Some people love practising the Law, and would never want to do anything else. Others feel trapped and wish they could get out. Still others find themselves sidelined and wonder why. Here are eight tips to help you to climb the ladder of success.
1: Choose the right ladder
The job market for graduates is really competitive. You're probably tempted to take any job you can get, thinking that you can switch to another field of practice once you've got some experience. The trouble is, you can quickly become typecast in whatever field you happen to fall into, and switching can be incredibly difficult. After a year or two of Personal Injuries you decide you would prefer to work in Property. I'm prepared to start again at the bottom, you reason. The problem is, the bottom is now crowded with new graduates, and they're all cheaper than you! Plus, a firm looking for a Property lawyer with two years' experience will want someone with two years' solid Property experience. It's unfair, but true. Choose wisely. Get advice. Do some work experience to try out different types of law. Know what you really want and put in the effort to find that, or at least something closely related, that will provide a stepping stone to your ideal role.
2. Don't do it just for the money
They say Law is the second-oldest profession! If you hate the work you do, money won't compensate. You won't have time to spend it. You only get four weeks' holiday a year. For the rest of the year (that's 235 days not counting weekends) you'll be in the office by 8 am and counting your billables. A pay rise is a bit like a hit of retail therapy - you feel great for a couple of days, then the effect wears off. If you don't have an intrinsic interest in what you're doing, in a few years you'll be burned out, bitter and twisted. Find the sort of work that gives you a buzz, and clients you like working with. Find out how you can be more valuable to them, so they'll seek you out repeatedly. They might even say thank you at the end of the job!
3. Allow your individuality to surface
If you were a 22-year old lawyer it would be ridiculous to act like your middle-aged boss, wouldn't it? But that's what I did. I wrote like him and spoke like him. Well, it worked for him, didn't it? But guess what, it didn't work for me! People can smell a phony from miles away. You may feel too young, insecure or inexperienced, but putting on a professional mask gets in the way of developing productive professional relationships. If you want people to do business with you, be natural, be yourself, and let them see what you alone have to offer.
4. Ask for feedback
No one likes criticism. So why on earth would you ask for it? Because no one likes giving criticism. It's hard for them to broach the subject with you ! Make it easy for them - it's the only way to find out what they're thinking. Never assume that no news is good news - one day you may get a nasty shock. You must be specific in your questioning. Am I doing OK? is a leading question. It's not an open invitation for constructive criticism. But if you ask How can I improve my letters of advice? and outline some issues you have been thinking about, you put the other person at ease. If your firm requires you to have a regular performance review, don't approach it as an ordeal. Think of it as part of your Commitment to Continuous Improvement, and focus on what you can gain from the discussion. You'll become a better, more saleable product.
5. Think results, not billable units
You've got a budget to meet. You'll be assessed on it at your performance review. You're terrified of falling short. If you exceed it, you might even get a bonus. But don't ever be tempted to pad your time sheet. In the short term you'll look good. But when some of those fees have to be written off or the client complains about the bill, that brown stuff is going to hit the fan. Equally, overservicing a client can be counter-productive, although the line between a thorough job and overservicing can be a fine one. You might spend hours researching every issue that could possibly appear. Or pursue a client's debtor relentlessly, even though you are unlikely to recover any money. A client who isn't happy with the outcome may just defect quietly. The key is to communicate regularly with the client, making sure they understand what is realistically achievable and what it's likely to cost. If you don't think it's worth pursuing, say so. They'll be pleased that you were straight with them, and might consult you again or recommend you to others.
6. Work on your communication skills
Technical skills are only one part of the legal practice picture. Clients assume that if you've got a Law degree you're a competent lawyer. What they're looking for is a practical lawyer they can trust. And the way to develop that trust is through developing communication skills. But saying You can trust me doesn't work, and will probably have the opposite effect! In The Trusted Advisor (2000, Free Press) author David Maister says that a client who trusts you will be more inclined to accept and act on your recommendations and to pay your bills without question. Trust must be earned and deserved. According to Maister, trusted advisers don't feel they have to prove themselves to the client all the time. Instead they focus on make the client feel at ease, and where necessary will take personal risks during a discussion. If you want repeat business, improve your communication skills and be prepared to demonstrate your trustworthiness.
7. Develop a client following
At entry level, potential employers will assess you on your personal qualities. After a few years' experience they will look at your skills and personal qualities. But there comes a point in your career (7 years +) where what they're really interested in is the client base you can contribute to the firm, and the fees you will bring in. If you haven't got a client following they'll wonder why. What's more, lawyers without a client base are vulnerable to downturns in work and tend to be the ones who are made redundant. Conversely, those with a client following are in demand and make big money. Work on develop your marketing skills as early as possible in your career, and give yourself a chance to succeed.
8. Invest in your own success
There's much more to legal practice than a good knowledge of the law. Private practice is a business. The more fees you can generate for your firm, the more you can earn. And if you are the sort of lawyer that people want to consult, you'll have more options than one who is just technically competent. Learn more about communication, negotiation, marketing, sales, presentation skills, anything that will give you an edge. Most employees will only undertake training if their employer pays. Be different, and give yourself an advantage. Spend some money on your own career development. Once you've acquired new skills, knowledge and insights, they're yours and no one can take them from you.