Beyond Talent: Legal Career Planning 101

As a junior associate, it’s never too early to be thinking about your career trajectory. In our experience, many associates don’t seriously contemplate their career goals until it’s too late. Not everyone realizes, for example, that the best time for associates to lateral is between their third and fifth years (mainly for reasons tied to partnership prospects). Nor does everyone question whether his or her firm is the best platform for making the in-house leap.

Now, more so than ever before, associates must be proactive in planning their career paths. While there are factors that are outside of associates’ control, e.g., billable hours, work flow, and difficult partners, there are steps associates can take to properly manage the direction of their careers.    

What are your long-term goals?

Don’t be the worker bee associate who focuses solely on work, only to realize in your seventh year that you probably won’t make partner. Start thinking about your end goal – do you want to make partner? Go in-house? Go into public service? Or perhaps utilize your law firm experience and do something unorthodox.

Gather information.

If you know where you want to be five, ten years from now, that’s great. Start gathering as much information as possible on how to get there. If you aren’t sure about your long-term goals, or if you want to leave your options open, then it’s even more crucial to stay informed. Talk to colleagues, find mentors, join bar associations, utilize social media (such as LinkedIn and Twitter), chat with recruiters, and stay plugged into the legal community. Networking and learning firsthand about other attorneys’ experiences is one of the best ways to figure out what you want your own career path to look like and how to get there. As you connect with other attorneys and legal professionals, you will learn valuable information, such as, which firms have the happiest associates, which firms have the strongest in-house reputation, which firms have the highest partnership potential, etc.

Evaluate your current position.

Once you have an idea of what your end goal looks like and feel adequately informed, examine your current position and decide whether you are best situated to reach your long-term goal. For example, if you hope to go in-house one day, you should ask yourself if you are in a desirable practice area (generally, litigators have a much harder time landing an in-house role), or if you are at a firm that has a reputation of losing associates to in-house positions (certain firms are highly regarded amongst General Counsels). If your goal is to make partner, you should consider factors such as the amount of responsibilities and client interaction you are gaining, and the depth of the partnership queue at your firm.

Additionally, be sure to utilize the annual review process to take a step back and contemplate whether you are getting the type of work you want, the amount of support and training you need, and whether you are truly in a position that gets you to your goal, or at the very least, maximizes your options down the road. 

Make changes, if necessary.

If you feel comfortable with where you are by the time you’ve reached this step, then you’re probably exactly where you should be. On the other hand, perhaps you’ve discovered some things you can start doing differently. Sometimes, all it takes is letting the partnership know that you are working towards making partner one day. Sometimes, however, a lateral move to a different firm is necessary.

Final Thoughts.

Nowadays, there is an abundance of information and resources available to associates to use towards career planning. While networking and researching about the legal landscape does require additional time and effort, putting in the work now will save you panic and sleepless nights down the road. So, make your career development a priority and start planning today. 

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