6 Tips for Success in the Legal Workplace

Congratulations! All your hard work – research, networking and interviewing – finally paid off, and you’re about to start a new legal position. Now it’s time to get yourself in the right frame-of-mind for adapting to a new legal workplace – our six tips for success will help!

#1: Don’t Neglect Those “Soft” Skills

During those crucial first days at a new legal job you’ll be climbing a steep learning curve. You may find it all-too-easy to focus your mental energy entirely on mastering technical matters while at the same time missing out on the interpersonal signals that truly matter.

That’s understandable. Although your new employer will be delighted that you’re a “quick study,” s/he does not expect you to become an instant master of arcane technical procedures specific to this organization. (Having been in your position, your new colleagues will forgive honest mistakes regarding processes and procedures. Mistakes and slip-ups of an interpersonal nature, on the other hand, tend to be remembered long after they occur. So make a concerted effort to get these “soft” skills right, from the very start.)

#2: Don’t Trust Your Memory

As those early days blur past, you’ll be happy to have an “outdoor brain” – a pocket notebook or smartphone app – that is always with you. So when you have those unexpected hallway meetings that bring you face-to-face with new colleagues, you can capture their names and details immediately afterward. If you get business cards from your new acquaintances, make a point of writing several notes on each card (distinguishing characteristics, where you met, anything that will help you cement the connection). If your workplace is a large one, you may want to take this a step further and create your own personal database of these new contacts.

(Context is an important memory “hook,” so get your hands on an organizational chart as soon as possible. If one is not available, make your own – and regularly update it as new information becomes available.)

#3: Build Your Personal Brand

Even as you strive to stay current with the steady stream of new contacts, try to make it easy for your new workmates to remember you – and in a way that reflects your desired personal brand.

As with business networking sessions, you can provide a few “mental hooks” to help people get to know you more easily. Remember that “elevator speech” you were advised to rehearse when you began the job hunt? You’ll need to tweak it a bit, but that kind of disciplined sound bite still has a purpose as you begin to build your new in-house network:

“I grew up in City X, studied at School Y, and I’m especially interested in First Amendment issues. Outside of work? Well… I’m a big Yankees fan; I love to play golf; and I’m always up for Chinese food.”

#4: Cultivate Good First Impressions

No matter how many times you’ve heard this cliché, it’s worth considering one more time: “You only get one chance to make a first impression.” This applies to everything you do and say during these “honeymoon” days in the new office setting. So make sure that your attitude is positive, your comments are constructive, your ego is checked at the door, and your work is done well and on time.

Like it or not, your appearance will play a significant role in how you are perceived by those with influence over your career trajectory. When it comes to matters of dress and appearance, then, bear in mind that large law firms and corporate law departments are inherently conservative. While this fashion sensibility may not be in sync with your own personal style, you cannot afford to ignore it — and there are plenty of ways to distinguish your appearance without being at odds with your organization’s “dress code.”

#5: Manage Your Expectations

You’re eager to show off your skills and demonstrate why hiring you was such a good decision. However, since you’ll need to sustain that attitude and commitment over the long haul, it may be useful to condition your expectations for the challenging reality that may lie ahead. Don’t be surprised if:

  • You don’t get credit or feedback for your work;
  • You’re routinely asked to perform tasks that don’t fully utilize the skills you’ve worked so hard to cultivate;
  • You’re given assignments that raise havoc with your social life, time off, and personal needs, often with little notice; and,
  • Sooner or later, you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, and you incur the unwarranted wrath of a senior colleague. You’re not the first one to run this gauntlet.

Those who survive and thrive as legal professionals learn early on to manage their expectations and to find rewards that are driven more by internal forces than by the external praise (which may be a long time coming).

#6: Pay Attention to How Things are Done

“How are things done here?” That’s the key question to ask – again and again – during your first months in a new legal position. (You may find ways to add value by suggesting “tweaks” to improve a workflow, for example. But keep in mind that your first task is to soak up the organization’s culture and to adapt yourself to it. Become a “cultural anthropologist” during these early months, asking:

  • What actions are rewarded (or punished) by the “tribe”?
  • How does the “tribe” react to stress?
  • What “sacred stories” are told about those who have succeeded or failed?
  • Who are the group’s “icons” — and what did they do to attain that status?
  • What personal characteristics does the “tribe” value above all others?

Remember: Many of the mistakes that legal newcomers make arise from failing to notice how things are done in the new environment. You’ll do well to remember the advice bestowed by novelist Henry James, who counseled, “Try to be one of those people on whom nothing is lost.”

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