Most law students and graduates aspire to be outstanding,
not merely good, attorneys. And they learn that, although
their employers will provide training, they bear ultimate
responsibility for their own professional development.
While learning the law is relatively straightforward,
it is much harder to cultivate the other qualities and
skills that lead to success.
By anyone's standards, Keri L. Silvyn has figured it
out. A sixth-year associate at Lewis and Roca L.L.P.
in Tucson, she practices zoning and land use planning.
She is also a wife and mother of three (including month-old
twins), with a satisfying personal life, excellent practice
and reputation for leadership in her firm and community.
Silvyn seems intuitively to make all the right moves
yet, for most people, the rise to excellence does not
come naturally. Obviously new associates must build
legal knowledge and experience, but what else must they
do to excel in the profession? Law schools and law firms
are devoting more attention than ever to answering this
question, to help students bridge the gap between school
and practice, and to jumpstart new associates into their
The issue is so important that Christina Plum, incoming
2005-06 Chair of the ABA Young Lawyers Division, has
selected as a member service initiative a project presenting
strategies that young lawyers can use to maximize their
success. For example, YLD will suggest ways to seek
constructive feedback, find a mentor and develop a well-rounded
professional life. A driving force behind the project
is anecdotal evidence confirming that young lawyers
simply cannot rely on employers to chart their legal
"The strategy may have been effective in decades
past, but times have changed," Plum said. "Employers
expect more initiative from young lawyers, who may lack
mentors for ideas about seeking work, working with other
attorneys and staff, becoming involved in the community
and bar associations, etc. I hope young lawyers will
implement one or two of the strategies we present and
find they have a positive effect on their professional
Following are just a few practical steps a new lawyer
can take to gain control of his or her career. The principles
initially appear obvious and not very challenging. But,
as Finnish philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein remarked,
"The aspects of things that are most important
to us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity."
These ideas are simple, but the challenge is to actually
take the time to implement them. Associates who are
willing to incorporate some of them into their lives
will be rewarded with greater personal and professional
- Know yourself. Instead of rushing
through each experience without considering what it
can teach you, take the time to reflect and articulate
your reactions. Reflect, too, upon the skills and
qualities of attorneys you admire. You will learn
more about the areas of law and kinds of projects
you enjoy; environments, interactions and relationships
that are best for you; skills and areas for improvement;
and personal interests and values that will give you
peace of mind.
Silvyn recognized early in her career that her key
strengths included "dealing with people, having
lots of energy and fitting more into my day than most
people can." She then found an area of the law
that she loved and maximized her performance by seeking
out opportunities which would allow her to shine.
Sally R. Simmons, Silvyn's mentor at Lewis and Roca
and a super achiever herself, also recommends finding
practical ways to acquire new skills. To overcome
a fear of public speaking, for example, many people
turn to Toastmasters and similar organizations. Similarly,
to learn about teamwork, organization, communication
and problem solving, new attorneys can get involved
in bar associations and Young Lawyers affiliates.
- Plan ahead. Creating a professional
life is a participative process, not something that
"happens to you." Although a firm can help
with some of the planning, it is amazing how many
young lawyers begin their careers without any idea
what they hope to accomplish in their jobs and in
their personal lives. Even those who do actively think
about their plans resist putting them on paper, preferring
instead to keep them "in the back of their minds."
One of the most positive steps you can take in your
own development is to create a short (0 to 5 years)
and long term (5-10 years) plan. Do not be afraid
to think big when considering what you would like
to achieve. Before beginning, reflect on your experiences
and values. Then write in detail, including measurable
goals and specific action items. You will benefit
by referring to your plan frequently, to gauge your
progress and for revisions based on changing experiences
Throughout his legal career, Cordell Parvin has helped
associates identify and achieve their career goals.
Previously director of Jenkens & Gilchrist, P.C.'s
Attorney Development Program, and now a consultant
in Dallas, Parvin speaks passionately about being
the architect of your own career. He explains that
goal setting can help associates increase self confidence
and enthusiasm, focus their efforts, make decisions
quickly and overcome defeats and roadblocks. "Design
it and plan it with your own vision of success. Then
build it based on finding your passion, your talent
and your client's needs."
A balanced life is important, so include personal
goals and objectives. Parvin queries, "How will
you spend your 57 waking hours a week of personal
time? How will you spend 500+ non-billable hours per
year? How well you plan and spend your non-billable
time determines the quality of your career and how
well you plan and spend your waking personal time
determines the quality of your life."
- Welcome the unexpected. Since
Greek mathematician Archimedes stumbled upon his theory
of water displacement while bathing, we have been
intrigued with "Eureka!" moments, what career
coaches call "career serendipity." You can
best utilize this concept by maintaining an attitude
of openness to take advantage of opportunities that
arise, whether large or small, and relevant or seemingly
removed from your career development. Before committing,
determine each opportunity's compatibility with your
overall goals and gauge whether you have time to fully
commit to it.
Be fully present for each experience. Can you remember
the last time you enjoyed someone's undivided attention?
Probably not! As our jobs become more demanding and
we are precariously overcommitted, multitasking seems
the norm. However, you will actually increase your
productivity by concentrating fully on each conversation,
activity or project. Even more importantly, clients,
partners and others will respond positively to your
undivided attention, which will enhance both your
professional reputation and personal satisfaction.
For example, Silvyn enjoys serving on several Boards
of Directors and committees and has earned their confidence
because she always contributes 100 percent of her
energy to their activities. This credibility was an
important factor in their allowing her to maintain
positions of leadership, even though she has temporarily
pulled back from her activities since the twins' arrival.
- Develop meaningful relationships. As
the concept of "emotional intelligence"
becomes widespread, we better understand the role
emotions and interpersonal relationships play in otherwise
logical activities. The successful associate will
quickly get to know everybody in the office, find
common ground with them, learn how to relate positively
with their personalities and how to move together
to accomplish the firm's goals. This involves learning
how to deal with problems that arise, knowing when
to seek help from others and, as Silvyn says, "patting
each other on the back for jobs well done and respecting
the differences." Simmons suggests that you learn
look at people, not as a means to an end, but first
as individuals, with families and interests outside
If you are in a satellite or large office, it may
be challenging to meet your colleagues, but Silvyn
knows it is crucial. "Upon a partner's advice,
I made lots of road trips to get to know everybody
in our Phoenix office during my first four years at
the firm. I like to socialize, so it was enjoyable
for me, but those who are shy should not avoid firm
events. Instead choose key people to get to know very
well, particularly in your practice group." Because
of her outreach, Silvyn's colleagues know her strengths
and offer opportunities that are suited to her skills.
Associates who are not good at "tooting own horn"
and socializing might not so easily come to mind.
- Find mentors. Professionally,
mentors can give you insight by sharing information
about their own experiences and the realties of practice.
They also serve as valuable sounding boards, by listening
and offering support and encouragement. If your employer
does not offer formal mentoring, find a mentor by
contacting your state bar or seeking out those whose
qualities and careers you admire, both inside and
outside your firm and practice areas. Simmons also
recommends finding an associate away from your practice
area, to answer the "dumb" questions. Once
you find a mentor, be sure to devote your own energies
to ensuring the continued success of the relationship.
Besides the firm, Silvyn has received mentoring from
many sources, including her husband Jeff (also an
attorney) and the Young Lawyers. "I am a huge
advocate of the ABA Young Lawyers Division and its
state and local counterparts. It provides a great
network and brings you into contact with those who
are in their first few years of practice, and also
those who are now five to 10 years out. They can all
be good mentors, helping you find your way, figure
out your strengths and weaknesses and gain new perspectives."
- Get involved. You cannot build
a reputation for excellence by being passive. One
way to show the promise of future client development
is by becoming actively involved in your firm. Silvyn
volunteered to assist the Hiring Committee and, "because
they knew I liked to socialize, they asked me to help
with on-campus recruiting." She was also a prime
motivator in the firm's adoption of a formal alternative
work schedule policy. Simmons says, "With her
prompting, we now have a policy that allows any associate
to move to a two-thirds or three-fourths schedule
without going permanently off the partnership track."
The legal community and community at large also offer
opportunities to display leadership. For example,
by volunteering on his county bar's CLE committee,
one young associate met many of his city's leading
attorneys and was eventually included as a panelist
on programs in his area of practice. Because of their
legal training, attorneys are also welcome additions
to committees and Boards of non-profit organizations.
In the classic case of doing well by doing good, your
firm will also benefit, as your reputation grows and
your activities generate new opportunities. Life is
a participative experience – find out what interests
you and get involved!
What are the measurable results from an associate's
increased interest in career development? The firm can
anticipate maximum benefit from training dollars, as
well as a higher degree of professionalism and job satisfaction,
both of which have a positive affect on recruiting and
retention. David Maister, an authority on law firm leadership,
has also conducted studies showing energized lawyers
provide higher quality service to more satisfied clients,
with ultimately greater financial success for the firm.
From experience, Parvin knows that the lawyers with
whom he worked increased their volume of business and
some got their first clients. "But they might have
done it anyway," he says. For him, the benefits
are more basic. "I would say you can't directly
measure the results, but you can see them in your associates'
Nailon is Director for Professional Development
at the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College
of Law in Tucson, AZ, where she teaches a course on
workplace survival skills and focuses on professional
development for students and recent graduates. She is
co-author of the Government Honors & Internship
Handbook and serves as Liaison to the ABA Young
Lawyers Division for the National Association for Law
Placement. She is active in the State Bar of Arizona,
Pima County Bar Association and Arizona Women Lawyers
Association, and is a frequent author and lecturer on
matters pertaining to attorney development and professionalism,
and other career issues for law students and alumni.