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Progressing Your Career: Best Practices for Associates

Even in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, the demand for legal services has not slowed, and many firms are finding themselves with a tremendous need for the right talent to grow and sustain their businesses. This presents an opportunity for current associates to fulfill their employer’s needs, prove their value and, ultimately, kick their careers into hyperdrive.

Lauren Smith

Some associates may have spent the past year feeling isolated, faced with mounting pressure to prove themselves while working remotely. But these challenges do not have to serve as roadblocks to one’s career progression. While many remain free from daily commutes and other obligations, now is an opportune time for associates to think strategically about the long term and what direction they’d like to take their career. Through my years of experience within the industry — serving as a commercial litigator in BigLaw, an in-house counsel and a recruiter for the legal sector — I have seen many associates and others successfully progress in their careers by following these best practices.


When it comes to career progression, you have to be your own biggest fan. You can do great work day in and day out, but when promotion time comes around, you must be willing to speak up for yourself and remind decision-makers of the contributions you’ve made to the firm. You have to ask for what you want ― your manager is not a mind reader. Sitting quietly while assuming your managers will acknowledge all the work you put in without being reminded is sometimes the biggest mistake less experienced and less ambitious associates make.


You can’t be afraid to put yourself out there. One way to demonstrate value to your firm is to bring in new business. This is especially true if you have aspirations of making partner one day. Talk to partners within your firm to learn more about how business development works. Take advantage of every lecture, conference and happy hour as you never know who you might meet. Constantly add to your network when you have the chance.

Networking goes hand in hand with self-advocacy. You have to learn how to sell yourself before you can sell anyone on your firm’s services. At the core of a successful career are good relationships, and making a positive, lasting impression is sure to help you nurture relationships that will last.


Finding a mentor is another great way to jump-start your career. A mentor can share their experience and help guide you through situations that are not so easily navigated alone. A mentor can also assist in your networking endeavors, position you to work on clients that align with your interests and generally point you toward new opportunities.

“At the core of a successful career are good relationships, and making a positive, lasting impression is sure to help you nurture relationships that will last.”

Most mentor-mentee relationships come about naturally as you work side by side, but many midsize and large law firms have established mentoring programs that assign summer interns, clerks and junior associates to an experienced associate or partner. If your firm does not have a formal mentoring program or an experienced person willing to help you, reach out to your local bar association for resources.

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One of the best ways to advance your career is to further your education. To get ahead in certain specialized areas of the law, you may need some additional training. Fortunately, most of these programs can now be done remotely, allowing associates greater flexibility and the ability to balance their continuing legal education with their existing workload.


An additional key factor in career progression — and an often overlooked one — is striving for a sustainable work-life balance. It’s no secret that this is often difficult to achieve. Time management and setting boundaries come with practice, but those who don’t try run greater risk of burnout from their job.

While putting in long hours can certainly help put you on the path to partner, it’s equally important to keep in mind that making partner isn’t the only option available. Many successful lawyers find in-house, off-track roles or contract work to be fulfilling and a better fit for their lifestyle. They also find positions tangential to the legal field.

There are many different ways to work toward progressing your career, it’s just about finding the right solution, or combination of a few, that work for you and your goals. Think intently and purposefully about the long term and how you’d like your career to look in five or 10 years. Discuss your aspirations with a mentor or recruiter who can help you map out a plan to achieve your goals. Investing in yourself today will help you progress in your desired career journey tomorrow and for years to come.