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Navigating the Early Years of Practice

The first years of a lawyer’s career are some of the toughest. These years aren’t only an important time for honing legal skills, they are also essential for navigating into areas of practice and ultimately a firm or organization that is a match for your interests, values, and goals.

In the AMP (Associate Mentoring Plus) program I run, all the mentors have worked at more than one law firm or company. Each of them has a story to tell about making career moves to work in firms, practice areas, and with clients who were the best fit for their interests, strengths, and values.

It is a rare associate who will land their first job at their forever firm or practice area. It is often a process of learning about what works and doesn’t and taking steps to move the practice to where it needs to be.

I have developed a list of questions and five caveats to help junior associates with navigating their careers in these initial years of call:

  • What work most engages you? What work do you get caught up in, lose track of time, and suddenly realize hours have passed?
  • What energizes you? These are opportunities that excite you even though they may be challenging and stressful.
  • What work drains you? This is the work that sucks the energy out of you. The tasks that are hard to move forward, much like pushing a boulder uphill.
  • What are you finding most interesting about your work?
  • How are you able to put your strengths into play at work? If you haven’t had a chance to do a strength assessment, try the VIA assessment of character strengths. You can learn more about it here.
  • How does the firm culture align with your values and what you hold to be important?
  • How does the firm support associates’ learning and development?
  • What opportunities are there for developing positive professional relationships with partners and colleagues at the firm? Having friendships at the firm will positively impact your well-being.

And now for the caveats!

1. Stress isn’t a reliable indicator for career navigation.

A natural part of learning is feeling challenged and indeed stressed. When doing something for the first few times, it is normal to experience a physical stress response. An experience of stress may not be a sign that the activity or type of work isn’t a fit for you. Discern alignment by tracking your engagement and energy levels. For example, one lawyer told me that when appearing in court for the first time in years she felt sick with nerves, but she found it very exciting and indeed loved the experience.

2. Beware of a perfectionist mindset!

Embrace a get better mindset, also known as a growth mindset. Pay attention to your performance today compared to last week. When facing a challenge, ask – how will this help me get better as a lawyer? One associate was struggling with litigation that involved complex financial documents. She was finding it difficult and wondered if commercial litigation wasn’t something she would want to pursue long term. I encouraged her to be curious about what these files would be like for her once she had a degree of financial fluency.

3. Moving firms is less difficult than you might think.

Your value in the legal marketplace rises exponentially between one and three years of call. Yes, securing articles and your first job as a lawyer was tough. Once you are through the first year and have received practical training, the job opportunities open up.

4. It’s not unusual to need to shift practice areas.

As you learn more about the areas of practice you wish to explore or pursue, you may need to make a shift.

Sometimes, you can shift practice areas within your current firm. Other times this will require a move to another firm. The bottom line, you can make it happen with some planning.

5. All law firms are the same – not true!

Law firm cultures vary hugely; a lot depends on the partners. If you are unhappy with your current firm, I urge you to explore your options. I know many associates who have successfully moved to firms with positive cultures.

Finally, if you are interested in shifting in-house, begin by researching the jobs that interest you and take steps to build up a resume with the needed qualifications.

There is so much to say on the topic of career navigation! I am offering a two-part course for first-year and second-year calls on this topic this August and September. For more information, send me an email. You can find my contact information here on my Slaw author page.

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