October 31, 2018 Practice Points

First-Chair Is on the Horizon: Tips for Launching a Successful Legal Career

By Ariel E. Harris

Like the overall U.S. workforce, the legal profession has undergone significant changes, including rapidly rising numbers of women joining the legal ranks. Indeed, women now make up nearly 40 percent of the legal profession.

Unfortunately, even with this boost in representation, it is no secret that women in private practice still struggle to get first-chair trial experience. According to a 2015 report by the American Bar Foundation and the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession, which sampled 2013 filings in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, women in private practice at large and small law firms accounted for 16 to 25 percent of first-chair appearances. It is clear from these statistics that there is a disconnect that must be solved. Simply put, more women need meaningful seats at the trial table; this article provides three tips which will help young advocates secure their seat.

Prepare Yourself

Journalist Malcolm Gladwell provided that “[p]ractice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.” This quote rings true in the legal profession. If the goal upon entry into this profession is to one day become a lead trial lawyer, then there must be an investment of time and a display of discipline to get there. Becoming first-chair of a trial team requires a lot of preparation because there is a process to obtaining the necessary skill set. Thus, in order to become skilled, inexperienced attorneys should seek out as much trial experience as they can—that means volunteering for trial teams. It can be second chair, third chair, bench trials, arbitrations, contested motions, depositions—all of these opportunities provide meaningful ways to learn aspects of a trial. Pro bono cases often provide great experience to litigators as well. Pro bono matters present less experienced attorneys with opportunities to handle a case in an active role from the outset to the resolution of the matter. Another way to hone trial skills, especially if more experience is desired, is to invest in trial preparation courses like a NITA course. These opportunities provide needed experience and knowledge, enhance a trial resume, and help build confidence and a good reputation among fellow trial lawyers.

Take Initiative

Women lawyers must be comfortable taking the initiative to develop the skills, tools, and expertise necessary to be an effective trial lawyer. Showing initiative includes seeking out assignments to cases instead of waiting for them to come; being enthusiastic about trying anything, no matter how small the opportunity may seem; and being willing to volunteer to assist with tasks that are new and unfamiliar. Furthermore, if positioned on a trial team (as a second or third chair, or lower down the totem pole), one should begin asking for more responsibility each time. Stepping out of a comfort zone with maturity and confidence is a key aspect of gaining credibility, which ultimately helps propel women attorneys to lead roles within their firms.

Seek Mentorship

Mentorship is important in any workplace, and the legal profession is no exception. When choosing a mentor, less experienced attorneys should not limit themselves to just one. Wisdom comes from numerous places, so it should not be expected to come from just one person. Furthermore, mentors should not be limited by gender because every experience is valuable—do not exclude men. It is also important to have mentors within a law firm and those outside of the law firm. There is such a breadth of knowledge to be seized that limiting the scope of where it is obtained may only be a disservice.

At the end of the day, all attorneys have a responsibility to (1) learn the facts of a case inside and out and (2) know the substantive law involved in a case. However, the key to setting yourself apart is preparing to be the most skilled trial attorney you can be, taking initiative, and finding wonderful mentors that want to help you succeed. These tips are a great way to launch a young attorney’s career and help them set themselves apart from the pack.


Ariel E. Harris is an associate at Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough LLP in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Copyright © 2018, American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association, the Section of Litigation, this committee, or the employer(s) of the author(s).