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Professional Development

Taking Charge of Your Legal Career

Blair James and Crystal Jackson-Kaloz


  • We spoke with several attorneys—both men and women, in the public and private sectors, at various stages in their careers—and they offered this advice to new attorneys.
Taking Charge of Your Legal Career
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Whether you are right out of law school or you have been practicing for a few years, you look for ways to take charge of your career as a new attorney. But, what exactly does it mean to take charge of your career? And does it mean something different for new women attorneys?

To answer these questions, we spoke with several attorneys, both men and women, in the public and private sectors, at various stages in their careers. From new and midlevel associates to partners and retired professionals, they offered the following advice to new women attorneys. While addressed to women attorneys, much of their advice can apply to all new attorneys seeking to take charge of their careers.

Go the Extra Mile

When you go the extra mile at work, people notice and pay attention. No matter where you are in your career, it’s important to always produce good work. By building a good reputation from the start, you will impress colleagues, employers, and clients. While women are more likely to encounter coworkers or clients who doubt their competency at some point in their careers, establishing a track record of rock-solid performance garners attention and respect, regardless of your gender. The attorneys we spoke with provided the following tips for ensuring that you do your job well:

Leave your ego at the door, and do not be afraid to take on small assignments.

Even small jobs add value to you and your employer. However, be mindful of the type of roles you volunteer for in group projects and the type of assignments you take on. For example, new women attorneys should be cautious about taking on too many assignments that place them in stereotypical roles. Instead, volunteer to help with assignments that showcase your strengths, skills, and leadership abilities.

Learn to say no and do not overextend yourself.

If you do not have the capacity to execute an assignment properly, it is okay to politely turn down work. Ask if there is any flexibility with the deadline, find a peer who can assist, or delegate to a subordinate and supervise their work.

Ask questions.

If you are not sure of an answer or need clarification on the details of an assignment, ask. Your supervisor would prefer to answer your questions now than to have to ask you to redo an assignment later.

Ask for help.

If you are having trouble researching an issue, do not be afraid to ask a law librarian, paralegal, or another attorney. Most people are very willing to assist.

In addition, part of going the extra mile includes being someone that other people want to work with. You want to build a reputation of being likable and trustworthy by treating every person you encounter, from the cleaning person to the managing partner, with respect, friendliness, and tact.

Be Confident

To succeed in the legal profession, confidence matters just as much as competence. Without confidence, it is significantly more difficult to perform the necessary duties for the client, the firm, or the profession. In general, the attorneys we spoke with felt that new women attorneys are less self-assured than their male counterparts.

Having confidence in who you are as a legal professional begins with the hiring process. You studied hard in law school, passed the bar, and gained valuable experience through associate positions or clerkships. Do not undermine your gravitas. Instead, follow these rules:

  • Do not be afraid to talk about yourself and make it obvious why they should hire you.
  • Do not raise your voice at the end of a sentence. It will make you seem unsure of yourself.
  • Do not start sentences with “well” or “um."

As you progress in your work, continue to show confidence by taking charge of certain opportunities in the office—add value to each discussion you have and take diligent notes. Ensure your face is seen and your voice is heard. One of the attorneys we surveyed provided the following example in which you can exude confidence in your abilities and work:

Seek a Mentor

Finding a mentor—someone you can emulate and learn from—is a crucial part of professional development in the legal field. Although you may be assigned a mentor at your workplace, this person may not necessarily be the best fit for your professional development, and it may be advantageous to seek an additional mentor, even if it is outside the workplace. An ideal mentor can be someone who possesses a strong skill set that you may lack, someone who is a strong attorney you admire, or someone who has a similar background to your own.

Establishing a relationship may require taking initiative and stepping outside of your comfort zone, but can sometimes occur organically. For example, if a senior associate or partner offers to meet with you or get coffee, seize the moment to build that relationship and learn from that person. If these moments do not occur naturally, ask someone to be your mentor. Although it is intimidating and out of their comfort zone for most new attorneys, there is no harm in asking. In fact, even if your desired mentor does not have time to mentor you, he or she will be impressed that you asked and may recommend a colleague who has more availability.

Establishing a healthy mentor relationship can be a gift to both you and your mentor. Remember to respect your mentor’s time: prepare an agenda, schedule a meeting, and come prepared with questions. In addition, do not lose your own identity through your relationship with your mentor. Do not try to imitate your mentor. Take the positive lessons you learn and incorporate them into your own personality, making you a stronger yet unique legal professional.

Leverage Your Experiences and Your Community

Take charge of your career by pursuing volunteer work experiences that will help you develop professional skills outside of the legal area. You can volunteer for an additional project at work or get involved with the American Bar Association, your local bar, or a community service organization. Participating in these organizations will give you the opportunity to take something on, own it, and succeed or fail, all of which can ultimately help you succeed in your career.

When you volunteer for projects, whether at work, a bar association, or a community service organization, do not become overinvolved to the point that your work suffers. Do not lose sight of your primary goal: being a successful lawyer and strong advocate for your client and employer.

Determine Your Ideal Fit

Part of building your career is finding the right workplace and, if you are already working, determining if it is still the right fit. Some of the attorneys we spoke with found themselves in roles where they discovered that they were not doing work that they wanted to do or it made them unhappy. They advised that you routinely take the time to ask yourself: Am I happy here, and am I getting what I want out of this position? To determine if the fit is right:

  • Take the time to think about what you want to be doing.
  • Determine what you want and need out of an employer. For example, are you being challenged, or is there potential for promotion?
  • Research. Don’t just research the area you want to work in, but also research an employer’s reputation and culture.

Even if you are happy with your current position, review your accomplishments and determine if your professional goals are being met. It is a great habit to develop.

Don’t Be Afraid to Move On

Don’t ever be afraid to make a change or pursue new opportunities. If you determine that your current position is not a good fit or if you feel that your opinion is being overlooked or undervalued—it is time to move on. For women who feel as if their voices are not being valued or considered, the attorneys we spoke with advised that it is not worth it to try to change a long-established firm culture; instead, find a better organization.

If you have determined that it's time to move on, reach out. Contact former classmates, coworkers, and employers. This is where having a reputation for producing good work comes in handy. If you have a reputation for working hard, producing good work, and being likable, people will be happy to recommend you for or offer you a job within their organizations.

However, it’s important to remember not to burn bridges. Burnt bridges lead to bad references and missed opportunities for future favors. You may find that the grass is not always greener and discover that you were happier than you thought with a previous employer. If so, don’t be afraid or ashamed to go back. Many people leave employment and come back a few years later.

Dealing with Discrimination

Because new women attorneys may experience blatant, subtle, or even institutionalized discrimination, they need to develop good wisdom and judgment regarding how to handle these situations and respond appropriately. For example, if a client or opposing counsel assumes you are a secretary or if a coworker makes a sexist comment, do not be afraid to speak up and politely confront that person. Although this is not always successful, it is a good place to start. For additional resources that empower women lawyers to take control of their careers, visit the Women in the Profession resources page.