Because when you’re a new attorney and new to the professional world, it’s easy to think that your firm or boss will always keep your career growth in mind. And some might! Some firms are really good at performance evaluation and career development, but your career is too important to leave in the hands of others.
It’s important to set long-term and short term goals for yourself so that regardless of what your firm does or doesn’t do, you are developing as an attorney and have the skills and experience to succeed anywhere you go–if you do ultimately decide to go somewhere else.
If I were doing it all over again I would focus on a long-term goal and on gaining skills/expertise. The work may seem the same for both, but not always.
Long-term goals are really about the career trajectory you want. Imagine your career in five years, or ten, what do you want to being doing? What is the path to that position? Do you want to make partner? Do you want to join the government? Start your own practice? Working towards a long-term goal will help guide some of your career decisions and will motivate you as you do the day to day work. When I first started working my long-term goal was to make senior attorney within six years (the earliest I would be eligible for the promotion). I kept track of the requirements and made sure that each year I felt more and more comfortable about how I could show that I was eligible. By the time the six year mark rolled around, I felt really confident about my application and how prepared I was. Six years seems like a long time, but in the legal world those big promotions generally take time so it’s important to not lose your eye on the prize.
Ok so maybe your goal is to make equity partner, which could take years or become a director, which could take longer. You can’t just obsess about this long-term plan. In the interim, it’s important to identify skills and expertise you want to gain to improve your legal practice. Really take the time to assess what you’d like to become better at–not just better, but eventually be able to teach others your skills or be known in the community as the “go-to” for a certain subject matter.
Once you know what those are, map out what you need to strengthen those skills. Do you need to work on specific cases? Increase knowledge on certain topics? Attend more technical trainings? Maybe it’s all of the above. I’ve mentioned before that when I was practicing, I was never in court. Immigration is administrative so I wasn’t gaining litigation skills that I thought I needed. Instead, I took every opportunity to do community presentations, trainings, and panels to increase my public speaking skills. Sometimes you have to piecemeal things together but when you know your ultimate goal then it’s easier to identify opportunities that will help you grow.
Finally, for both the long-term goal and skill development, it’s important to track it! Because the one thing that is true about legal practice is that one day you look up and five, ten years have passed. You want to make sure that the time passed happened in a way that benefits you. Do check-ins with yourself to see what you can do on a yearly basis (at least) to develop your career. Most importantly, don’t fear re-assessing those goals! Ideas and plans you had as a bb lawyer can change. You can be exposed to a new practice area, new sector or life circumstances change that require a different approach. Being lenient with yourself is just as important.
Finally (for real), sometimes we set goals in our first job which depend on us sticking around in that firm for a long time. Those goals may work for people and you may stick to them for years (like I did!) but don’t force yourself to stay in a place where you’re not growing simply because you’re guilting yourself about meeting some goal. If you’re not blooming, go some place that will help you grow. Goals can always be re-set and above all you deserve a career that fulfills and empowers you, even if it doesn’t look like what you imagined the day you took your oath.