in.”

Keywords: young lawyers, new associates, teamwork, communication, respect, professionalism

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