Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: Practical Advice for New Lawyers

Happy New Year! This month, I am going to ask the questions. With the start of a new year and the conclusion of the annual associate evaluation process at many firms, it is a great time to take stock. The questions below are designed to help you reflect on the past year and get off to a strong start in 2019.

  1.  What were your work highs and lows last year?

Start with a high-level “fly-over” of the past year. What stands out? And are there any trends or patterns that warrant a closer look? Think about successes and what you learned. And reflect on whether you accomplished all of the goals you set for the last year.

  1.  What are your goals?

Have your goals changed over the past year? And if so, why? Try to be as specific as possible about your work and non-work goals. If your goals are imprecise, it is hard to develop actions to accomplish those goals – or to know whether you have succeeded. Identify some concrete goals that you can accomplish within a specific time. Try to frame your goals in ways that you can measure them. Although many goals are inherently subjective, you may be able to measure the attributes of the particular goal. For example, being able to take the lead role on a matter or part of a matter can indicate that you have strengthened a relationship and built trust.

  1. What motivates you?

Reflect on what motivates you. And try to align your actions with the things that motivate you the most. Do you hate letting people down? Do you hate breaking promises to yourself? Do you like recognition? Do you need deadlines? Use your knowledge of what motivates you to help you take action to achieve your goals. If you hate letting other people down, share your goals with someone you trust to boost your resolve and likelihood of success. I am a fan of the HabitShare App, which lets you connect with others to give kudos or nudges as you work to build habits.   

  1. Did you work on any projects that did not feel like work?

Law firms can be stressful, and you will be more resilient if you enjoy the work you are doing. When you love a project, you are also likely to do better work. Over the next year, try to seek out projects that interest and challenge you. And assuming that your plate is full, politely pass on the ones you enjoy the least.

  1. How can you strengthen your support network?

Work to build or expand a “personal board of directors.” Do you have someone who will listen to you vent (within reason)? Is there someone who will help you navigate sticky situations? Is there someone who will advocate for you with firm leadership? Think about the kinds of support you have and where you could use some help. People don’t even have to know that they are on your board, but you want a strong support system in place before you need it. And pay it forward by being on someone else’s board.

  1. How can you expand your professional network?

Building a professional network is essential for your continued growth as a lawyer in private practice. But cultivating a network takes time. And the process can languish under the crush of deadlines and billable hours. Commit to making business development a habit throughout the year. Develop a plan and check your progress at regular intervals. To kick off the year, add last year’s accomplishments to your LinkedIn profile.

  1. How can you make yourself more valuable by this time next year?

This is one of my favorite questions, because it asks you to focus on investing in your own success. Expanding your network is one way to make yourself more valuable. Honing your practice management skills and deepening your substantive knowledge will also help you provide more value. Pick one thing that will have the most impact. Then carve out regular time to devote to your own development. At this time next year, you may be doing things that you never thought were possible!

Happy New Year and 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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