March 12, 2015 Articles

Young Lawyers Must Create a Career Plan

Helpful tips for young lawyers for taking charge of their career, whether it be by promotion or obtaining a new position.

By Justin L. Heather

Over the course of most of our lives, we have had clearly defined goals and plans to achieve those goals, whether we have realized it or not. Generally speaking, we all graduated from high school, did well on ACTs or SATs, graduated from college, tested well on LSATs, graduated from law school, and, most importantly, passed the bar. There were planned curricula, organized activities, as well as parents, teachers, and counselors to help along the way. No such structure exists for the practicing lawyer; we must plot our own legal course.

All lawyers have, or should have, their own plan for their legal career. This article is not meant to necessarily determine what that plan should be. Rather, it is meant to provide useful tools for accomplishing your ultimate career goal. Whether it be making partner, opening your own shop, going in-house, or returning to academia, it is hoped that these tips will help you achieve your career objectives.

Work Hard
During my big-law days, we used to joke that “the reward for good work was more work.” While nothing could be more depressing to a young lawyer in the midst of working overnight or on the weekend, what it meant was extremely important. Nothing impresses a boss or senior lawyer more than working hard and producing solid work product. Nor is there a better way to learn the legal profession than to work hard and obtain as many experiences as possible. As a natural result, those same individuals are more likely to “give” work to those who have worked hard, provided accurate advice, and done so without (too much) complaining. So, what is the reward you ask?

If your bonus is based on billables, the answer is obvious. On a related note, in light of the fact that the supply of lawyers far exceeds demand, a little job security can go a very long way. Looking at the matter in more of a long-term manner, however, working hard and impressing those senior to you will be useful when it comes to promotions, meeting new clients, or exploring new career opportunities. As the old adage goes, there is no substitute for hard work.

Find a (Career) Mentor
Many firms and companies have formal mentorship programs designed for newly minted attorneys. If no formal mentorship programs exist, young lawyers should seek out experienced lawyers to provide them guidance and advice. Many of these relationships evolve naturally, and young lawyers should be mindful of this process. These mentors can be invaluable sources of information for succeeding in your current position and may also serve as career guides.

On the other hand, young lawyers might want to consider looking outside their current employment environment for career mentors. For example, if you are a young associate in a firm but want to ultimately obtain an in-house position, you may be more comfortable discussing the topic with someone on the outside. Similarly, if you find yourself in a non-legal role fresh out of law school, consider seeking out experienced lawyers who may help guide your path into a more substantive practice role. Young lawyers should endeavor to learn as much as they can from those who have gone before, and keep in mind that some of the best lessons are learned the hard way.

Build a Relationship Network
The term “networking” is often overused and just as often misunderstood. Networking is not simply walking into a room and collecting business cards, increasing the number of LinkedIn contacts, or being introduced to someone through a mutual friend. More importantly, except in the most rare circumstances, such superficial contacts are neither going to generate business nor help you obtain the right job. Rather, building a network of relationships, one that may be truly valuable for later business development or job search opportunities, requires time and a mutual interest in helping each other.

I recently had coffee with a young lawyer who was experiencing difficulty finding a legal position, having spent several years performing contract work and spending time in non-legal functions. After spending an hour discussing potential jobs, connections, and alternatives, the young lawyer turned to me and asked what he could do for me. His understanding of the need to build a relationship, rather than simply seeing what someone else can do for him, is something we can all learn from. You are not going to become close friends with everyone you meet, but having a healthy, professional relationship is fundamental to building a truly useful network.

Pursue Your Interests, Whatever Way You Can 
For many lawyers, the first job out of law school is not the ideal position, and often it is not even in the right industry. Even for those who find themselves exactly where they want to be directly after law school, they in all likelihood have a better position in mind long-term. Bar associations and networking offer a host of opportunities for young lawyers to learn more about other industries and legal roles. For example, taking advantage of these opportunities is essential for the young law-firm associate who wants to be in-house to gain the necessary experiences for making that move. In the digital age, the Internet offers a wide variety of tools for learning (and even writing) about a particular practice area, industry, or legal role. If you are not where you want to be, do what you can to get there.

Be Flexible 
The legal landscape has changed dramatically in the past decade. Good grades, a solid pedigree, and law review no longer ensure placement in a coveted clerkship or law-firm posting. Likewise, hard work and solid reviews do not guarantee promotion within a firm or organization. In light of this new reality, lawyers must think creatively about opportunities and alternative routes to their desired role.

Remember, no one cares more about your career than you do. Nor is it likely that anyone else truly understands your ultimate career objectives quite like you. While there is no golden five-year plan, and indeed five years may be three or eight, you can take steps now that will ultimately make sure that you remain in charge of your career.


Justin L. Heather, YAC content manager, is with the Quinlan Law Firm LLC in Chicago, Illinois.