October 23, 2012

Having a Winning First Year on the Job

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 Table of Contents | Features | Frontlines | Technology | Business

September/October 2010 Issue | Volume 36 Number 5 | Page 56

Career Steps

Having a Winning First Year on the Job

Whether you are new to the law or simply new to your current employer, during the first year on the job there is so much coming at you that it is often difficult to determine what’s most important to your success. So how should you proceed

Even amid the day-to-day demands of a new position, you need to stand back and get perspective on what you should be doing to advance your development and enhance your success within the organization. You can be sure that no one else is going to put that planning and reflection time on your calendar, so if you don’t do it yourself, it simply won’t happen. To guide you, here are suggestions to help foster your success during the critical first 12 months.

Getting to Know Your Colleagues

Lawyers new to a firm generally understand the importance of working effectively in their practice area, completing tasks in a timely manner, and making a good impression on their immediate supervisors. Sometimes, though, they fail to understand the importance of building relationships across the entire firm. On two separate occasions I’ve had the privilege of observing an individual systematically getting to know a group outside of a formal work setting, and they are examples of relationship building that I’ve never forgotten.

One was at a two-week professional workshop and the other was in a working group of a not-for-profit organization. In each instance, one individual set out on a mission to hold a separate meeting with each member of the group, which meant setting up one-on-one meetings with 25 to 35 people. Fascinated, I queried both of these individuals about their reasons for doing so. In the two-week program, the member said, “Although there are people here with whom I have little in common, I’m sure there is something I could learn from each person’s experience.” In the separate working group, the participant responded, “We are trying to come up with solutions to a complex problem. Some of these people don’t participate much during our large meetings, but I’m sure they have ideas about how to tackle this difficult task. I want to make sure their ideas see the light of day.”

The lesson? Young lawyers express concern about not being taken to lunch by partners, but rarely do I hear that they have initiated one-on-one meetings with those inside or outside of their practice area. If by the end of your first year you haven’t tried to meet individually with as many members of your firm as possible, you have missed a tremendous opportunity to build relationships in the firm. Especially if your goal is to become a partner, the relationships you grow across all lines of the firm will be important to your long-term prospects. Remember that, early on, marketing is more of an internal than an external activity. You need to market your skills and work habits internally to ultimately be in a position to market them to potential clients.

Managing Your Performance and Reviews

The impressions you create during the first year on the job can, fairly or unfairly, stick with you for a considerable length of time. Nonetheless, you will make mistakes—we all do. How you manage yours when they occur can play a big role in the impressions you make.

If you slip up in handling a task, how can you overcome it? While the “fight or flight” instincts may kick in when you feel threatened, avoid succumbing to them. As soon as your mistake has been realized, either by you or someone you work with, do what you can to rectify the error as quickly as possible. Do not avoid processing the problem with your supervisor. Avoiding your supervisor can make it appear that you aren’t paying attention to mistakes—and that you lack the confidence necessary to receive constructive criticism. The worst possible choices are pretending that the error didn’t happen, or blaming the problem on someone else (particularly support staff). Those responses are unacceptable and can tarnish your reputation forever.

At the same time, while you need to manage your mistakes, you also want to burnish your successes, especially during the performance review process. One of the great difficulties of annual performance appraisals is that often the reviewers will spend the majority of their time focused on your performance of the past month or two, rather than taking the longer view of the entire year’s work. As a result, it is incumbent upon you to accumulate month-by-month information not only on the tasks and matters you have been working on, but also on the more-subtle successes that can help create a positive impression of your performance.

Then, at least several weeks prior to your first annual review, send your supervising lawyer an update on the projects that you worked on throughout the year, highlighting your various successes. Also, don’t be afraid to note areas where you have worked to improve. No one is perfect and your supervisor wants to know you are evaluating all of your work results. Remember that most attorneys truly dislike the review process and the accompanying paperwork. So if you send them a reminder of the good work you have done on their files in advance of their completing forms, you can make the process easier for them. It will work to your advantage.

Earning Extra Credit

While you will be very busy trying to learn your colleagues’ personalities and getting a lay of the land in terms of how things are done, you don’t want to miss out on opportunities to learn at the hands of more seasoned lawyers in your firm. Therefore, as you hear about the expertise of various attorneys in the firm, try to pursue opportunities to observe them in action and to partner with them on projects. While some of those activities may be outside of your expected workload, the initiative that you take will be noticed, and your own skills will grow as you gain experience. And at a time when many firms remain both reluctant to hire and more likely to lay off, it’s a good idea to position yourself as someone willing to put in the time necessary to become more skilled and productive. Going the extra mile, particularly to learn, will be noted.

In addition, don’t overlook opportunities to build your interpersonal skills and the kind of emotional intelligence that will help you navigate the politics of office life. Just as you learn the lore regarding who in the office writes the tightest contracts or conducts the best cross-examination, it is equally important to watch how members of the firm develop good working relationships with clients, opposing counsel and the courts, or how they work effectively with the most difficult partner in the office.

While you might readily seek information about how to hone your research skills, you may not think to ask about how a lawyer circulates comfortably at a client’s social event. When it comes time to develop your own client relationships, however, these skills will be essential, so be proactive about learning them. You will also be signaling to the partners that you are well aware of the importance of business development.

Tending Relationships with Staff

Don’t forget that administrative staff as well as support staff can also play a crucial role in your success within the firm. So take care to treat them with respect and foster good relationships with them. Longtime employees may be especially key. For example, if the senior partner’s secretary has been with the firm for 25 years and you find yourself in conflict with her, whose reputation do you believe might take a hit—yours, or the valued, loyal employer who has been there for a quarter of a century? Similarly, senior administrators may have seen many associates come and go over the years, and it can be just as crucial to make a positive impact on them as it is to endear yourself to a senior lawyer. Remember as well that staff members can be very helpful to you in providing information about how lawyers in the firm want their work done. Their support, or the lack of it, will be an instrumental factor in your development, too.

About the Author

Wendy L. Werner is a career and executive coach and law practice management consultant. She is a member of the ABA LPM Section’s Law Practice Today Webzine Board.