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Career Center: Tips on Networking Within Your Firm to Advance Your Career (Part 1)

As soon as a young attorney gets a job offer and begins working, networking typically takes a backseat until a new job search begins. This fact is not surprising. Junior associates must maintain high billable hours, participate in countless training and CLE events, and still attend various non-billable firm events. While networking and the daily tasks of a junior associate are not mutually exclusive, networking still deserves some individual and active attention from time to time.

In order to succeed and be truly satisfied with your Biglaw career, you will need to do more than to simply be a great attorney. There are thousands of talented and hardworking attorneys out there who leave the world of Biglaw jaded, unhappy, and unfulfilled. Yes, Biglaw may not be the be-all and end-all for everyone, but there are many attorneys who play the Biglaw game and play it well. By utilizing networking skills and tactics while working at a Biglaw firm, a young associate can increase his or her chances of succeeding AND being satisfied.

There are two basic goals that are common for associates in large law firms: making partner and getting better assignments. In today’s Career Center "Expert Insights" article, we will cover networking with the goal of making partner. In next week’s article, we will cover how to network to get better assignments.   We will post the complete article next week on the Associate Resources section of the Career Center (where you can find many career improvement articles).

So if your goal is to make partner, what steps should you take?

(1)  Volunteer within your firm – Be sure to attend firm-sponsored events or meetings. If the firm needs attorneys to attend a firm charity event or to participate in recruiting or pro bono activities, be one of the first ones to volunteer. Attending these events and being involved demonstrates your commitment to the firm in the long run. Additionally, partners consider the associate who is busy billing hours and attending firm events as too busy to look for another job.

With firms adding more offices and going global, it is getting harder for an associate to become visible outside his or her respective practice group. By being involved and attending firm events, you will make yourself visible to partners that you may never meet face-to-face, but who will still be making partnership decisions. Better to be known for being the go-getter and an associate committed to the firm than not being known at all.

(2)  Get involved outside the firm – In addition to being involved internally, don’t forget about your presence outside the firm. While several attorneys view the local bar association as a social marketplace that only benefits solos and small firm attorneys, Biglaw attorneys should also be involved. The local bar association can help improve your brand and raise your profile. As we all know, attorneys like to talk, and one of the most important things that defines the success of an attorney is his or her reputation. While it is important to be well-known and liked within your own firm, it is equally important to have those credentials in the legal community at large.

When making partnership decisions, partners will focus on your contributions to your firm, but will also ask their trusted contemporaries outside the firm for their advice and perceptions of you. Being unknown outside the firm is not detrimental, but having positive legal standing outside the firm will be a major benefit. Your popularity will demonstrate your ability to bring in new clients, to work with outside counsel, and to be known as an expert in your area of practice.

(3)  Become indispensible to the firm – Don’t be afraid to make suggestions and offer solutions when the opportunity arises. Even though firms are getting larger and associates can sometimes view themselves as mere cogs in the big firm machine, in the end, the people ultimately make or break a law firm’s success. There are going to be policies and systems who are institutionalized and will never change, and there will be partners who are not open to new ideas; however, there are several partners out there that appreciate independent thinkers and proactive associates.

For example, if a timekeeping strategy is inefficient and you have a better option, don’t be afraid to share it. If you created a template or a spreadsheet that keeps you organized, tell a partner. I have come across many successful associates who have offered suggestions and solutions with positive results. Yes, some partners may not be as receptive to new ideas as others (which is more a reflection on the unreceptive partner than on the proactive attorney), but I have never come across an associate who got fired for making a suggestion and being proactive. Just be sure to use the proper tone when offering suggestions and do so at the proper moment (i.e. don’t offer a suggestion on a more efficient strategy at the zero hour of a trial while in front of the client).

(4)  Be nice – This should be common sense and a non-issue, but I am still surprised with countless stories of junior attorneys who act like jerks, especially with support staff. Even if you graduated at the top of your class at the best law school, odds are most partners will view you as less important than the secretary or paralegal they have worked with for over 10 years. Your J.D. provides you with a license to practice law, not a license to be a jerk. There are several stories of young hotshot attorneys who are shocked to find themselves kicked to the curb after arguing with a secretary or being disrespectful to a file clerk. It should also go without saying that the support staff can also make or break your career, especially if you want to be partner. You will be surprised at how much weight the opinions of the support staff have on partnership and retention decisions.

This also holds true with fellow and younger associates. You may feel that some form of “work hazing” is warranted when it comes to more junior associates, but you never know if that junior associate might become partner before you or be in a better position in a different firm you are trying to work at. In short, be nice.

For additional career tips, as well as profiles of major law firms, check out the Career Center.

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