In my job, I often get asked what “professionalism” means. The word is lengthy and so is the range of what it connotes. Professionalism as it relates to lawyers means being a competent, effective, respectful advocate for your client and the justice system. As we explain in our Professional Responsibility Education Guide, professionalism “calls us to be mindful of the lawyer’s roles as officer of the legal system, advocate, counselor, negotiator, and problem solver.” That involves respect, civility, proficiency and a recognition that the life of a lawyer is a life of continuous learning.
However as I travel the city and the state, I meet many young attorneys who want more specific, day-to-day professionalism advice. Their requests often boil down to this single question: how should I act in the workplace as a new lawyer not accustomed to the norms of the legal profession? In my years as a practicing lawyer and professional, I have learned many tips and tricks about how to succeed in this profession. I’ve also learned that when you need advice for an advice column, the best people to ask are your friends. So here, from myself and others, are 20 tips on how to be a professional young professional in today’s workplace:
- Remember that you are the newest person on the team. Millennials are well-known for their team-oriented approach to projects. This may not be an approach with which older attorneys are familiar. While you may be eager to speak and contribute, remember that for many older Xers and Boomers, deference is the first sign of respect.
- Listen first. Attorneys talk for a living. Therefore your most important job as a new attorney is to listen to what senior attorneys are telling you. Being a good listener demonstrates respect to those speaking to you, a crucial skill as you move forward in your career. To quote the Greek philosopher, Epictetus: “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”
- Incorporate feedback into your work. Many people, of all ages, respond to criticism defensively. However, for new attorneys, it is essential that you accept criticism and use it positively to create a changed work product or behavioral style. Doing so shows senior lawyers maturity, growth and respect. At the same time . . .
- Project confidence, not arrogance. Companies want to hire people who can offer their own opinions, who demonstrate enthusiasm, and who take pride and ownership in their work. That said, there is a fine line between a confident new lawyer and an arrogant one – walk it carefully.
- Triple spell- and grammar-check everything. There is no excuse for poor spelling and grammar. Print out and proofread your work before submitting it.
- Be aware of your professional dress. Err on the side of conservatism when it comes to your professional dress, especially in your early days at the job. Older attorneys, in particular, may have certain unspoken expectations as to office wear. Learn what those expectations are. And as the saying goes, “Don’t dress for the job you have; dress for the job you want.” If you want to be a partner, start dressing like one.
- Limit your personal screen time. The hours you work and bill belong to your firm and your client. Do not spend those hours on personal blogs, social media accounts, shopping websites, etc. And remember, your company is well within its rights to track any personal use you make of company-provided devices.
- Know your audience. This applies to both office etiquette and work product. A senior partner often wants important highlights quickly, while a more junior associate might want more details in your report. Always understand the needs of the person to whom you are reporting, and anticipate any future needs down the road.
- Respond to communications promptly, respectfully and in the same medium you received them. In other words, do not email in response to a voicemail, and unless text messaging is specifically initiated by your partner or client, do not use text messages as your communication medium.
- Learn to navigate the organization’s culture. Every office, company and law firm has an organizational culture. You will benefit greatly from spending your first months listening, observing and learning those cultural norms so you can modulate your behavior accordingly.
- Create to-do lists to maximize efficiency. You will have multiple demands on your limited time. To-do lists will allow you to schedule responsibilities and handle various commitments effectively.
- Make sure you manage expectations. Do not over-commit yourself. You will end up producing sub-standard work product for attorneys who expect superior work product. Better to under-promise and over-deliver than do the opposite.
- If you don’t know, ask. While asking too many questions is one of the major criticisms of the Millennial generation, it is also essential that you understand the scope of your assignment before tackling it. Get as much information as you can at the very beginning of an assignment and check-in with the assigning attorney when necessary.
- Treat all staff with respect and courtesy. Everyone in your office deserves the same respect and courtesy you would like them to show to you.
- Always follow the ethical path. There are many ethical rules that apply to lawyers, some of which are common sense, others of which are not. Learn and apply these ethical rules to your daily practice.
- Engage in your legal community. The legal community is very welcoming to new lawyers. Take advantage of the many bar associations, alumni groups and community organizations outside of your school and immerse yourself in your greater legal community.
- Manage your finances. Much of the advice you receive in law school focuses on student debt, but remember, your student debt is just one part of your larger financial plan. Learn about savings, retirement funds, investment portfolios, mortgages, and, if applicable, childcare costs and college tuition plans. All of these, and more, will play a crucial role in your lifetime financial picture.
- Keep track of your accomplishments. You are your single best advocate. Throughout your career, keep track of memoranda, projects, reviews, recommendations, and anything that demonstrates how you have positively developed as a professional.
- Challenge yourself. Do not be content with doing a passable job. Be creative and innovative. Learn about your company or firm and always be willing to offer new ideas and tackle new projects.
- Find a mentor. I’ve said it before so I will repeat it here. Find a mentor, someone who can offer you career advice, sponsor your success and stay a friend and guide throughout your career. It will take some time to find your match, but the pay-off is worth it.
So there you have it. Our 20 tips for young attorneys on being a professional in the workplace. Do you have some other advice? Feel free to share in the comments; you can start your mentoring of a newer attorney right now.