By Katalin Tarjan • October 31, 2020•Ms. JD, Writers in Residence
I got my first legal job after working in several other types of jobs, and I’ve always felt that every piece of knowledge and every experience I have gained along my journey contributes to being as successful in my current job as I am.
Being good work force in my opinion is equal parts professional skills and life skills, and the latter can only be acquired by, you know, living. No-one expects a 1L intern to have the same kind of life experiences as a trained attorney, but you can learn something even from what you think is the most meaningless job ever. Here are a couple of basic work skills that in my opinion are important.
People skills – there are very few jobs where you don’t have to communicate with people, at least with your colleagues or your boss. Or, if you work for yourself, your clients. People are different, necessarily you will meet people with different working styles and different world views than yours. How you handle those in a working situation is very important in terms of going forward. I see people who are very good at their profession and have very strong work ethics, but expect everyone else to be on the same level, and don’t accept anything less. There is nothing wrong with being a perfectionist (says one recovering perfectionist), but other people’s skills and work ethics are not in your power to change. You can try to motivate them, but – unless you are their boss – at one point you have to leave them alone.
Telephone skills – I separate this from people skills, because telephone manners are a whole different issue. Starting out as an office assistant many years ago, I wasn’t nearly as good at answering phone enquiries as I am today. It took years of practice to be able to answer every call confidently knowing that I will be able to handle whatever it is about. Knowing the profession very well is only one part of this. The other parts consist of skills you can’t learn from a book: having a ready answer for when you don’t know the answer, knowing how to find out quickly what you don’t know, being able to handle tough clients politely, etc. You can only learn this by doing it a lot.
Basic getting around – and I don’t mean on the map, although that can also be useful. I mean knowing how to find out stuff, where to reach people, where to go, whom to call with different kinds of problems. This one takes experience, a lot of it, you learn something from each problem you solve and you keep getting better at it. I can’t even begin to list the things I learned working as an office assistant and later as an office manager, that I benefit from even today working in offices in very different roles.
Work ethics – I have already devoted a full post to this, it is one of my favorite topics. I had a young colleague recently who failed to fit in and left us eventually. They constantly complained about the workload - the same workload that each of us handled, about not getting more time to learn stuff and about not having the time to text and chat on the phone during work hours (welcome to adulthood!). This person had several short-term jobs before and after their time with us, they only last a couple of months at each workplace. Do you wonder why? I don’t. If you take a job, expect to have to do the work.
The point is, what you bring to each of your jobs is not just your professional knowledge and skills said job requires, but every piece of experience you’ve gained along the way. You never know what random thing will impress your boss, so make sure you use what you got in a good way.