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Practice Pointers - Avoiding a Haphazard Career

Some lawyers always knew they wanted to go to law school. Some went because they didn’t go to medical school (me) or didn’t know what else to do after college (also me). But either way, we all spent our academic years crushing it so we’d have bright careers ahead of us.

And then we finally get there – the pinnacle of success that is the oh-so-coveted first real lawyer job. And it’s hard. And we’re working a ton, trying to get through the literal and figurative motions of day-to-day lawyer life.

First year goes by, then the second, and so on.  

Ultimately, we get so entrenched in the constant demands of our jobs that we forget about our careers. We don’t take the time to think about what we want out of our legal careers, where we see ourselves in 5 or 10 years. And one day, when we finally do make the time, it’s much harder to pivot and implement a game plan if the career that happened to us isn’t the one best suited for us.

So what can you do? How do you avoid a haphazard career?

Plan. The sooner, the better. And then continually reassess and adjust that plan.

A few questions you might want to ask yourself and others as you start laying the groundwork for your career path—

(1) Transactional/corporate law or litigation?

  • Talk to transactional attorneys and litigators. What types of personalities and work styles do they have? What types of tasks do they do?
  • Do you like the adversarial process? Does the thought of taking a deposition excite or scare you?
  • Do you enjoy legal research? Writing compelling motions and briefs?
  • Would you prefer to conduct due diligence? Review and write contracts?

(2) What areas of practice interest you?

  • Reach out to alumni who practice in those areas. Ask them what they do every day, the types of matters they’ve worked on recently, the tasks they like and dislike.
  • Take an elective or work on a pro bono matter in those areas of law.
  • Do you want to specialize? Would you prefer to be a generalist? What are the pros/cons of each?

(3) Where do you eventually want to practice?

  • Think you might want to go in-house? Generally, there are more in-house opportunities for transactional lawyers. Labor & Employment attorneys also have an easier time finding in-house roles than general litigators. Check out https://www.goinhouse.com/ to get a better sense of the in-house options out there.
  • Think you might want to be a partner at your firm? Billing a ton of hours and doing good work might not be enough. Seek out opportunities to show your commitment to the firm and potential for business development. If your firm has a hiring, diversity, or associates’ committee, get involved and get to know people outside of your practice group. Find ways to elevate the firm’s visibility – e.g., author an article or become active in local bar associations.
  • Think you want start in private practice and then move into government or public interest work? Or vice versa? Find attorneys who’ve done that and ask them how they did it. (Ms. JD and your law school alumni are great resources!)

(4)  What kind of lifestyle do you want?

  • How many hours do you want to be working each week?
  • How much money would you need to make to feel secure?
  • Do you thrive in high-pressure, high-stakes environments?
  • Do you need more predictability or are you OK with busy spurts followed by calm lulls?

Asking yourself these questions isn’t easy. In fact, it can be a lot of extra work. But it’s work that will help set you up for long-term career success and satisfaction. And isn’t that a goal worth working toward?

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