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Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: Practical Advice for New Lawyers

Q: I am entering my last year of law school. Do you have suggestions for things I could do over the next year to be better prepared to practice when I graduate?

A: I do. Most students should work to expand their professional networks and refine their writing skills. Practice management and professionalism skills are also important to help you gain credibility and provide more value. With regular effort in these areas over the next year, you will have a head start when you begin practice. That should make your transition more seamless and open up more opportunities to advance.

I am often asked how to “escape” document review. While document review can be an important learning experience by itself, the way to “graduate” from document review is to demonstrate that you can provide more value by doing other work.

As you recognize, many skills help you translate your legal knowledge from law school into useful advice for clients. An article in the New York Times on Google’s hiring philosophy observed: The world only cares about what you can do with what you know.

In the Ms. JD/Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks Millennial Lawyer Survey last year, 71% of the new lawyers who responded disagreed with the statement: “Law school prepared me to practice law.” And the new lawyers were more optimistic than those who train them at law firms. When our survey asked Professional Development professionals, “Law school prepared associate to practice law,” 87% disagreed.

Some of the key skills and attributes that law firms often say are “missing” from law school include: Skills related to networking and business development, client service, industry knowledge, and business skills, such as finance and basic accounting. Many new graduates also find that they need to work on skills such as staying organized and managing time.

And even though most law schools have extensive writing programs, firms often provide additional resources and training to help new lawyers write more succinct, persuasive prose.

That’s a lot to tackle on top of a year of law school. For those of you who try to do it all, you also need to fit in fun. Your third year of law school may be your last “breather” for awhile.

But your 3L year is also the ideal time to invest in your career. Skills such as networking and time management take time to perfect. And once you start practice, there are likely to be even more competing demands for your time. You will thank yourself for investing in your own career early on.

Here are some tips to help you pick key skills and stay on track in developing them:

  1. Assess yourself. First consider the type of law you want to practice (or think you may want to practice). It can be difficult to know what areas are appealing without having practiced, but narrowing the field will help you focus on skills that may provide the most benefit. Take an inventory of your skills and experience and identify gaps.
  1. Get guidance. Check in with your career service office about opportunities at the school to learn practical skills. In recent years, most schools have vastly expanded their resources and programs to help graduates become “practice ready.” Your career counselor should be able to provide suggestions about skills you need and ways to attain them. Increasingly, schools are developing podcasts and other resources that you can use on your own schedule.

If you were a summer associate, ask your firm for suggestions about enhancing your skills next year. The feedback you received on assignments may also highlight skills you should develop. And if you know the clients you may be representing, learn as much as you can about their business.

  1. Pick three. I recommend working on one skill or activity in each of the following areas: 1) Learning about new cases and developments in the area in which you are likely to practice, 2) Expanding your network, and 3) “Life habits.”

To learn more about a particular area of the law, try to identify relevant classes. You should also set up Google or other alerts to stay up on new developments. And look for opportunities to write about particular areas of the law. Getting your writing published will raise your profile.

To expand your network, consider joining bar association or other professional organizations. Joining associations can also help you learn about particular areas of the law. If you were as summer associate, it’s important to maintain the relationships you made over the summer and meet more of your future colleagues. Ask about attending events the firm may be sponsoring. And follow the firm on LinkedIn and Twitter. Just remember that if you follow your firm, the firm may follow you. Keep that in mind as you post.

I refer to “life habits” as skills or attributes that could make practicing law easier for you, such as learning to be more organized, getting into an exercise routine, or getting better at remembering names. (There are apps for that.) One successful lawyer recounted that when he was nervous he became sarcastic. That played well with friends, but not so well with colleagues and clients. He had to un-learn than habit. Pick one activity in this area and try to make progress every day.

  1. Stay on track. Habit trackers such as Coach Me and Habit Share can help keep you on track. Both of them give you the ability to share your goals with others so that you can keep each other accountable. If you get busy or discouraged, and your habits languish, just pick up where you left off. Any time that you spend investing in yourself is time well spent.

Good luck!

Grover E. Cleveland is a Seattle lawyer, speaker and author of Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: The Essential Guide to Thriving as a New Lawyer. The Second Edition of the book will be published in the fall. Grover specializes in programs to help millennial lawyers successfully transition from law school to practice, helping them provide more value and avoid common mistakes. He is a former partner at Foster Pepper PLLC, one of the Northwest’s larger firms. His clients included the Seattle Seahawks and other entities owned by Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen. Grover is a frequent presenter on lawyer career success for millennial lawyers at leading law firms and schools nationwide. Some of the questions in this column come from those programs. Readers may submit questions here or follow him on Twitter @Babysharklaw. He is not related to the 22nd and 24th President of the United States. 

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