By DebbieH 25 Apr 2013 7 min read

How to get promoted in law

Ambitious solicitors, barristers, paralegals and legal execs will have their eye on promotion opportunities from day one in a new job. Others – perhaps the more realistic – will reason that much must be proved before the legal career ladder can be conquered.

Due to the relatively structured nature of the law profession, not to mention the ongoing sluggishness of the economy, a rapid rise in a British, European or US firm’s ranks isn’t likely. Those who do expect to see regular promotion must be prepared to sacrifice a lot – remember that the long hours expected of legal eagles, don’t mix at all well with family life. With leading law firms opening offices where the world’s emerging economies offer great prizes – China, South America, India, Indonesia – willingness to travel could be the key to carving out a lucrative career path in law.

For lawyers, becoming a partner is the obvious career target, but of course, this is only likely to happen to a minority. It will take seven to ten years to build up the expertise needed to be considered by a large firm. In potential partners, firms are looking for intelligence, thorough knowledge of the law, common sense, solid client relationships, a good business sense, stability in both personal and professional life and, in the case of largest firms, absolute dedication to the firm and the work.

A major issue for lawyers is whether to stay the course with one employer and go all out for progression towards partnership level, or to take a sideways step into other firms, or private practice, and build a career that way. Individuals will have their own views on this, and understanding about the future prosperity of the firm you work for, and the likelihood of promotion is needed for these life-changing decisions to be made. Here are our top tips for putting career progression into action:


How to grab those promotion opportunities

Ask for a mentor at work

Mentors can offer valuable career guidance. Having a wise, experienced colleague on your side can really help propel your law career in the right direction. In fact, a US study recently found that in four out of five promotions, those promoted had a mentoring relationship with someone higher in the company who helped by advocating their skills and abilities. Many law firms have formal mentoring programmes – for instance, this is the case at PenningtonsShearman & Sterling and Latham & Watkins. However, if your company does not, there are still ways you can build relationships with people in higher positions in the company. It’s certainly worth building a close, friendly bond with your department manager or other influential people you work with.


Don’t be a wallflower

If no-one knows how brilliant an employment lawyer or personal injury lawyer you are, and keen to progress, you simply won’t get ahead. So it’s important to actively promote yourself and become a known entity within your department and even beyond. Think about what you have brought to the company and how you can regularly update your boss on achievements. If possible quantify results of your work showing the extra revenue you have brought in or the new clients you have attracted. While promotions are not necessarily based on your past performance, you can certainly make a much better case for a promotion by showing detailed information about your past and ongoing successes tracked over time.


Build your productivity and client skills

According to one law recruitment expert: “The path to partnership is simple to understand. If you have among the highest billable hours in the firm and have the ability to maintain and continuously attract new clients, you will have a good chance of making partner.” Clearly, those who are doggedly productive, able to carry out complex legal dealings without making mistakes, and able to keep clients happy, will go far. It will help to really excel in your specialism, by constantly building knowledge and expertise. Employees who want to get ahead should not only keep current with industry news and events, but also pay attention to trends and events outside their specialism.


Extend your network

The more people who know you, and appreciate your strengths and abilities, know your value to the organisation and recognise your ambitions, the more likely your name will be discussed when opportunities arise. You can use social media here, though be careful not to look as though you are job-hunting beyond your employer. A key benefit of internal networking is that you will learn much more about the firm or company if you network with people in other areas of the business.


Broaden your responsibilities

What can you do to demonstrate how keen you are in your law job, and committed to the company? Volunteering to help out other departments or teams or simply asking for more responsibilities certainly increases your value within the organisation. Asking for more work shows your interest and desire to help your department and company to succeed.


Act like a manager before you are one

Whether you are a solicitor, barrister or legal secretary, you’ll need to work hard to earn a reputation for being dependable, professional, and cooperative. If you look like manager material you are more likely to be considered for management posts that come up. If it helps, volunteer for tasks outside your obvious remit – for instance helping set up presentations, speak at events or take on extra projects. So try and dress professionally, take the initiative whenever you can. Don’t get yourself a reputation as a clock watcher or someone who always complains or fails to complete tasks. It will help to have a positive outlook and a ‘can do’ attitude even when times in the office are challenging. Try in particular to be a problem-solver. If a difficult situation arises – say a difficult client or a hold up in a court case – be sure to come up with at least one solution before seeking your boss’s blessing for dealing with the situation. Problem-solvers are more likely than complainers to land a promotion.


Work hard as a team player

Because so much of work is now accomplished through teams – either departmental or cross-functional – it becomes even more important to share successes with your team and to avoid pointing your finger when there are failures. By proving yourself as a pivotal team player, you will build your reputation and increase your value to the organisation.

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What are your views?