Looking back on my career, the best piece of advice I ever received was from a senior partner who was my mentor when I began my career in 1997. He told me that the key to success as a young lawyer is to work hard to gain the confidence of the partners for whom you work. By doing that, he said, a young associate can get better assignments, more challenging work, opportunities to develop new skills and a chance to learn from the top lawyers in the firm. Gaining that confidence wasn’t easy, but I was able to do so by focusing on a few key objectives.
Attention to detail is of paramount importance. Think everything through, read everything three times, four times, ten times. Don’t miss a mistake or a typo. The smallest error can negate hundreds of hours of excellent work.
If you don’t understand something ask questions. And ask them until you understand exactly what needs to be done, how it needs to be done and what the real deadlines are. The old adage that the only dumb question is the one you don’t ask is absolutely true.
Understand your client, and understand that as a young associate your client is that senior partner with whom you’re working. Know the client’s goals, know the concerns, know the hot buttons, know what keeps them up at night worrying. Make sure your client, that senior partner, knows you have his or her back. That means paying attention to detail, listening, looking for small problems and communicating to her or him in a way that keeps them from becoming big problems.
So what happened once I’d gained the confidence of those key lawyers in my firm? First, I started getting the assignments that I needed to take on to develop as a lawyer, and it increased my mentoring relationships. Then I learned that it’s crucial to accept assignments that are challenging. I also learned that every great litigator feels like throwing up just before doing something significant in court and that if you don’t have that edge, you lack passion. And all great litigators have one thing in common – passion.
Finally, I discovered that you can learn great skills from great lawyers, but in the end you have to develop a style that suits you. You can’t be someone you’re not and be successful. This is a very difficult and challenging profession, much more so than I ever had imagined when I was in law school. But it’s worth it, because in the end, you can achieve great things, things that were also unimaginable back in law school.