A Guide For The Young Associate.
Much of my work with lawyers involves helping them get out of their head-down mentality to see and enact a life-path that includes but goes beyond simply being an expert in a given area of law. Yet everything about my approach assumes that a lawyer has reached the level of being a competent, ethical professional who can use his or her skill as a platform to move into to an even larger life of meaning, influence, and significance. I believe that it is essential for all lawyers to become proficient experts (real professionals). It’s essential to everything that comes next.
It’s likely that you already know how to do this, but in case you don’t, here’s what it takes to be an ‘expert’ in nine easy steps.
- Choose a path of specialization. You can’t be an expert in everything. You don’t have to agonize about this, since we now know that this is just a stage in your career and not a life sentence. Pick something that you at least kind of like, which is being done by people you like to be around, and involves some skill, (like writing, research or speaking), that you already have. The relational part of this—the people—is the most important piece. You won’t learn well if you don’t like the people you are learning with.
- Then, target someone who is already an expert in this area, and copy everything they do. Just copy it verbatim and don’t try to re-create the wheel. Lawyers like to be seen as smart and share what they know. Many will love to be seen as important experts to an eager, grateful mind like yours. You will stand ready to do a little ‘raccoon work’ for this person (staying up late and going through the garbage they don’t want to paw through) as your end of the bargain, but set your boundaries and don’t let this become an abusive, or permanent role.
- Join the bar section in your chosen area, meet other experts, and use all your CLE time to take specific skill-based trainings in your area in rapid order until they get boring. This is the time to log some carry-forward CLE hours, because you are about to get busy doing other stuff.
- You will then start working in your area with real clients, and go through a process of making and recovering from small, non-fatal mistakes in live fire drama. These mistakes take you to the adrenaline woodshed a few times in a way that the lessons will stick. (Such lessons are known in the medical field as gaining ‘clinical experience’).
- Learn how to fix your messes so the client does not suffer, admit you messed up and make amends instead of lying about it, and hone your system so these mistakes don’t happen again. You will improve on the system you have copied by doing this, and start making it your own.
- You will advance by presenting your knowledge in public to be recognized, typically in the form of a paper about a new case or statute, or teaching about a process you are doing. You will present this for free at the local bar association or your firm’s CLE lunch.
- You will keep abreast of the new developments, and make a big deal about them in a memo to the firm or email to everyone in your section, that almost no one will read, but announces that you know more about Section I A (3) (iv) paragraph two, second sentence of some statute, and how the dicta in Smith v. Jones affects its interpretation. It doesn’t matter that anyone could find the same information themselves in about 20 minutes, because they don’t have that 20 minutes, and will be scared that they are missing something, and probably are. When there is a question in your area, they will send stuff over to you for review and advice.
- You can take on new matters in your area of expertise. Do whatever is necessary to get a client that is yours and not someone else’s. Get the right client, which may involve turning down 4 out of the first 5 opportunities. This is essential to your career. Clients duplicate themselves—poor clients will refer other poor clients. Good clients will refer people like themselves, and usually are much easier to work with. Find someone who appreciates you, and provide them with every ounce of presence and attention you have. You can soon charge $350.00 an hour for your work, minimum, and proceed from there.
- Find some new person who also wants to be an expert and mentor them as a top priority, even if you have yet to achieve complete mastery. Your transparency toward this person will make you a better lawyer because you are being observed, and also will make you feel seen and appreciated. This mentorship is a life-giving contribution to someone else, and you’ll never regret it. Forming this intimate working relationship may be the most rewarding thing that you do in your career. By mentoring, you will create a bond with someone who has your back, which is a very nice thing to have. You will also create the beginnings of a team that you can move with if you ever need to get out of the circumstance you are now in.
Congratulations! You are now an expert. You actually have a talent that the market wants, and can expand from there horizontally if you want to. You can keep fleshing out your expertise, and even become board certified. Now, all your life, you’ll have something to fall back on.
Any reasonably intelligent person can do the first part of the journey in about 3-5 years, tops. It’s best to get started right now, because this time passes quite quickly. There is a time at the beginning of your career to lean in to the legal context just as it is, and get its benefits. Considering that you may work for 30-50 years or more, tithing your time at the beginning to become an expert is time well spent.