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June 2017

Recognize you’re being watched, and 9 other tips for minority associates

On an episode of “Sound Advice,” sponsored by the ABA Section of Litigation, Victor P. Henderson provides career tips in “Top 10 Strategies for Success for Minority Associates.”

“It’s imperative you develop strong legal skills to become a stellar practitioner,” says Henderson, a former executive partner with Holland and Knight in Chicago and now a partner with Henderson Parks LLC in Chicago. “In most legal communities, the prominent and successful lawyers are also good community citizens.”

He provides the following tips:

1. Be somebody. Join bar associations, work on your business development skills and volunteer time at a local school or tutor disadvantaged youth. “You will be surprised how giving to or doing for others will result in good things happening to you,” Henderson says. “Don’t just be a lawyer who spends all of his or her time in the office. It will work to your advantage in the short and long run.”

2. Always produce and submit your best work product. Never submit work without proofreading it and don’t assume that labeling a document as a draft will cause an assigning attorney to overlook mistakes or problems. You never want partners, associates or opposing counsel to think you don’t take pride in your work. “It’s better to be late with good work than on time with bad work.  But, ultimately, you want to be on time with great work,” Henderson says, adding that if others in the firm think you don’t care about your work, they may stop giving you assignments or eliminate you from their referral list.  

3. Find a mentor. Mentors are people who are further down the career path than you and who have often experienced some of the challenges you are facing. “There are a lot of people willing to give you advice, share their experiences and help you develop as a person and legal professional and gain access and opportunity,” he says.

Ideally, you should form relationships with 3-5 people who can help you navigate your career path, he advises. For example, young, black female associates should look to senior black female attorneys for guidance. However, Henderson says, you should not limit your mentors to people who look like you, especially if you are working in a majority white firm. He also recommends finding outside mentors. “The universe of good advice is not limited only to the lawyers who work at your particular firm,” he says.

4. Take ownership of your career. It’s your obligation to seek professional training and development and take ownership in advancing in your career goals. “The time at your law firm should benefit you,” Henderson says. “The more you invest in your career, the more you will get in return on your investment.”

5. Be willing to go the extra mile. Partners and others will judge you on your attitude and willingness to go the extra mile, not just on the quality of your work. Partners are prone to assigning work to associates they can count on and have a positive “can-do” attitude. “You can offer to write the client status letter even if you haven’t been asked to do so, volunteer to cover the court-call or to review the 10,000 page document that has just arrived,” Henderson says.

6. Recognize that you are always being watched. Henderson says whether you know it or not, your colleagues are always watching you. Partners, secretaries, mailroom attendants and everyone in between will pay attention to when you arrive at work, when you leave the office, how you dress for work, how you speak and how you interact with others. “Your colleagues can and will form favorable opinions of you and use these opinions when making decisions on assigning you to a case, asking you to join a board or in presenting you a favorable opportunity,” Henderson says.  He gives an example of how the reverse is also true.  “If you keep a messy office, someone may conclude that you are not well-organized, or lack organizational skills.”

7. Communicate. A cardinal sin associates often commit is failing to communicate. “It’s critical to have strong communication skills. When you are given an assignment, be sure to ask enough questions to obtain a clear understanding of it and the assigning attorney’s expectations – including assignment details, timelines and deadlines,” Henderson says. If you are unable to make your project deadlines, inform the appropriate persons as soon as possible. Most partners have been associates, so they understand the responsibility of having multiple assignments that are due simultaneously.

8. Be proactive. Don’t wait for good assignments to magically come to you. “The law firm is a big place and there may not be enough good work to go around,” Henderson says. Maximize your chances for success by proactively seeking what you want, whether it is a new case or a change in practice groups. “Don’t be passive in waiting for golden opportunities to miraculously appear on your desk because it usually does not work that way. Be persistent, assertive and diplomatic.”

9. Be prepared for the ups and downs.  The practice of law is difficult. Some days you will have too much work and on other days you will not have enough. “You will have partners who love you while others will make you run the other way,” Henderson says. This is part of the profession. Don’t panic when you hit a bump in the road.

10. Believe in yourself. Law firms can be intimating places and you are bound to come across partners and associates who are less than kind. Sometimes they can make your life difficult. “From time to time, you will be tested at your law firm,” Henderson says. “When you face these tests, never doubt yourself or your abilities. It does not mean you don’t have to work hard to become a great lawyer, but you already have the skills and abilities to become a great attorney.”

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