You’ve had your legal assistant, paralegal, or first-time associate position for a couple of years and have received positive and encouraging annual performance reviews. You think you’re ready to advance — and believe you’ve earned the opportunity. But before you have a chance to talk with your manager about being considered for a more responsible assignment that you’ve heard is available, a senior partner announces that one of your colleagues got that promotion instead.

What can you do to differentiate yourself from your colleagues so you can advance in your career? How can you more effectively demonstrate the leadership capabilities that law department and law firm management are looking for and the value you bring to the organization?

Here are five strategies that can help legal professionals earn recognition in the workplace and proactively advocate for their advancement opportunities:

1. Do work that’s assigned and do it well.

One of the mistakes I’ve seen made by relatively new associates is that they’re not accomplishing what their managers have asked them to do to the fullest. Time after time, I’ve seen employees volunteer to take on assignments they think will impress their boss — often to the detriment of performing their regular work assignments. If you want to distinguish yourself, the most important first step is to excel and shine at the work you’re assigned. Make sure to accomplish what you’ve been hired to do exceptionally well.

2. If you’re struggling, ask for help.

If you’re having difficulty with assignments — due to lack of understanding of what’s expected or workload pressures or time constraints — whatever the reason, ask for assistance. Too often, I’ve seen employees try to mask poor performance by spending time on non-core work rather than trying to get answers or direction to improve their execution of regular assigned projects. No one has all the answers, especially if you are new to the practice. So ask questions and seek advice from your manager or perhaps a trusted mentor who can give guidance on ways to provide quality legal work on a consistent basis.

3. Take on “extracurricular” work.

Once you are regularly delivering exemplary work on assigned duties, you may have time to take on additional responsibilities that can earn you positive recognition from senior leaders within the office. Perhaps volunteer to spearhead an office-sponsored community event, participate on an office committee, head up a pilot project to test out new software, or propose and manage a team-building office activity. Keep in mind that your organization wants to be successful, to grow the business and be profitable. So look for opportunities to cast a positive spotlight on your firm and also demonstrate your value to the organization, leadership capabilities and business acumen.

4. Hone your interpersonal skills.

Do you have strong interpersonal skills to build and sustain effective relationships inside and outside the law office environment? If not, work on developing and honing these soft skills, which include being able to listen effectively as well as communicate information clearly and concisely, both in writing and orally. A number of other soft-skill capabilities are indispensable in legal careers and especially in leadership assignments in the law profession, such as teamwork and collaboration, resourcefulness, flexibility, confidence, diplomacy, adaptability, and self-initiative. By demonstrating solid interpersonal expertise along with requisite legal knowledge and skills, legal professionals can readily distinguish themselves from their colleagues.

5. Don’t be in a rush for advancement.

I often caution associates who are anxious for advancement to not be overzealous in their efforts to move up the ladder. Employees are not well received if they’re being disingenuous and self-promoting — colleagues and managers can tell. On the other hand, when someone takes action for the betterment of the organization, the community or the overall practice — that’s when an individual is noticed in a positive light. And just because your boss may not come and pat you on the back every week to say you’re doing a good job, you should understand that your efforts are being recognized, and your actions are also reflecting positively on your manager, which is always a good thing. 

For more tips on advocating for legal advancement, see “How to Get Noticed — and Promoted — in Your Legal Career.”