You're Working Hard. But Are You Working Smart?
If you're like most associates in BigLaw, you're working hard—billing hefty hours, burning the midnight oil, and working weekends. It's natural to think that toiling tirelessly and getting "great experience" is unequivocally helpful to your career. But does quantity of work translate to quality or to desired opportunities in the future? Not necessarily. Just as important as working hard—if not more so—is working smart. What does this mean?
To be sure, working smart means being efficient, prioritizing your to-do list, delegating when appropriate, and understanding what is expected of you and your work product. In a broader, more substantive sense, however, working smart goes beyond effective execution of assignments; it involves your career development and trajectory. Indeed, you may be billing substantial hours, but if you are not developing a strong skill set or the relevant substantive experience to advance your career goals, then sooner or later you may find that you've fallen behind your peers or that you lack the requisite experience for that coveted in-house or government position. That's why looking after your career and development is so important: it can make or break your future options.
a. Take Your Development Seriously
Early on, there is understandably a ramp-up period when associates cut their teeth on ancillary assignments. How long this transitional period lasts, however, is more within your control than you may realize. Taking ownership of your development and career means taking a proactive approach to your training. If you want more drafting or negotiating experience, or you hunger to take a deposition or appear in court, don't wait to voice your training goals to your mentor or staffing partner. You're more likely to play a more central role on your matters sooner if you demonstrate enthusiasm and a keen desire to learn, to take on challenges, and to contribute to ongoing and new matters as much as possible.
Still, it's an unfortunate reality that some associates slip through the cracks and that, over the years, associates at different firms vary greatly in the quality and sophistication of their capabilities. Ultimately, you are responsible for the skillset and expertise you develop. If you see that your colleagues or peers are getting valuable experience that you aren't, the best thing you can do for your future is to take control of your growth. If your firm can't or won't equip you with the skills and experience you seek, then consider your options carefully.
b. Get the Experience That Will Advance Your Goals
Most associates would state that they're "getting great experience". If you share this view, have you taken a step back to ask, "Great experience for what?" For instance, if you're mainly working on public M&As or are bank-side on bulge bracket lendings, but your goal is eventually to go in-house to a private equity or VC firm, you'd have a better overall shot by getting more experience with PE or VC clients. Or if you're mainly working on real estate financings but you hope to go in-house to a developer, then ask yourself whether you would be better off redirecting a substantial portion of your billable hours to development work so that you could be a credible candidate to a developer.
Of course, you may still be figuring out what your goal is. If that's the case, make it a priority to determine where you want to be in x years. That way, you'll have a clearer sense of purpose in your day to day efforts, and you'll be far less likely to find yourself in a few years stuck and adrift from the types of opportunities that you want.
Don't Wait to Get Your Experience on Track
It may seem obvious that aligning your skills and expertise with your goals is critical to paving the path you envision. But all too often, associates spend precious time on matters that steer them away from their career goals. It isn't enough to be at a good firm, or to feel content because you're in good standing and the people are nice. If you're not gaining the knowledge and skills that are required for a future opportunity you covet, that opportunity will go to another attorney who has cultivated the necessary experience and capabilities. Working hard and smart will help you stay on track to achieve your goals. Talking to a recruiting professional can be helpful in refining your career goals and understanding the experience that would be conducive to achieving your dreams.