Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: Practical Advice for New Lawyers

Q: I have decided I should switch practice groups, because the one I am in is not giving me much mentoring. But I have not had much success getting work from the new group. Any advice on what to do?

A: Yes. Finding a good “fit” at a firm is critical to your long-term success. But both you and the new practice group have to decide (either formally or informally) that you should work together. And until you have officially joined the second group, the dance can be delicate.

At first, you will need work for both groups. And over time, try to increase the amount of work you get from the new group. But straddling two practice groups can be challenging, as this quote from Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks deftly summarizes:

“You only get half the love, and the two departments don’t know if you love them at all.”

Here are some considerations and tips:

  1. Can you improve your current situation? You have decided to change the kind of law you practice so that you can work with different people. That may mean starting from scratch, which can take time and effort. And you might not succeed. Start by working to improve your current situation. Define what “mentoring” means to you. Do you want more feedback? Do you want more guidance? Do you need more work – or want more interesting work? Did you have a bad experience with a lawyer that you can ameliorate?

      Generally, if you need something to advance your career, law firms will expect you to ask – or act.

Identify what you want – but aren’t getting – from your practice group. Are there any people in the group who could provide it? Are there things you could do to encourage your current practice group to invest more in your career? And consider whether there are other firm resources, such as individual coaching, that could help you achieve your goals. The firm’s professional development professionals can provide guidance.

Realize, though, that if you make it clear to your current group that you want “out,” the group may seek a divorce before you are ready.

  1. Will the grass really be greener? Consider how and why you will get “mentoring” in the new group that you don’t get in your current group. Again, try to be specific about your needs as you work through this process. Do you have a potential “champion” in the new group? Does the new group have enough work to keep you busy? Are there good things about your current group that you won’t get in the new group?
  1. Why isn’t the new practice group more receptive? You also must figure out why the new group is not receptive. Some things you can fix; some you can’t. If the new group does not have enough work to keep its existing lawyers busy, it is not likely to expand. You may have to bide your time until someone leaves or business improves. If you have gotten a reputation for doing shoddy work, that can also be hard to undo. One way to try is to offer to do substantive non-billable work for the group, such as assisting with a CLE program.
  1. How can you make yourself more attractive to the new group? If you have tried to improve your existing situation and decided that you still need to switch, you need to show the new group some love. You will need to offer to do work for the new group – perhaps on top of a full load from your existing group. If there are attorneys who practice in both areas, start with them. Consider attending CLEs or working on a pro bono project to gain useful substantive expertise. Ask if you can attend practice group meetings to learn about the group’s work and to meet its members. That way, you will be the first to learn about new projects and potential opportunities. And check your pride. At first, you may have to do work that no one in the group relishes.
  1. Is there a formal process for switching groups? Your firm may have a formal process for switching groups, but that won’t happen unless your current group is willing to “let go,” and the new group will offer you a home. Work to line up your supporters and appease potential detractors. At some point, you have to come clean about your intentions and invoke any formal process. But first, you have to lay the groundwork.

Good luck!

The Second Edition of Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks is now available. Submit questions here to be answered in a future column.

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 (West 2d. 2016). Grover specializes in programs to help new 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 and generational issues at leading law firms and schools nationwide. Many 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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