By Claire E. Parsons • March 27, 2018•Writers in Residence, Careers, Firms and the Private Sector
It is (supposed to be) spring and, yet the snow is falling outside my Kentucky home as if it were the middle of winter. Maybe because of that, my thoughts are drifting to that which is bright, and new, and unexplored. I’m thinking about new opportunities and can’t help but recall the opportunities that helped get my career off to a good start. Lawyers may get a lot of opportunities in their careers but it is often difficult to tell at the outset which of those opportunities are the most likely to benefit you long-term. So, the young lawyers reading this may wonder: what are the factors that make an opportunity a good one?
In my own experience, I look back to an opportunity I got as I was finishing my first year of practice, which was almost exclusively civil rights litigation under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983. I had done little if any work with public education and in fact had not even attended public school. Nevertheless, a senior partner asked if I had any interest in learning about special education law because one of our school clients needed support in that area. My immediate response was excitement because I always enjoyed learning new things but I was also concerned because I did not know anything about it. Ultimately, I seized the opportunity and eight years later I have now carved out a niche area for myself.
What made this decision a success? Thinking about this experience in retrospect helped me distill the top 5 reasons it worked for me. Young lawyers could use the same list of questions to help them evaluate whether a new opportunity is likely to be a good one.
1. Do I Have the Supports Needed to Satisfy Rule 1.1?
Ethical obligations to clients always come first. Thus, if the new opportunity involves a new area of practice, you must consider whether you can competently practice in the new area of law. I may not have been competent to handle special education matters when my senior partner first asked me try it, but I knew I could become competent with effort and support. For example, I knew my firm would send me to seminars and that I was willing to invest time reading up on the law. In addition, I had attorneys in my firm with decades of experience in related areas who could help me make judgment calls.
2. Will This New Opportunity Help Me Learn New Skills?
Learning new skills and broadening abilities builds confidence, contributes to career satisfaction, and makes you more marketable. For me, trying special education law was a good thing precisely because it forced me to learn something new. In fact, the opportunity was particularly good because it put me in a position to be a leader within my firm. This meant that I was involved in making decisions about cases right away and it wasn’t very long until I was the one making the decisions and taking the risks. As a result, I did not just learn a new area of law but new skills that strengthened my practice as a whole.
3. Will This New Opportunity Help Me Get the Experience I Want or Need?
For litigators, trial experience is getting harder and harder to come by. This is especially true for female litigators, who are even less likely to get trial experience than their male counterparts. Because special education is administrative in nature, it requires the presentation of cases in agency hearings. There isn’t a jury but the rest is the same: witness testimony, cross-examination, use of exhibits, and even expert witnesses. Since I made myself the resource in my firm for special education matters, I got first chair hearing experience as an associate. By the time I tried my first jury trial on my own, I felt more than ready even though I was litigating the case against a far more seasoned attorney because I had already led efforts to litigate administrative hearings.
4. Will This Opportunity Give Me Increased Contact with Clients?
Client contact is essential to advancing your career as an attorney, and my decision to take on special education law gave me direct contact with clients even as a new associate. Because I knew the area well, I was the one who attended the IEP meetings and met with clients to gather evidence and prepare for hearing. It wasn’t too long before I also became the one who the client called when they had questions about day to day compliance issues. Success as a lawyer depends on building relationships with clients, so this was invaluable to advancing my practice.
5. Does This Opportunity Have the Potential to Lead to Other Opportunities?
When I started with special education, I did not necessarily intend to get into the wider area of school law but it happened almost on its own. Because my school clients and colleagues knew I did special education, they also started referring general school law issues to me. Although I did not start my practice to be a school law attorney, it now makes up a sizeable portion of my practice and helped me develop skills providing general counsel support to clients.
When your career is new, it can be hard to know where the path is leading you. Yet, if you stay focused on the factors that lead to success – competency, client contact, constant learning, skill development, and opportunity potential – you will eventually find it. These questions may be a good first step when evaluating new opportunities in your own practice to help promote your own success. Wherever you are, I hope that spring has sprung (for real) and that you get some new opportunities to build your practice in 2018.