Legal English Online - General Basics of Building a Successful Law Career

Building a successful Law Career - Part 1

General basics

In this first article, I am just going to speak about the initial requirements, the building blocks you will need to use, to become successful. In future articles I am going to explain how to use each of these blocks and how to acquire and practice the skills needed by successful lawyers in their careers.

Building a successful career requires planning, ability and a measure of good luck. The planning you can do for yourself. Abilities are things that you can acquire, or improve, so again, it’s up to you to put the effort in. The luck often comes from the amount of effort and work we put in, so a lot of it is up to you – Golfers say, ‘The more I practice, the luckier I become’. In the legal world, we can help create our own luck by acquiring and honing our abilities and working effectively towards our goals.

The first question to be asked and answered in any article of this kind is, ‘What do you mean by successful?’ Success means different things to different people. It is a general truism that people who have not yet achieved great wealth in their life, tend to believe that their lives will be happier if they are rich, which doesn’t always turn out to be the case. So I have set out some simple goals to be achieved in a lawyer’s professional life, which are usually mentioned when lawyers draw up lists of what it is to be successful. The point about this particular list is that it, even if you disagree with it, it is essential to have goals if you wish to push yourself to achieve something in life. If you haven’t achieved anything, how can you say that you are successful?

Most lawyers want:

  1. To work in an area of law that they enjoy and find interesting
  2. To receive sufficient income for their work to enable them to live comfortably
  3. To receive an income which is greater than other lawyers working in the same field
  4. To be acknowledged both by other lawyers and clients as being professional and knowledgeable
  5. To achieve a work/life balance that allows them to enjoy a life away from their work

If we assume that a successful lawyer is one who achieves all 5 of the items listed above, then the question becomes how to do this? There is no one unique formula but many successful lawyers have followed a similar simple route and I am going to repeat it here. You can modify it to suit your particular likes and dislikes and also your own particular goals, but these qualities, and the help mentioned, has assisted many to success. Whatever you put in your list, however, there is one rule to follow to begin – do not make money your paramount goal! You will be happier, less stressed, and generally more fulfilled – you will also be amazed at the difference it will create to your attitude.

The first 3 points below you are probably all familiar with, but I am going to repeat them anyway, as they are essential for any kind of law career success. The remaining 5 points are those that successful lawyers have stuck to, to ensure they achieved success.

The first thing for any young lawyer is, Study! You must know and understand the law! There is no substitute for knowing the law! You may be the best public speaker with the best connections but you won’t be successful if you give bad legal advice. Even after you finish at university, keep on studying and reading about the law in the area you want to work in. Have you ever noticed that the expensive international law symposiums still attract senior partners and heads of law companies, still keen to gain knowledge and information – Why do you think they are doing that? They need to know the law to remain successful, let alone achieve that initial success!

The second thing is – Hard work! – Again, there is no substitute. All successful lawyers worked hard to be successful, regardless of money or family contacts. Clients will have money and contacts as well, but they will expect their lawyers to work harder than they do, and to be more knowledgeable. There will always be deadlines to meet, documents to be drawn up and meetings to be attended. You have to work hard to keep up with your rival lawyers let alone stand out from them.

Third, Preparation. Really great lawyers always say that they read, read and re-read their cases and files before they go into court, or a meeting. You are going to need confidence and that comes from knowing everything about the facts of your case and the law relating to it. Never sit around in Court, or before a negotiation, just waiting for the thing to start. There is always something useful you can be doing with your time, even reading the papers for one last time perhaps, or watch and listen to the other lawyers around you. I picked up some devastating questions and phrases from watching the lawyers in the cases being heard before the case I was in was called on. That extra 10% you are putting into your work is often what makes the difference between success and failure in the case and for your client. Remember these words from Abraham Lincoln, a truly great debater, ‘Whenever I am fixing to argue with a fellow, I spend one third of the time thinking about what I am going to say and two thirds of the time thinking about what he is going to say’. In other words he spent time preparing for the debate or argument. If you want to be successful, you must do the same.

Four – have a plan for your career. Don’t drift aimlessly from one job to another. Decide what kind of law you want to practice, what kind of organisation you want to work in and what position you want to fill in that organisation. Write it down if necessary and keep it where you can look at it frequently, so that you can see what you are aiming for. Now you can see where you want to be, the next step is to decide what is the best route to get there. You must, I repeat must, have a plan that to follow. Break the eventual goal up into smaller steps, little steps if possible – they are much easier to achieve and you will gain momentum and confidence. This means a build-up of energy, the energy you will need to achieve the goals you set for yourself. Without a step-by-step plan, most people fail to achieve their goals. Remember also that there is no point in having a plan unless you follow it. You must stick to it to achieve the career you want. You can get a great deal of help here by considering what other lawyers, whom you consider successful, did on their path to success. You will probably find that they all had a broadly similar path. All you have to do is to follow their proven route.

Five. I cannot over-stress the importance and the help you can get from having a successful lawyer as your mentor. They have already been along the route that you want to take and they can tell you what is, or is not, important. Many global corporations have a mentoring structure built into their management systems to help those with potential achieve the success they want. Do you think these companies waste their money on this as a gimmick? Mentoring works, and if you are lucky enough to find a successful lawyer to mentor or advise you then take their advice. It may unlock the doors to the success you want.

The sixth point is closely related to having a plan. Whatever you do in your career always think about how it will look on your CV. There are some jobs, which may give you all the freedom you want but they are with organisations that no one has ever heard of, or in positions that give no scope for development or initiative. As a general rule try to work for well-known law companies that other potential employers will know and respect. It is probably better for your long-term career to be an associate at Herbert Smith, for example, rather than a manager in a 2-partner firm unknown outside the city where it has its office – regardless of whether it is a higher salary. Remember building your career is intended to pay off later when you achieve the success you listed in your plan. Always keep an eye on the eventual financial rewards, if this is one of your measures, not what you will earn along the lower part of the path.

Seven – observe the lawyers around you whom you consider successful. What is it they are doing that makes them a success? Make sure that you do the same. We become what we keep thinking about. If you think, work and act like a successful lawyer then you will become a successful lawyer.

The eighth and last thing, but most important of all, is Determination. Things will not always be easy or simple and there will be disappointments along your route. Think of the great men and women of history – do you think they never had a disappointment or hit a difficulty? The reason why they became successful was that they kept going in spite of difficulties and setbacks. They were determined. When you hit a difficulty just go back to the plan you have drawn and see where you want to be. You must keep your momentum going. Are you going to let one bad client, or one new difficulty, stop you from getting what you know you can achieve, of course not! As lawyers, we have the luxury of having new work and cases every week. You are only as good, or as bad, as your last case. Tomorrow is another day and another chance to move forward on your planned route. Keep remembering how you will feel when you have achieved the things you listed in your plan and can say ‘I’m a success’.

Part 1 - Some general basics
Part 2 - Growing  your own professional client base – Networking Events
Part 3 - Essential skills – The Ability to speak in Public
Part 4 - Writing a successful CV
Part 5 - Giving a successful Interview – What to do and what not to do
Part 6 - Letter writing skills
Part 7 - Deciding which area of law to work in
Part 8 - Seven skills that will land you work experience at a law firm
Part 9 - How to move your career into top gear – Winning quick promotions
Part 10 - The Key to moving ahead in your career – Mastering Legal English!