Seven Tips to Help New Associates Launch Successful Legal Careers

As a former litigation associate, I know it can take time to get accustomed to a new role in a law firm, to learn the ropes and get comfortable with the job, people and culture of the organization.

Here are seven ways to help expedite the process and help get your legal career off the ground:

  1. Cultivate relationships from Day One. From the moment you start your new job, whether in a law firm or in-house legal department, be open to working with everyone. Take time to learn each person's name and what their role is. Also, make a special effort to get to know the attorneys and partners and other legal staff you don't work with on a regular basis.

  2. Seek out a mentor. It's valuable, especially in the legal profession, to have a seasoned colleague you can rely on to help guide your career. Taking time to cultivate relationships will help you to identify a person in the organization who is likely to be a great mentor. Your employer may offer a formal mentoring program; but if not, take the initiative to identify and form strong bonds with a senior associate or two you can learn from -- it can only help your career.

  3. Ask for feedback. The level of feedback given to associates for their work can vary greatly, depending on the law firm or in-house legal department or even a supervisor's style (don’t assume anything from your manager’s silence). If you aren’t receiving regular feedback, don't be afraid to ask for comments on your work. You’ll show that you’re open to advice on how you can do your job more effectively; and you’ll be able to apply the coaching tips you receive to improve your performance going forward.

  4. Learn how to navigate client meetings. Prior to any meetings with clients, ask your supervising attorney to clarify your role in the engagement. Then follow your manager’s lead during the session. As a starting associate, your task in client meetings will generally be to take notes and observe. These are learning opportunities for you, so take advantage of them.

  5. Under-promise and over-deliver. You'll often observe that new associates who are successful in their budding legal careers also excel at time management. It may take you a while to gauge how much time you require to complete different tasks, but strive to learn as quickly as you can. It’s essential that you make promises you can uphold and follow through on your commitments. So be realistic about what you can accomplish.

  6. Take credit when you've earned it. Public praise in a legal office setting may happen infrequently. But when it does, and a partner or senior attorney goes out of his or her way to say you did an excellent job, don't shy away from the compliment. When you know you've earned it, simply say thank you.

  7. Seek out professional development opportunities. You're the only one in charge of your career and success, so be proactive about finding opportunities for growth. Beyond learning from colleagues and mentors, search for improvement through bar associations, continuing legal education (CLE) credits and professional seminars. As you discuss your career goals with your manager, ask for advice about particular skills you should develop to move towards your long-term objectives.

Don't be the associate who takes years to understand how to advance their career. Instead, be proactive and take advantage of the tips noted above. The short-term benefit of applying these tactics will be to accelerate your success in your current position. Longer term, they can help you develop the professional relationships and insights you need to excel in future legal jobs.

For more information on trends in the legal field, download a complimentary copy of Robert Half Legal's Future Law Office report.