5 Steps to Manage Your Professional Development to Become a Successful Associate
You are a freshly minted law firm associate. You are ambitious and thorough; you want to complete every task with skill and fervor. Perhaps you want to do it all: be the listener, the performer, the superhuman of your firm—but not so fast! If you take on too much at once, you risk becoming overwhelmed and burnt out. Instead, you should ease into your position and take the time to develop new skills and relationships that will prove to be invaluable throughout your entire career. Below are five steps you can take now to become the associate you aspire to be.
#1 – Create a career plan.
Before you get ahead of yourself, take a moment to determine what is expected of you on the job and what you hope to get out of your career. Think about the strategies you might employ to gain client contacts and to help in the smooth running of your firm. Think about some areas in which you might want to improve, or even new skills that you feel might be beneficial to you. Then set some manageable goals for yourself. As you achieve these goals, set new ones or readjust current goals to a higher level. In short, make your development as a law firm associate a personal one, a challenge with yourself. Do not get caught up in perceived competition among colleagues.
#2 – Find a mentor and develop a meaningful relationship with him/her.
Realistically, you cannot expect to learn everything there is to know about being a great law firm associate on your own. A mentor can guide you through the rough patches, teach you the culture and policies of your specific firm, and offer general support when needed. To form the best relationship with your mentor, try to schedule some time on your own, perhaps even outside of work, to talk with your mentor and ask questions. As your relationship grows stronger, make your meetings more frequent and more purposeful. Perhaps you want to discuss an upcoming project or learn more about a new firm policy. In any case, your mentor should ideally be someone who had once been in your position but who has learned through experience and is ready to pass on knowledge to the “new kid.”
#3 – Keep an eye on your workload.
Do not try to take on too many tasks at once. While it is great to be ambitious, be ambitious within reason. After all, you have only so many hours in a day. Do not take on projects that you cannot complete with outstanding work product in a timely fashion. While it may be hard to turn down a request without feeling guilty, know that in the long run it is better that you focus your attention on one or two projects than to juggle several and risk underperforming. Practice being assertive. If you do not feel comfortable saying no outright, try framing your response as a question: “When is this project due? I will not be able to turn to it until next week. Would that work?”
#4 – Get involved.
This step might be a bit more challenging for you if you tend to be an introvert. Even so, push yourself to be a leader of some sort. While you might never be the one to give lengthy speeches at company functions or bark orders from a position of high authority, you can be proactive in other meaningful ways. Volunteer to participate in firm committees and marketing activities. Always make a presence at firm activities, even if it is just to talk briefly with colleagues. The goal is not necessarily to portray yourself as a social butterfly, especially if you are not. You should, however, be able to show everybody that you are “partnership material” and that you can make an effort to be part of a team, even if team-driven projects are not your forte.
#5 – Ask for feedback/evaluations.
Feedback from others is invaluable. Whether it comes from your mentor or fellow colleagues, precise feedback can help you take your skills as an associate to the next level. Remember that such feedback should never be a personal attack; in fact, the best constructive criticism tends not to be directed at the person at all, but at the specific skill in need of refinement. Ask for feedback on projects. Bear in mind that if you want precise feedback, you should ask precise questions. Focus on one or two areas and ask your colleagues to assess your performance on these areas alone. That way, you can pay attention to those things only and not worry about having “so many things to fix!”