After more than ten years in the legal profession, and having been both a transactional lawyer, and on the hiring side – here is what I have to say to those just breaking into the field:
1. Get four years under your belt before moving on.
When you start your first job at a law firm, make it count by getting four years under your belt. This is about the amount of time it takes to actually know something about lawyering. Whatever your next step – another firm, in-house, or something entirely different, you will have the foundation you need to practice law , or to use your skills for business. If you have already invested all that time and money in law school and your internship, put in the extra time to make it worth-while. When you finish four years, you will also be at your “most hireable” point in your career – so make it count.
2. Your CV is written in stone.
Even if you decide to move on, be mindful of your CV – you’re creating a story that you can’t go back and re-write. Employers are weary of candidates who move around every year. Although this should not be your sole criteria for deciding whether to remain at a job (if your job is unbearable, by all means leave it!), but its going to be hard to explain several “stints” at a place of work – and you don’t always have the chance to say, “But I can explain that!”.
3. If you’re already there, be there.
It’s hard to convey the importance of this one. Jump in, and embrace your time at a law firm. It’s certainly not an easy place to be, and isn’t necessarily always going to be “fun” – but it is a place for you to learn what you can never learn at University. You should use your time, to learn as much as you can, from whoever you can. Volunteer for work, stay late, and put in the effort to make yourself knowledgeable. That can never be taken away for you. The minute you accept that you are not there just for fun, late nights will be easier to handle.
4. Choose an expertise you are interested in.
Number three will be easier, if you implement number four. The great thing about law is that it is extremely diverse. You can choose tax, IP, employment law, anti-trust – which are entirely different professions. Spend time “sharpening the ax” before going to chop down the trees. Work out what you are drawn to, what sparks your interest, what will make you read the latest ruling on the matter?
5. Understand what is happening in the market, and what will make you hireable in the future.
Again, not the sole criteria for deciding what to focus on in your career, but worth looking into. Is privacy really big right now? Is there a movement to crack down on certain monopolies ? Is there a boom in high-tech? Every few years there is a “hot” area of expertise, a trend that ripples through the legal industry, and if that happens to coincide with number 4 (what you are interested in), then all the better.
6. Become an “expert” so that you stand out.
Whatever you choose to go into, become an expert in that given field. Don’t try to spread yourself too thin over a range of specialties too quickly – rather, focus on one area of expertise and learn everything there is to learn about that topic. You want to be the person that a firm turns to on a given topic. Don’t be another general lawyer – be an expert.
7. Don’t go in-house too early – it’s hard to reverse it.
Going in-house is a lawyer’s dream – less hours (which is often just a myth by the way), less clients so less pressure (not always the case, your clients become the other departments in the company!), you can allocate to your company’s law firm (not always the case!) and higher pay (okay, usually the case 😊). But be aware – being an in-house lawyer is an entirely different job to being a lawyer at a law firm, and if you want to get a good offer in house, most companies like to see that a lawyer has had grounding at a firm first. It is possible, but very hard (both psychologically and practically) to move back to a firm after an in-house role. So – only make the move when you’re sure that you are ready!
8.What will make you stand out is your attitude.
Skill is easy to find – all good students from good universities are going to have skill. Attitude is what will make you a good employee or a bad employee. If you are willing to go the extra mile, if you care about the business, if you show that you want to learn, and if you show that you want to help the business grow, and help overloaded senior lawyers deliver – that is what will make you a superb employee.