As the old adage goes, “The only constant is change.” Right now, attorneys and other law firm professionals in BigLaw are facing an unusual degree of uncertainty. Even if you’re currently achieving success, your position may feel tenuous in light of the ongoing pandemic, social unrest, and a barrage of novel challenges—the effects of which are felt in every facet of our lives.
Despite these substantial and pervasive challenges, how do you maximize your professional success where you are now—and set the stage for ongoing career growth? This is no time to rest on your laurels or take your position for granted. As the landscape of the legal industry continues to change in the coming months, no matter your seniority or career stage, it’s crucial to take proactive steps to ensure your continued success.
Below we explore three areas on which you can strategically focus your efforts to ensure that your career continues to flourish—no matter what the world throws at you.
Focus area #1: Your work
Build productive practices
Law firms, as well as their attorneys and professional staff, are in new territory when it comes to managing workflow and remote work processes—and that upheaval can open the door to less-than-ideal new habits. Whether you’re working from home or returning (perhaps part-time) to a reconfigured office life, maintaining your productivity is imperative. To ensure your output doesn’t plummet, it’s important to proactively create routines, control distractions, and communicate more effectively than ever.
Overall, law firms have been pleasantly surprised by how well their people have been able to shift to remote work arrangements, but the physical distance that results from these arrangements makes a systematic approach to communication imperative. (We’ll go into more detail on this topic below in section 2.)
In addition, humans are habit-forming creatures—and being intentional about your approach to working is the key to developing the kind of habits that help you succeed. Depending on your circumstances, the rhythm of your own productivity may have changed (e.g., you may be juggling a variety of responsibilities and distractions at home). Not everyone can replicate their in-office work habits these days. The key is to create and protect dedicated time to focus and work effectively, even if your daily work schedule has changed. For tips on effective remote work practices, take a look at this blog post.
Finally, remember that productive habits must be sustainable to succeed—burning yourself out will undermine the quantity and quality of your output. Build in the breaks you need to recharge and attend to your self-care, especially if you are working from home and find your work-life boundaries eroding. There are many practices to support wellness (such as those covered in this post) that you can adapt to your current circumstances.
Sharpen your skills
Expanding your skill sets through online professional development can keep your career momentum going—so take advantage of those opportunities when you can. Although it’s not always possible to find time and energy for yet another endeavor while balancing the stressors of uncertainty and change (both at work and in your personal life), make time to focus on the fundamentals. You may wish to take some of these actions:
Remain fluent on the webinars and other training programs your firm is offering online.
Build time into your routine to perform professional research and reading to deepen your knowledge of your practice area.
Deepen your expertise in your clients’ industries by following relevant industry organizations on social media.
Hone your writing skills by reading broadly with an analytical eye for the elements of effective prose.
Stay visible and valuable
When you’re not in close proximity to colleagues and supervisors, you face the potential pitfall of being “out of sight, out of mind.” The onus is on you to ensure your work—and the value it brings to the team—is seen.
That doesn’t mean bombarding others with messages about your every activity. Instead, develop a thoughtful and dependable approach to communicating with those both up and down the chain in order to remain aligned with your colleagues. Consider the following approaches:
Establish a regular cadence of check-ins with your supervisors (and keep them efficient).
Take responsibility for following up with colleagues and providing genuinely helpful updates.
Share the news when you reach a notable milestone—not to brag, but to highlight the value of your and your entire team’s efforts.
Focus area #2: Your relationships
Manage your manager
The people who manage you aren’t immune to the anxieties inspired by this year’s substantial uncertainty and change—and the easier you make their lives, the more you demonstrate your value. Managers differ widely in their approaches, so consider how your supervisor tends to operate and adjust accordingly.
Lots of supervisors (especially if they’re of a “bodies-in-seats” mindset) may channel their anxiety into a tendency toward micromanagement. One way to encourage a shift into a more effective approach is to start every morning by emailing your supervisor a list of the three things you’ll achieve that day; this is not a to-do list, but an overview of the outcomes that will define success for the day. You might close the loop at the end of the day by sending a follow-up email noting what you achieved. Micromanaging tends to dissipate when your supervisor feels well-informed of not just your actions, but the results you’ve produced. Over time, you may find that your supervisor’s trust in you will have grown and daily check-ins may shift to weekly ones instead.
Other supervisors may be the polar opposite of a micromanager—disconnected or hard to engage. Establishing a routine of email check-ins with them has the benefit of keeping you and your value consistently on the radar. Focus such emails on your accomplishments and the specific things you need from your supervisor to succeed in your work.
If you’re blessed with the ideal supervisor—someone who effectively balances offering autonomy with providing needed support, all while remaining fully engaged with the team in spite of the challenges posed by this moment—rise to the occasion and engage with your manager in turn, seizing not only the opportunity to enhance your learning, but to see firsthand how to cultivate your own supervisory skills.
If you supervise others, it’s important to not only “manage up” with your own supervisor, but ensure you’re managing your team in a way that supports productivity and reduces stress. These tips for remote teamwork may come in handy.
Connect with colleagues
You won’t be bumping into coworkers in the kitchen at your house or having friendly elevator chats in a socially distanced office. You’re in close virtual contact with those on your immediate team, but you’ll have to make a concerted effort to nurture your connections with other colleagues. It’s especially important to do so with those who have influence and decision-making power when it comes to promotions.
Keep up with those relationships by reaching out periodically (perhaps once a month or so) to catch up. A fifteen-minute chat to ask about the progress of matters or discuss firm and industry news will keep those connections from withering on the vine. In addition, when your practice group, office head, or other firm leader holds a town hall-style meeting, be sure to attend in order to connect broadly with your colleagues and to remain abreast of important firm developments.
Connecting with coworkers can also be an important way to foster more inclusion at your firm. This blog post has ideas to help you in that pursuit.
Because your clients are facing just as much uncertainty as you are, now is an ideal time to enhance your relationship-building skills. This is where empathy is your greatest asset. Put yourself in your clients’ shoes and take time to learn about what they want and need. Consider ways in which you could do the following:
Understand the challenges clients face and, when you have the chance, offer advice generously.
Anticipate clients’ concerns and communicate proactively to alleviate those worries.
Examine your approach to client service and ask yourself how you can bring more trust and collaboration to the table in every interaction.
If you have fewer opportunities for direct client interaction, find ways to expand your awareness and understanding of their world views in your conversations with your supervisors.
Focus area #3: Your future
Amplify your accomplishments
As firms face an uncertain economic landscape, you want to ensure that you’re viewed as an indispensable asset. Your supervisors might know what you’re working on—but do they know what you’ve achieved?
Many attorneys discuss their accomplishments with their supervisors only during annual reviews. Make it a habit to communicate your value to your manager regularly, not by “selling” yourself, per se, but by making sure those with whom you work remain aware of what you’ve accomplished, e.g., through the daily or weekly email updates mentioned above. Don’t assume other leaders in the firm know what you’ve contributed; seek appropriate channels to share with them the positive results you’ve achieved. And, crucially, ensure those results—and the goals you’re pursuing—align with the priorities that matter to your firm’s leadership.
If you’re more senior and in a position to do so, you can help set the tone for this approach by highlighting the contributions of those who support you.
Nurture your network
Your career success is entwined with an ecosystem of colleagues, mentors, law school and firm alumni, and professional contacts. To succeed where you are now, you need to invest in the health of that interconnected ecosystem. Here are some effective approaches:
Nurture your “weak ties”—people you don’t know well or haven’t spoken to for some time—so that they grow into strong connections.
Seek out mentorship from attorneys whose work you particularly admire.
Join professional organizations to connect virtually with people outside your current firm.
When you develop the habit of regularly nurturing your broader network, you give yourself the advantage of a strong support system that will enrich your skills and bolster your career growth, whatever the future brings. In turn, find ways to support others in cultivating their own networks both within and outside the firm.
Even if you’re not job-searching, this blog post on using LinkedIn has many useful tips for your routine networking efforts.
Is the fear of more business downturns or potential layoffs looming in your mind? Turn that worry into proactive planning. There’s no way to know exactly how things will change in the near future—if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that there’s much that’s beyond our control.
That said, focus on what you can control by arming yourself with information and gaming out possible scenarios so you can feel more prepared to navigate uncertain waters. Consider the following actions:
Make sure you know what your firm’s promotion process looks like now and how you can stay apprised of changes.
If you’re on a specific growth track, talk to your supervisors about whether it may shift.
Keep abreast of your firm’s business strategy and seek opportunities to work in areas that align with it. If you see the firm pivoting to focus on particular practice areas in demand at the moment, consider whether there are ways in which you can contribute to the growth of those practice areas.
Take a broad view of the future. Make it a habit to keep up with news and information on the career landscape of not just your practice area, but the larger legal industry. Maintaining awareness of the industry at large will position you to seize valuable opportunities, whether you continue on your current trajectory or shift your focus in the future.
In order to “bloom where you’re planted,” as the saying goes, you must continually nourish the soil in which you grow. The importance of proactive efforts to enhance your skills and achievements is magnified by this moment of uncertainty. To succeed in your current position—and set yourself up for new opportunities as circumstances change—requires a commitment to ongoing self-improvement and relationship-building that will help you map your path forward in an ever-changing landscape.