This will be one of the most challenging years of your professional career. You have chosen a profession in which there is little room for error and where reputations and relationships are a critical component of success. You have already demonstrated the technical skills to become a successful practitioner and are now officially a first-year associate.
Unfortunately, being a great lawyer requires more than just good technical skills. Lawyers with good "soft skills" are more likely to stand out as premier practitioners. Demonstrating sound work habits, communicating effectively with others and establishing a solid reputation all require strong soft skills.
Recognizing the importance of soft skills and devoting the appropriate amount of energy to developing them will ease your transition into law firm life, help distinguish you among your peers and build the foundation for a long and successful legal career. Here are some soft skills that will serve you well through the early months of your career and beyond.
This may seem obvious, but it is one of the most common mistakes made by young lawyers. Being present means being available to those around you at all times and being engaged in your work and your environment. Are you constantly on your iPhone or BlackBerry in the halls and during meetings? Do you engage in Gchat at work? Do you listen to music in your office? Do you have headphones on when you step into the elevator every morning? Is your office door always closed because you are buried in your work?
You might claim to be a skilled multitasker and say these distractions do not affect your attention or the quality of your work. While that may be true, these habits do in fact create the perception that you are distracted and not fully engaged in the work you are performing. Take the earphones out, turn the music off, avoid the urge to check Facebook every 10 minutes and keep your office door open. You want people to perceive you as completely focused, dedicated and available at all times. You will quickly discover that the more present and available you appear, the greater the opportunities available to you.
DO NOT COMPLAIN
As a junior attorney, you may be given work that makes you question the value of all of your law school training. Document reviews will seem endless; traveling for weeks on end will take a toll on your personal life; having all your meals paid for will get old. Do not complain about it -- at least not where others can hear you, and definitely not in email. Most new lawyers have to pay their dues by working seemingly endless hours on projects for which they are less than passionate. Complaining about it will only annoy those who have had to suffer through it before you. Furthermore, there will likely be others in the trenches with you and complaining to them will only make the situation less tolerable.
It may not be easy, but try to make the best of it. Nobody wants to work with someone who complains all the time. It's bad for morale, it's bad for productivity and it's bad for the positive reputation you are trying to establish. Performing well on the less glamorous projects will generally lead to opportunities on the more exciting ones.
PROFESSIONAL EMAIL ETIQUETTE
While at first glance it may seem easy, proper use of email can be one of the more difficult skills to master. Email is best used for answering a quick question, making a record of a conversation or sending a brief status update. Email is not ideal in situations where you want to convey any sort of emotion, solve a complicated and nuanced issue, or in situations where you would not want the communication to be shared with someone else. Once you hit send, you have no control over where the email will end up. It may not go further than the intended recipient's inbox or it may be forwarded to several people you never imagined reading it. Always keep emails professional, as the person you are sending the email to might forward it to other attorneys or even clients.
Always double-check who you are sending the email to before you hit send. Mistakes related to unintended recipients are some of the most common in email communication. It will happen to you at some point in your career. Be aware of it and make it a habit to double-check the "to," "cc" and "bcc" fields before sending. Also make it a habit to read the entire string of an email chain when forwarding something. You never know what could be lurking deep down in an email string. Use caution and common sense when forwarding anything.
Finally, you are strongly encouraged to avoid colloquial language, emoticons and unnecessary exclamation points. I can honestly say that I have never received an email from a partner or a client containing an emoticon. Do not use them in professional communications.