Answering Legal’s “Everything Except the Law” podcast, recently welcomed attorney Laura Terrell as a guest. Terrell is a veteran of the White House and the Justice Department, and has held a number of high-profile jobs in the legal world proper. She now works as an executive coach for legal professionals, so she was the perfect guest to talk to about how to push your career to new heights.
Of course, this is a topic people have been writing books about for years. Terrell herself has had an illustrious career, and her advice focused specifically on how to build your legal career without sacrificing your health.
We invite you, as you read this blog, to take stock of where you are, where you’re going, and how you want to get there. We’ve taken inspiration from Terrell’s guest spot and picked five of the tips she gave to dive a little deeper on. By the end of this blog, we hope you come away with a new way to grow your career without sacrificing your health.
1. Ask Your Peers
If there’s a theme running through these tips, it’s that connections are highly important in the legal world. Our first tip for growing your legal career is to ask your peers how they did it.
We know how this sounds; we’re supposed to be the ones giving you tips, but we’re asking you to ask questions to those around you. But the best advice you’ll get on how to advance your career is from others who have had to do the same as you have, in the same firm or the same market that you’re working in.
For law firm owners, that means speaking to other attorneys who might have some advice about how your local legal environment works. It’s not so much about seeking help from your competition; rather, it’s a lot more like swapping war stories. When you’re at a lawyer’s lunch or some other networking event, make sure to ask your fellow law firm owners what it was like starting out.
There’s an expectation of perfection in the legal profession, and a fear of failure and making mistakes. Some of your peers may not be willing to share these stories. If local competitors don’t want to share their secrets to success, you should try connecting with peers in your practice area via online groups or at legal conferences.
Either way, not talking about the common struggles lawyers share can lead to burnout and exhaustion, as studies have been finding lately. You’ll learn something, feel better, and help your peers out, all at the same time.
2. Develop Relationships Before You Need Them
A career is a long-term project; with any luck, you’ll spend most of your life developing and working at it. Across all that time, it can be difficult to predict what you need and when. But there are two roads through a career: one where you have a bevy of connections you can rely on when you need them, and one where you have to go looking when you’re in need.
Think about it this way: when you’re talking to someone who is interested in extracting a favor from you, it doesn’t feel real. Genuine working relationships don’t have that quality; there’s a constant give and take, and communication throughout. You should strive to build those relationships constantly, before you’ll need them.
For example, if you’re new at your firm or in the legal world and you take one thing from this blog, it should be to find a mentor as soon as you can. Studies show that 97 percent of people who have had a mentor in their career report that it was a useful experience, but only 37 percent of professionals have a mentor.
Try to find a senior attorney and ask them questions about their career, about any books that they’ve found particularly helpful, any organizations you might join. Hopefully, you’ll develop a long-term relationship that will be mutually beneficial. If you’re an associate at a firm, the best possible option would be to find a senior attorney at your firm to ask these questions.
However, for solos and law firm owners, that’s not exactly possible. That’s where networking comes in. Networking remains an important part of legal life. Connecting with your peers is a great way to form working relationships that will pay off down the line. It takes a bit of work to keep these relationships going, but in a lot of cases, that work can be fun. Keeping contact through anything from lunches to golf outings to watching baseball games together is key to making sure these relationships last.
3. Build Your Confidence
It can be easy to look at a tip like “Build Your Confidence” and decide you don’t need to worry about it. While that may be true, we invite you to read this section anyway. Think of it as an opportunity to analyze your progress honestly and make goals to push forward into the coming years.
Do you feel like you earned your current position? It’s not an exaggeration to say everybody experiences impostor syndrome. Roughly three quarters of lawyers experience it at some point in their career. For those facing down a new job in the legal field, if you’re ever feeling like you don’t belong, it’s important to understand that you were hired for a reason. It’s not about your skills; it’s about your potential.
For law firm owners and solo practitioners, it can be easy to look at a slow quarter as a sign of failure. Remembering that you were hired for a reason doesn’t mean much when you’re your own boss. Instead, take a moment to push those feelings aside. Reckon with them by using them as fuel to push forward and make the next quarter better. If you let your confidence suffer, you will feel the repercussions throughout your career.
Regardless of where you are in your career, confidence is key. Not bluster or bravado, but the easy confidence that comes from knowing you are where you belong. Connections and career developments will follow once those around you can feel how confident you are. Think of it this way: would you rather hire an attorney who was confident in themselves or one who was unsure?
4. Create Your Own Opportunities
Creating your own opportunities just means not waiting for clients to fall into your lap, but rather going out and making things happen.
Solos and law firm owners also need to focus on building a reputation, but with clients instead of with their colleagues. Marketing, of course, plays a huge part in developing a reputation. Lawyers can always stand to learn more about it; Clio reports 26 percent of law firms don’t even track their leads!
But as important as marketing is, reputation comes from personal connections as well. Trust is key to getting clients to hire you; they need to believe that you’ll be able to help them. Relationships, both professional and personal, will build a reputation that will persist beyond your marketing. People trust the word of those around them; that’s why word-of-mouth is such a valuable part of building a brand.
Word of mouth is also the hardest part of building a brand; there are some things that can’t be faked. That’s why it’s important to be genuine. Even though “lawyer jokes” have died down, people are still skeptical when hiring legal help. Build relationships through your work, and you’ll soon find you’ve created a network of opportunities for yourself.
5. Develop Your Skills
Finally, the last piece of advice we’ll highlight from the interview is to develop your skills. No matter where you are in your career, you never know where you might be in five years. Developing skills that might help you before you’ll need them is a great way to ease the stress and uncertainty of a legal career.
Attorneys are specialists, but that doesn’t mean you need to focus on just one thing. If you can afford the time, try to diversify your practice. Branching out can, of course, attract more clients. But it can also prepare you for market shifts. If you’re ready to pivot when one of your practice areas dries up, you’ll avoid dragging your firm through a slow period.
Next, every attorney should focus on improving their communication skills. Attorneys are professional communicators, sure, but as Terrell put it, lawyers are great advocates for their clients and terrible advocates for themselves. Between selling themselves too hard or overpromising, lawyers can set themselves up for failure in a lot of different ways through poor communication.
The key, Terrell said, was to develop honest communication skills and seek feedback. Honest communication boils down to asking your clients what they need, and being honest about what you can provide. The more you can do for a client, the better, but maximizing billable hours by pitching unnecessary work won’t necessarily build the best relationships with your clients and keep them coming back.
Bonus Tip: Maintain A Healthy Work/Life Balance
Perhaps what Terrell emphasized most throughout her interview is making sure to take all things in balance. Her advice boiled down to focusing on your career, of course, but also remembering that what happens after you head home for the night matters too.
Some quick tips:
- Schedule wellness into your calendar, whether that be exercise or meditation or even just taking a break. Putting something on your calendar makes you accountable, at the very least to yourself.
- If you’re not feeling well, ask to reschedule. This goes double for sudden requests and calls that come in at the last minute.
- And most of all, Terrell advised, keep your health in mind at all times. Your career won’t do much for you if you’re not healthy enough to enjoy it.
If you’d like to check the podcast out and hear Terrell in her own words, click here.
And if you’d like to carve out more time for yourself, check out Answering Legal. Our specialized virtual receptionists will screen your calls and capture leads for you while you can focus on your work, your wellness, or your family. If you’d like to learn more about our service, click here to check out our blog.
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