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Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: Practical Advice for New Lawyers

Q: In a recent Podcast with Christina Martini, you said new lawyers should show enthusiasm. Is “show enthusiasm” code for “work 70 hours a week as a new attorney?” How would you advise a new attorney who is not physically able to put in those hours to demonstrate commitment or worth, or is working long hours the only acceptable method?

A: It’s not code. I was referring to attitude rather than revenue. The two are distinct, but can be related. If you show enthusiasm, lawyers are likely to want to invest in your career. They will help you build your skills by giving you increasingly complex work. Showing enthusiasm may help you get work. But enthusiasm alone is not a substitute for revenue. And being busy is not necessarily a hallmark of enthusiasm.

Consider the associate who is logging lots of hours and posts on Facebook, “I am stuck in document review hell.” Although the associate may be a billing machine, the associate does not appear to be an enthusiastic billing machine.

I made a point of discussing enthusiasm, because showing enthusiasm can help junior lawyers build relationships with senior lawyers. Enthusiasm encourages senior lawyers to mentor junior lawyers.

If you are a volunteer soccer coach, you probably give more attention to the players who give their all and seem eager to learn. And you can come up with a zillion more examples.

Showing enthusiasm can be more art than science, but most of us know it when we see it. And I saw an excellent example in my LinkedIn feed recently. Here is an excerpt of the post from Big Law associate, Rukayatu Tijani:

As young lawyers, we obsess over doing the “sexy projects” instead of truly understanding the building blocks and complexities of being a great lawyer.

Need me to draft a worthwhile motion? You got it.

Need me to simply take notes during this meeting? You got it.

As I grow in my career, my goal is to express a manifested willingness to do anything needed so I can truly learn the intricacies of my craft.

What projects are you willing to do today?

What simply needs to get done?

Do it.

Since I could not have said it better, I quoted verbatim. Showing enthusiasm is about doing what it takes to be helpful – and showing that you are all in.

In a subsequent conversation, Rukayatu made the excellent point that the most useful mentoring often occurs in the context of projects.

If you want a partner or senior associate to be your mentor, be willing to do an assignment for them so they can give you substantive and helpful feedback.

Working with partners and senior associates creates an opportunity for them to give informal advice during their downtime, whether it’s between client calls or on the way to a client meeting.

This is way more efficient than asking the lawyer to mentor you through long lunches and coffee.

This echoes one of the themes in Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks that every project is an opportunity to learn and build trust.

There are many ways to show enthusiasm, such as asking if there is anything else you can do to help on a project. Or taking initiative to learn about a client.

Many examples of enthusiasm fall into the category of firm citizenship. The term “firm citizenship” usually refers to efforts to support the firm’s goals in addition to billing. Examples may be helping out with recruiting or attending a charity event that the firm has sponsored.

Taking the initiative to enhance your substantive skills also increases your value. Work to become the go-to person with expertise in an area that is important to the firm. Similarly, expanding your professional network increases your value, but can take consistent effort over many years.

All of these approaches will help you build goodwill with people who can help you advance in your career. And while enthusiasm is important, it is not a substitute for revenue. We will discuss that issue in the next column.

Good luck!

Join the conversation by submitting questions on Twitter @Babysharklaw or here. Get the new Second Edition of Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks here.

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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