Advice to Young Lawyers

The Bencher—January/February 2024

By Lauren E. Waddell, Esquire

Over the course of my professional career, I have come to realize there are three core aspects to my success in the practice of law: mentorship, networking, and setting career goals.

Seek Mentorship Opportunities

There has been much discussion about the need for young lawyers to find mentors. I have visited with young lawyers who feel the pressure to find a mentor and who share the difficulty in succeeding in this search. My first tip for finding a mentor is to join mentoring groups.

There are mentorship programs available through many American Inns of Court as well as other professional organizations. I have been involved in mentorship programs led by the local women’s bar association and chamber of commerce, where the mentors and mentees were matched in a formal mentorship program and commit to meet with each other for a period of time, usually for the span of a year or so. I have found many of these mentoring relationships to be successful, but not all matches are a good fit, due to different personalities, goals, and needs. It’s important not to be discouraged if one mentoring relationship does not produce the support you expected. If this happens to you, I encourage you to look for other opportunities. At the beginning of a mentor relationship, it is helpful to share with your mentor what you are looking for in the mentoring relationship so the mentor can best meet your needs at that particular moment in your career.

You do not need a formal mentoring program, or an assigned mentor, to enjoy the benefits of mentorship. There are many informal mentorship opportunities that can happen organically. For example, an informal mentorship opportunity might arise while working with lawyers within your firm or organization. I also encourage you to find lawyers outside your own firm or organization whom you admire and reach out to them. I understand this might be intimidating, but most attorneys take it as a compliment when a young lawyer reaches out to them. Any time a young lawyer has contacted me to meet for lunch or coffee with an interest in the practice of family law, I have always said yes. And, you never know, one lunch may lead to an ongoing supportive relationship, so go for it. It is an honor to share my experience with others who are interested in the same career path as mine, and I believe many other experienced lawyers feel the same.

Prioritize Networking

When you start your legal career, it is easy to establish a routine of working hard for your clients and meeting your billing requirements, while not focusing on networking. This is a mistake. You need to find time to network. It’s important to meet new people who can help you generate business and support your practice. Whether you are in a big firm, mid-sized firm, the corporate world, or a small/solo practice, generating work, new clients, and new projects is the key to success in the practice of law.

If your goal is to make partner in your firm, you will not only have to perform well, but you also need to demonstrate that you have the ability to generate work for yourself and the firm. If you are solo or have dreams of having your own firm one day, generating clients and work is critical to your firm’s survival. Networking is the heart and soul of generating business. To some, this comes naturally. For others, it is more difficult, but either way it is necessary to make networking a part of your practice. The earlier you develop and hone this skill, the better.

It’s wise to be strategic about how you network. Think about your target market and identify the opportunities available within that market. For example, I am a family law attorney, and I have found that local attorneys who do not practice family law can be good referral sources for my practice. So, over the years, I have sought opportunities to attend events with lawyers who practice in a variety of areas beyond family law.

Your target market will be unique to your practice. For example, if you were seeking an in-house position or to advance in such a position, look for opportunities to network with professionals in that specific industry for your business development efforts. This could mean attending professional conferences or taking on a leadership position in a professional organization. Your networking plan will be unique to your specific career, but if you develop a strategic plan and execute it, you will be successful.

Consider volunteering for organizations that you are passionate about. Getting involved in non-legal organizations is another great way to meet new people and explore networking opportunities. Volunteering will also provide you with a meaningful way to give back to your community and expand your network with like-minded people, which will likely be rewarding for you on a personal level.

Define Success and Set Goals for Your Career

Success does not have one road for everyone. There are many paths to success. Define what success means to you and pursue that path. Success could mean making partner in your firm within a specific timeframe, or it could also mean being able to practice law while balancing family commitments. It could mean working in-house for a company or running for political office or the judiciary. You are the author of your life, no one else. Remember, if you don’t have a plan for your career, then there isn’t one.

Once you have defined success for yourself (which may change over the course of your career), set goals to achieve success. Actually write out your goals and the action items needed to accomplish them. Review your goals and action items at least once a year to assess where you are. As a young lawyer, I did this. In my second year of practice, I knew I wanted to become specialized in family law. I looked into the criteria to become board certified in family law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, which required at least five years of practice in family law. I started tracking my cases so that I would have the necessary information when I reached the required five years. In my fifth year of practice, I applied, took the exam, and obtained the certification.

I have accomplished my goals in a set timeframe because I made them a priority, memorialized them by writing them down, and did the planning and work to make them happen.

Everyone has different goals and measures for their own success. It’s beneficial to spend time thinking about what goals you want to achieve and then determine what actions you need to take to make your personal and professional dreams a reality.

Lauren E. Waddell, Esquire, is board certified in family law and an attorney with the Waddell Law Firm in Houston, Texas. She is a member of the Burta Rhoads Raborn Family Law American Inn of Court.

© 2024 Lauren E. Waddell, Esquire. This article was originally published in the January/February 2024 issue of The Bencher, a bi-monthly publication of the American Inns of Court. This article, in full or in part, may not be copied, reprinted, distributed, or stored electronically in any form without the written consent of the American Inns of Court.