Now that Fall has arrived, many of you who graduated from law school last year are approaching one-year of practice or maybe more, depending on whether you had a post-bar position lined up after graduation. This milestone provides an often-neglected opportunity for you, as a new lawyer, to perform some self-assessment and career planning that will help you continue to move forward in your career and prepare for your year-end review. Whether you are a brand new attorney or a young lawyer with two or three years in practice, consider delving into the following four areas for a do-it-yourself career assessment.
Take stock of the type of work you have done from your start date until now. Do you see a pattern? For example, have you now moved from writing legal memos to writing legal briefs? Upon looking at the trajectory of your assignments, you may discover that at the beginning of your work with the firm, you simply listened in on client calls, but now you are expected to prepare for, speak during and contribute to them. Ask yourself if you like the direction in which you are going. If you are, reach out for even more complex work assignments. Teach yourself to crave feedback and try to refine your work with each project. If you find that you are doing the same tasks with little variation, take the initiative to ask the partners for different types of work in the same practice area or a related one (provided you have done well with the work you are currently assigned.)
If you have not already begun to do this, go back through your calendar as well as your sent email messages or your case list and make a note of all your accomplishments from this past year. With the busy lives and heavy caseloads handled by most young lawyers, it is easy to forget all that you have done over the year in the rush of moving on to the next case file. Did you author an article that appeared on your firm’s website or Linked-in feed? You should save a copy of that article so you can use it as a possible writing sample or be able to easily point to it at your annual review as an example of how you went above and beyond in your work. Did a portion of your legal memo appear in a partner’s winning motion? You should note the case, the subject matter of your analysis and the overall result of your written contribution. Perhaps a motion to dismiss was denied based on your opposition brief, or a jury instruction was adopted using your proposed language. Get in the habit of charting your results and using this outcome-based information to update your resume or negotiate for a raise at the end of the year. Whatever successes you earned, whether large or small, keeping track of them can help you see your progress and feel good about the contributions you have made to your firm. Keeping track of your assignments will also provide insight on practice skills or areas that you have not yet tried, but should.
There are a few attorneys at every firm who will impress or perhaps inspire. Observe them. If they are participating in oral argument and you have time to stop by court to watch, even for a few minutes, do so. Ask them questions about their cases or about their pathway to the law. You do not need to plan a lunch or coffee break to do this. Simply walk down the hall and ask sometime. Also, you do not need to ask all the questions you have in one sitting. Stop in regularly and make a friend, or maybe even a mentor, by showing your interest in their work style and in their practice. Ask how they built their practice so you can begin to construct your own personalized professional roadmap.
Now that you have had time to reflect on your first year and know: (1) what work you have tackled; (2) the areas or projects in which you excelled (or did not); and (3) the leaders in your organization whose work habits or styles resonate with you, make a concrete career plan and actually implement that plan. Be sure to set a realistic timeframe in which to complete the professional goals you set for yourself, otherwise they will remain undone. For example, is the partner you want to work for a member of a local Inn of Court or on a particular bar committee? Volunteer to join that group and get to know the partner better, especially if you do not work in her practice group. Or, what if you want to practice deposition skills? The SDCBA hosts a nuts-and-bolts Continuing Legal Education series geared specifically to new lawyers. Put some of those fundamental courses on your calendar and then make them a priority to complete.
It is never too late for self-assessment. Looking back on your first year of practice and setting achievable, incremental goals based on what you have done and still need to do will give you direction and help you achieve satisfaction with your current and future career path in the law.