Stuart Clement’s article, “Investing in Yourself To Stand Out as a Lawyer,” published in Texas Lawyer
Reprinted with permission from the September 1, 2022, edition of Texas Lawyer © 2022 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited, contact 877-257-3382 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Investing In Yourself To Stand Out As A Lawyer
The original Top Gun featured a song from Kenny Loggins: “Highway to the Danger Zone.” The meaning of that song was that to achieve success, we should step outside of what is comfortable. As lawyers, it can be tempting to stick to what works. But to keep growing, not just in one’s careers but personally as well, we should keep trying to improve. If you do not know the answer to something, talk to experts and listen to feedback. Feedback isn’t just a critique; it’s an opportunity to advance.
Learn To Ask Questions
Associates should first learn to do their own research, but when you are at a loss, your colleagues are a great source of knowledge and clarity. One of my first (and favorite) mentors told me to never hesitate to ask a question. Lawyers can often appear unyielding and egotistical, but despite external appearances, I have yet to find a colleague that was not willing — and was generally eager — to help with wisdom and redirection.
Associates (as well as partners and senior partners) need to remember that staff members and paralegals are also a wealth of knowledge. Learn to rely on their expertise in their respective disciplines. I like bouncing ideas off paralegals about efficiency in procedural matters, such as who best to contact for court and business filings when one-off situations arise. Chances are, they’ve seen it before. At work, you are surrounded by experts, and they should be your first line of defense when you have a tough case to crack.
Learn What Works For You
Professional development can take a lot of forms. There’s a cliché that if you ask nine different lawyers about how to build a book of business, you’ll get 10 different answers. At its core, all those answers have one thing in common: meet people and get to know them. Networking — interacting with professionals to develop contacts — can take different forms. Our firm hosts bi-monthly continuing legal education forums and an annual symposium, and enumerable opportunities for online webinars. You should participate when invited. Another cliché is that it’s not enough to be the expert, you need to be known as the expert. In-house opportunities can be the quickest and easiest way to get out in the world and make this true.
As a parent, I’ve also found opportunity in being involved in parent-teacher organizations, and if time allows, chaperoning field trips. Civic clubs, like Rotary Club, are also excellent places to meet motivated people who can help you be successful. Others find success in lunch meetings, sporting events, and club mixers.
Social interactions can be uncomfortable, but whatever strategy you choose, you should find your comfort zone. Engaging in networking can be hard because of how success is measured early in our careers. In law school we get grades, and early in our associate years, we’re rewarded with salaries and merit bonuses. But whether people like you and trust you is generally immeasurable — at least at first. Trust the process, although if I’m being honest, I’m still trying to get used to this.
Play To Your Weaknesses
Yes, you should try to find your comfort zone to find a way in at first, but there’s no harm in stepping outside it. This can mean a lot of things: Although it may not be in your area of expertise, if you feel passionate about something, take a pro bono case. It will make you a better lawyer and you never know when similar issues might pop up in your own practice. Look for more opportunities to publish. Most associates write for a living and the more you do it, the better you become.
My personal non-favorite thing to do is doing more public speaking in any venue you can find. It can be uncomfortable, whether you address 10 people or 100 — especially if you are an introvert like me. Paraphrasing Jerry Seinfeld from one of his early stand-ups: Most people would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy.
Going outside your comfort zone is a learning experience. But if playing to your weaknesses seems too daunting, there is no harm in finding help. Private coaching and group coaching is available in any discipline. In my last annual review, one supervising shareholder said I may not be the best public speaker. It was not just a critique; he also suggested Toastmasters, an organization that helps you practice public speaking. Help exists, and humility is the key to growing.
Dress For Success
This topic means so many different things these days, but in any event, dress appropriately for the occasion. It’s up to you to decide if it is appropriate to wear Chuck Taylors to a black-tie wedding (from experience, it is not). As much as lawyers charge their clients, you want to make sure that you are meeting, and should be exceeding, their expectations in all categories. As associates, you also want to remember that your primary clients are generally the shareholders you work for — so learn what is appropriate in their eyes.
Time for another cliché: dress for the job you want, not the job you have. Whatever fashion works for you, never stop learning.