Planning to Be a Successful Lawyer: An IDEA for 2014

January 9, 2014Articles The Legal Intelligencer

Happy New Year! This greeting is often accompanied by excitement, celebration, maybe some bubbly, and if you are lucky, a kiss from a loved one. Entering the new year is an exciting time, filled with eager anticipation for what 2014 will bring. It is also a time of reflection, looking back on 2013 and what might have been. Somewhere between this reflection and anticipation is where we form our New Year's resolutions, which are often focused on self-improvement, both personally and professionally.

For me, New Year's resolutions have always been pretty standard: make more, spend less and get in better shape. While New Year's resolutions are often easy to say, they are hard to actually accomplish without a plan. Controlling spending, for example, is impossible without developing and committing to a budget. Similarly, weight loss can be hard to accomplish without a strict diet and exercise schedule.

As with New Year's resolutions, career goals are also easier said than done, even harder to define, and difficult to achieve without careful planning.

In order to be a successful lawyer, you must have an IDEA for becoming one:

  • Identify goals you hope to achieve.
  • Define those goals.
  • Evaluate how you plan to achieve them.
  • Apply your plan to accomplish those goals.

Effective planning takes time, thought and effort, so while New Year's resolutions are in full swing, take the time now to develop your IDEA for 2014.

First, identify what you want to accomplish this year, and be specific. Consider what you believe it takes to be a successful lawyer, and determine what you need to do to become one. When setting goals, it is important to be realistic and know your limitations.

Second, define your goals and understand why they are important to your overall success. It is not enough just to determine what you want to accomplish this year; once you have chosen your goals, you must understand how they fit into the bigger picture. Your career is a marathon, not a sprint, and each of your goals should be steps toward the finish line.

Third, evaluate how to reach your goals and develop an action plan. Once you have identified and defined your goals, the real work begins. Brainstorm reachable, intermediate steps that will help you reach your goals, and set deadlines for yourself. It is also important to have accountability. I have found that it helps to talk your plan through with someone else, such as a mentor, colleague or significant other, who can then support you on your path to success.

Finally, apply your action plan to achieve your goals. While you may not ultimately succeed in the way you planned, as long-term goals can be somewhat fluid, understanding the bigger picture and developing an action plan will enable you to take positive steps this year toward building a successful career.

My IDEA this year is to become a more successful lawyer. While this is a very nebulous concept, I have focused on three areas of professional development that I believe most contribute to a lawyer's success: skills and experience; business and marketing; and competence in a particular practice area. While many lawyers have excelled by focusing on only one of these areas, I know that, at this stage of my career, I must keep all three in mind.

As a young lawyer, the importance of developing legal skills early on cannot be understated. These will be different depending on the area of law that you practice, as well as your level of experience or seniority.

I am a fifth-year litigation associate at a large law firm, so I have identified certain skills that I want to improve on by year-end. My initial brainstorming has led me to develop a checklist of experiences, such as taking more depositions and appearing in court. I have defined these as essential skills for a successful litigator, which I need to further develop as I build my own practice.

In evaluating how I want to attain these goals, I understand that no partner is just going to let me take the lead on a deposition or address the court without first having confidence in me. Thus, my action plan involves inspiring that confidence through producing great work product, taking part in at least one speaking engagement, and becoming more well versed in even the minutia of my cases. Through applying these steps, I hope to build a greater litigation resume and position myself to take on more advanced experiences going forward.

Building business and personal marketing are areas of professional development that I am just starting to cultivate. Until now, I have mostly been focused on networking, building connections and affiliating with organizations and associations. However, for 2014, I have identified that I need to strengthen these connections by making them more personal. I have defined this goal to fit into my long-term path by understanding that making connections with many people may help to get my foot in the door, but I will only bring in business as a lawyer when someone trusts my judgment, which they will only do once I establish a solid relationship with them.

Thus, in evaluating how to achieve this goal, I am planning on scheduling more lunches and outings within my network in 2014. By applying this, and spending more one-on-one time with colleagues and contacts, I hope to increase the likelihood of being considered for business this year.

While it is not necessary to have a niche practice to be a successful lawyer, having competence in a particular practice area has certainly been a well-trodden path to distinguishing oneself from the competition.

As I spent the first four years of my career focused on white-collar and securities litigation, I know that I need to identify ways to further develop this area of my practice. In defining this goal, I recognize that clients are often looking for knowledgeable attorneys to handle their cases, and I believe that becoming more familiar with this area of the law will enable me to focus my practice and be a reliable resource for clients and colleagues.

Evaluating my action plan has led me to spend more time reading and writing on white-collar and securities litigation topics. Through applying this plan, I expect to be more knowledgeable about the specific litigation issues in these areas that are facing potential clients.

While my personal IDEA may not apply to your own career, as I am sure many of you are at different stages in your careers or focus on a different legal practice, I hope that you seize this opportunity to plan for the year ahead.

As we enter this new year, I challenge you to cement your career resolutions by mapping out what you hope to accomplish and having an IDEA of where you want to take your career in 2014.

"Reprinted with permission from the January 9 issue of The Legal Intelligencer. (c) 2014 ALM Media Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved."

This article also appeared in the New Jersey Law Journal and The American Lawyer.