In addition to doing copious amounts of excellent legal work, lawyers who wish to progress in their careers have a few extra tricks up their sleeves.
- Have “the talk”
A crucial step to getting ahead is to find out exactly what you need to do to achieve success in your particular organization. Sit down with your sponsor, if you have one, or your mentor, or supervising attorney, or all of them, individually. (If you don’t have a sponsor or mentors—or know the difference between the two—start by researching those terms and building that network.) Tell them you want to advance within the organization and ask, “What do I need to do?” The Powers That Be need to know that you want to move up in the firm and are willing to do what it takes to get there. Find out what legal skills you need to acquire, what “soft” attributes you must exhibit, and who needs to see your work. Get the blueprint and follow it!
- Expand your horizons
Look for opportunities to expand your practice capabilities and connections with the important people in your firm. Volunteer for assignments outside your usual orbit to stretch your skills. Look for opportunities to work with lawyers in other departments and offices of your firm. Be the person who says “yes” and follows through.
If, in your current position, you cannot get the skills or exposure to the partners you need to succeed, be prepared to move within your organization or to a new firm if necessary. Think global: If your firm or company has international operations or clientele, you might improve your chances for advancement by learning cross-cultural business practices and some language skills. Taking that initiative sets you apart from the pack.
- Create a niche
Developing a specific area of expertise and excelling at it is another way to differentiate yourself from your colleagues. Keep abreast of changes in the law and the marketplace, and become a key player by developing a new practice or enhancing an existing area of expertise for the firm. Read up on those issues and attend any CLE programs available. Ask those who are assigning work to allow you to handle at least some aspects of any matters in the areas where you wish to develop specialized expertise.
Also, note which areas of practice are growing in the marketplace in general and in your firm in particular. There’s more room for advancement in a hot practice area than in one where there’s little work for the existing partners.
- Don’t become irreplaceable
Beware of becoming irreplaceable, however. The upside of no one else being able do what you do, or knowing what you know, is that when times are tough and layoffs loom you’ll have a better chance of hanging onto your job. The downside is that, in good times when there are more advancement opportunities, you’ll be too valuable to the firm exactly where you are.
You want to be open and available for all options to advance your career. Thus, in most cases, you want to document, share, and systematize your knowledge, train others in skills only you possess, and keep all your matters updated for smooth transition should the need arise.
- Be ready to jump
To springboard ahead, you must be willing to lay aside your pre-conceived career plans to grab an unexpected opportunity. Many successful business leaders attribute a high percentage of their success to luck. The real skill is to recognize a great opportunity when you stumble upon it, and be prepared to maximize it. You must plan, and revise your plans, as events unfold.