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Tips for young lawyers for a fulfilling career

By Paul Mark Sandler
BridgeTower Media Newswires

fulfilling_mainA beginning lawyer may feel the practice of law is overwhelming. But being an attorney requires that you assume the responsibilities of a true professional, as well as a business person, minding the economics of law practice and meeting the challenges of unending demands. The overwhelming nature of practicing law will never change, so do not expect it to. Each year that you continue to be engaged in our honorable profession, you will assume more responsibilities and the demands placed on you will grow. But with experience and maturity, you can learn to confront these ever-expanding challenges and master them.

Here are some tips to consider as you embark upon this journey.

Develop a personal career plan

During these first few years of practice, as law school becomes history, consider what field of law interests you most. Plan how you can undertake the work you relish and think about how to attain your objectives. Create a personal timeline covering several years — at least three or perhaps even five. Include subjects you seek to master, experiences you hope to have, education programs you plan to attend, and books you want to read. You can even include future articles you would like to write.

After identifying what you want to accomplish, focus on developing opportunities to get there.

Your goal may be to remain where you are practicing now or to obtain valued experience and then move on. But on to what? That is for you to figure out, and figure it out you must. Review your plan each year to assess where you are and whether you are headed where you want to go. Gain insight by talking to others, such as a mentor or other trusted advisor. Then modify your plan accordingly.

What is important is not to flounder. Within your work environment, take command of your own life. Sometimes when you are not doing the work you prefer or you are in a law environment that does not suit you, the next best thing is to strive to get where you desire to be. Worst is to accept the status quo as fate, and flounder. Take control of your career.

Find a mentor outside of the office

Paramount in the development of your career is securing a mentor, preferably outside of the office. Just as you might choose a guide to show you the way when traveling to a new place, so too can your mentor lead the way through the maze of lawyering. A mentor can provide guidance in addition to the guidance you receive from colleagues and senior partners where you work.

A mentor outside of the office provides confidentiality — and objectivity — and avoids any possible conflict inherent in an employer–employee relationship. But whether outside or within your work environment, the value of a mentor cannot be overstated.

Outstanding mentors can be lifelong advisors, friends and even saviors when you run into seemingly insolvable career problems. They can serve as sounding boards for both legal issues and issues at work, and they can provide career advice and serve as references for you.

Do not be shy to initiate repeated contact.

Conduct yourself professionally in the office

Presenting yourself in a professional manner at the office is critical. Be enthusiastic about your work and the people around you. When given assignments, smile, be gracious and accept the work with alacrity. Do not turn down work unless necessary or because of office protocol. Treat partners and supervisors with respect.

As an associate or junior attorney, the partners or supervisors you work for will frequently approach you with questions or tasks that they may not have time to research or resolve themselves. Treat these assignments with attention and care. Do not assume that supervisors will check your work or correct any legal mistakes you make. Even if they are reviewing your work, do the necessary research, focus on the question or issue presented, and offer the answer to the very best of your ability.

Do not be afraid to ask questions. Many senior lawyers would rather have you ask a question than redo hours of work. Remember you are both on the same team representing the client. If on a deadline for another attorney, speak up and ask for clarification.

Ask when the project is due and in what final form it should be. Chief Justice John Roberts has a standing rule that, if he does not specify when a memorandum or project is due, it is automatically due in 10 days. Comply with the deadline or ask for an extension before the last day. Before you submit your work, proofread — and then proofread again. Sometimes reviewing a day or two after writing something is the best way to catch mistakes.

Be a team player and offer to assist a colleague who is looking for help with a project. You may need the favor returned someday.

From time to time, shut down your electronic devices. Leave your office and speak to colleagues.  Participate in office activities. Consider that even in today’s world of electronic communication, you do not want to be known for sending excellent emails but being unable to communicate in person. Cultivate the art of conversation. Look people in the eye and give a firm handshake.

Remember to dress appropriately for the occasion. Consider with whom you are meeting. Certainly some occasions require more formal attire and others less.

Learn from your mistakes, hopefully as we all should. As you strive to perform your work excellently, you will make mistakes. When you do, be proactive by acknowledging them, learning from them and moving on. Acknowledging your mistakes demonstrates that you understand the significance of your error, are open to constructive criticism and accept the professional responsibility that lawyers bear.

Seek knowledge and stay current with the law

There are limitless resources at your disposal to improve your mind. Read and reread the Rules and Statutory Provisions Governing Your Practice; Rules of Procedure: State and Federal; Rules of Appellate Practice: State and Federal; the state Code; the U.S. Code: Rules of Civil and Criminal Procedure; Local Rules for federal courts; the Discovery Guidelines of the Courts; and the Rules of Professional Conduct.

Keep current on legal developments by setting aside a regular time to catch up on your legal reading. Consider reading Virginia Lawyers Weekly (excluding this column, of course!) and other periodicals such as the ABA Journal and national legal journals (e.g., The American Lawyer and National Law Journal). Attend CLE programs to help you become a better lawyer.

Discover the Inns of Court, an organization that meets monthly for dinner and programs relating to law, and become a member in your jurisdiction. You will learn much and acquire new friends. Membership is comprised of associate members (young lawyers), barristers (senior lawyers) and masters of the bench (“old timers”).

Webinars are another excellent way to keep current on legal developments. Have lunch with a few colleagues and watch one.

Remember, keeping current with developments in the law also involves keeping current with changes in the rules of court.

Paul Mark Sandler practices law in Baltimore.