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After the Bar

Career Resources

Complete This Task before Starting Your First Legal Job

Kelli Lynn Lanski


  • Starting with a clear vision of future job roles, lawyers should outline a major goal and a related six-month mini-goal. 
  • Regularly assess progress and adjust goals as necessary. This approach applies even if staying at the current job is the goal. 
  • The strategy is valuable at any career stage, offering a framework to drive advancement and build a strong resume. Reflection upon reaching big-goal jobs reinforces accomplishments.
Complete This Task before Starting Your First Legal Job
Jacob Ammentorp Lund via iStock

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The big day is here—you made it through college, the LSAT, law school, the bar exam, interviews, and you are finally ready to begin your legal career.

If you’re like most recent grads, you have probably done some preparation before your first day on the job. However, you may not have done one small thing that can make all the difference to your legal career: planning for what’s next.

Nobody Cares about Your Career as Much as You Do

Many young lawyers find themselves a bit adrift without another goal laid out for them. It’s on you to create the career and life you want. You may have wonderful bosses, mentors, and sponsors, but the trajectory of your career is ultimately in your hands. The earlier you start to think about where you want it to go, the better.

A New Job Is Exhausting

After years in school, transitioning to a nine-to-five schedule can be rough. You’re learning new legal concepts and skills, adjusting to new office culture, and trying to make a great impression on your new boss and coworkers. Once you start working, it might be challenging to find the time and mental bandwidth to step back and think, “Is this what I want to be doing long-term? Where do I see my career going in the future?”

Where Do You Want to End Up?

Before your first day of work, spend some time thinking about where you want your career to end up. What kind of job do you see yourself having in 5, 10, or 20 years? Maybe thinking 20 years ahead is too much for you. That’s fine. Think about a job you’d like to have in the future.

Write it down. This is your big goal. You may have one or several big-goal jobs during your career.

Now think about a small thing you can do in the next six months to work toward that big goal. Think of this as your mini goal.

Create Your Mini Goals

Your mini goal can be a small step or a little more ambitious. Here are some ideas:

  • Conduct online research about your big-goal job.
  • Attend a bar association or networking event related to your big-goal practice area or field.
  • Attend a CLE on a topic relating to your big goal.
  • Write an article or client alert on that topic.
  • Find an alum from your law school working in your big-goal job or industry and ask them to meet for coffee to talk about their career path and job responsibilities.

For example, I recently chatted with an incoming litigation associate at a large law firm, and her ultimate goal is to move into a compliance role at a company. In the first six months on the job, her mini goal might be to team up with a partner at her firm and write an article about corporate compliance issues.

Track Your Progress

Once you have your big goal and your mini goal written down and saved, open up your calendar and input some reminders.

In Three Months

  • Did you complete your mini goal? Great. Now pick another mini goal. Write it down, give yourself a deadline, and add it to your calendar.
  • Haven’t started yet? You’ve still got three months. Look at your calendar and block off some time to work on your mini goal next week.

In Six Months

  • Time for another progress check. You should have met at least one mini goal by now.
  • Take a minute to assess your big goal. Is it still working for you? Or have you changed your mind?
  • Maybe the associate in my example wrote an article relating to internal company investigations. It confirmed her interest in compliance issues, but she realized she wants to work on them from the government’s side of the table. She records a new mini goal to write a client alert focused on regulator guidance in the next three months.

Write your new goals in the same document as your initial goals so you can track your progress in one spot (and one day, marvel at where you ended up as a senior attorney compared to where you thought you’d be). Moving forward, continue to schedule progress checks in three-or-six-month intervals, adjusting your big and mini goals as needed. This means that at least two times a year, you’ll be putting some thought into your overall career goals and taking concrete steps to reach them.

Changing your mind and your goals is fine—the purpose of this advice is not to create a rigid plan you must stick to forever. The point is to start brainstorming early in your career to help you make better, more informed decisions later. At the same time, you’ll be building a great resume and set of experiences that will give you the confidence to go after whatever job or big goal you set for yourself. And your future employer will have concrete evidence of your interest and experience.

What If Your Current Job Is Your Big-Goal Job?

By the way, if your goal is to stay at your current job for the long term, this advice still applies to you. Let’s say the associate in my example wanted to stay at her first law firm and make partner. Her mini goals might include specific skills she wants to learn, individual attorneys she wants to work with, or bar association committees she wants to join. All these goals are building her profile and expertise within her firm and community for eventual promotion.

It’s Never Too Late

Even if you’re already a few years out of law school, this advice still applies to you. It is generally easier to make time to think big picture when you have fewer total demands on your time, but it is never too late to plan for your future.

No matter how many years you have been practicing, when you do reach a big-goal job, pull out your goal document and take a moment to reflect on and celebrate your path and progress.