Moving From Junior Associate to Valued Asset, The Legal Intelligencer
As law firms continue to increase their productivity and operating efficiency, they are expecting greater contributions at every level of the organization, including their most junior ranks. Being a junior associate can prove challenging for anyone. However, research has shown that women of color may find themselves in particularly challenging circumstances, given the intersection of race and gender.
When surveyed, women of color often reported experiencing greater challenges to inclusion and advancement in law firms than either white women or men of color. Catalyst's recent report, "Women of Color in U.S. Law Firms," reported that more than 75 percent of women of color associates leave their firms by their fifth year of practice. According to NALP--the Association for Legal Career Professionals, in 2010 minority women accounted for only 10.9 percent of associates.
While increasing the number of women of color in law firms may require firms to consider additional ways to attract and retain this group, the solution also requires women of color to take a proactive approach to their careers from day one. If you are a junior associate, instead of keeping your head down and hoping that your relative lack of experience will go unnoticed, below are some tips to help you move from being viewed merely as a junior associate to a valued asset.• Knowing your role is good, but knowing your value is better. In a law firm, doing excellent work is a given. However, not all excellent work is created equal, and by itself it is often not enough to get you to the next level. Knowing from the onset how your efforts will be valued is critical. There are a number of ways to determine the types of contributions (billable and non-billable) that your firm values.
Understand the expectations. A recent Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA) study reported that only 50 percent of minorities reported getting timely and useful feedback in comparison with 65 percent of whites, and only 49 percent of female associates reported getting timely and useful feedback, in comparison with 58 percent of male associates.
Even if it may be hard to come by, asking for specific and frequent feedback related to your performance is essential. Before you complete your next assignment and definitely before your next formal performance evaluation, have a clear sense of what is expected of you both in the short and long term. In some firms, expectations for associate performance and the criteria for partnership consideration are published and easy to locate. In others, it may not be so transparent, and you may have to rely on observing successful individuals within your practice group and the firm to develop your own blueprint for success. In either situation, be persistent and obtain as much information as you need to make sure that you are adding value to the firm.
Differentiate yourself. In any given situation, you may have a particular skill, experience or background that no one else shares and is of extreme value to the team. Being able to recognize and offer this unique value at the appropriate moment allows you to move from merely doing excellent and timely work to becoming a sought-after resource.
• Follow the leader. Associates are often required to manage multiple partner relationships. In their 1980 article for Harvard Law Review, "Managing Your Boss," John J. Gabarro and John P. Kotter provide a number of helpful insights on what it takes to work with a superior (for our purposes a partner) to obtain maximum results. One of the key points is that the relationship involves two people. The authors acknowledge that it is important to seek out information about a partner's objectives, concerns and pressures and to look for clues in the partner's behavior, not only when you begin working for that partner, but on a continuous basis.
However, they also make the critical observation that the partner is only a part of the equation. As the other half, you need to know what it is about your own style, strengths or personality that may be impeding or cultivating an effective working relationship. And while neither of you may change, at least you will have a better idea of how each party can strengthen the relationship.
One way to cultivate these relationships is to get to know partners outside of the often high-pressure confines of an assignment. As noted in the ABA's report, "From Visible Invisibility to Visibly Successful," it is important not only to show up for social events, but to use them as opportunities for people to get to know you better and vice versa.• You should be seen and heard. The Catalyst study found that women of color were least likely to be satisfied with the extent to which they had access to high-profile engagements. While high-profile exposure is great and you should seek it out any chance you get, here are some ways to maximize any and all opportunities, as you never know where they will lead.
Capitalize on the tone set by senior colleagues. In meetings or on calls with clients, I was fortunate to have partners and senior associates who allowed me to participate meaningfully in these interactions. The tone set by my colleagues signaled to clients that I was a valued member of the team.
Communicate with confidence. How we express ourselves is often a combination of personality, the culture in which we were raised, and the training (both formal and informal) that we've received. Striking a balance between an authentic and effective communication style can take some practice. A number of firms offer professional development courses on communication. In the absence of, or in addition to, formal offerings, identify successful communicators and determine how you might be able to incorporate some of their practices into your own style.
Consider the details. Sometimes my sole responsibility in a meeting was to be the keeper of the deal documents. While this role wasn't particularly glamorous, it was critical. Having neat and well-ordered files reassured the client that our team was organized and efficient. In addition to knowing where all of the documents were, for each one, I took care to: understand what it said, why it was important to the transaction, and when it might be called upon in the meeting.• Don't talk to strangers (without a plan). The Catalyst study reported that women of color were significantly less likely than white women to speak to those senior to them within the firm and also less likely to speak to men and white colleagues in general. In a profession driven by relationships, building a broad and varied network of people outside of your immediate and likely most deep connections, can provide you with information to which you might not have otherwise had access. Such information can serve a number of benefits, including helping you solve client problems more efficiently; identifying critical, yet not completely obvious, resources (human and otherwise) within the firm; and supplying additional individuals to help you develop and advance.
One mentor, two mentors, many mentors. As noted in an MCCA publication on mentoring, having a mentor is essential for all lawyers' career advancement and is especially important for women and minorities.
Some firms offer formal mentoring programs and, if you're shy, these are a good way to start building relationships with partners you may have otherwise been too nervous to approach. However, few people will find one mentor sufficient for the duration of their careers. As noted above, the best mentors aren't always the ones with whom you have the greatest affinity, but are those who you can trust to take your best interests into account.
Assemble a board of directors. Building on the concept of multiple individuals serving the same role is the idea of having multiple individuals in different roles, i.e., a board of directors. It's up to you to define their roles and responsibilities. If you're looking for a place to get started, Expect to Win by Carla A. Harris provides a detailed discussion of mentors, advisers and sponsors.
• When you're handed lemons, make lemonade. At a certain point in your career, you may be asked to take on responsibilities that fail to capture your interest, force you to confront your weaknesses, or seem completely unrelated to your career development plans. In any of these instances, it's important to make the best of the less desirable aspects of your job. There may be hidden opportunities, such as a chance to work with a new partner or client, an opportunity to gain skills that will differentiate you from your peers, or even give you exposure to a new substantive area of law or industry of which you were unaware.• Even if you're not complaining, you may have to turn the car around. There may come a time when you're no longer the most junior person in the room, but you still find yourself in a situation that has more burdens than benefits. As you consider your next steps, the lessons above still apply - namely, what differentiates you from others, what are some of the things that worked well as you managed up and what could have been improved, how did you create meaningful visibility for yourself, who are the people in your network that can help you get to the next step, and most importantly, what makes you happy?
Reprinted with permission from the April 11, 2011 edition of the "Legal Intelligencer." © 2011ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited.