Growing up with a southern grandmother, I often heard the proverb “a closed mouth doesn’t get fed.” As I got older, that sentiment matured into the following advice from my mother, “never be afraid to ask for what you want because the worst they can do is tell you no.” While I failed to truly appreciate it then, it was these gentle but constant reminders from the matriarchs of my family that ultimately characterized and shaped the roots of my budding legal career—hungry and fearless. Those characteristics then afforded me multiple opportunities to take depositions, argue at substantive hearings, and examine my first witness in federal court, all as a first- and second-year associate in big law.
What I have now learned is, as a junior associate, your journey towards professional success goes beyond simply mastering the intricacies of the law. Sure, that is important, but it is your brand and your ability to actively seek the opportunities you desire that can propel you lightyears ahead in your career. The success of the latter often hinges on the strength of the former. In other words, your internal brand is how your colleagues perceive you, and it plays a pivotal role in your progression within the firm. Once you have built a strong internal brand, your colleagues are eager to give you opportunities to grow—especially when you are bold enough to ask for them and, more importantly, are always prepared to handle them.
Put simply, building a strong internal brand is vital to your career development, and the task is far less daunting than it seems. The starting point is consistently delivering high-quality work. Be attentive to details and ensure your work is well-researched, polished, and aligned with the firm’s standards. Demonstrating your competence and commitment to excellence in every task you undertake will leave a lasting impression and establish you as a dependable person that people can count on. Moreover, not only should your work be pleasant, but so should your attitude. Never underestimate the power of a positive attitude. While your ability to effectively articulate your ideas and questions will showcase your legal acumen and demonstrate your eagerness to grow, it is your pleasant nature and positive attitude that will ensure you are someone who people want to grow alongside them.
Next, be proactive. Actively seek out opportunities to collaborate with senior associates and partners on projects, and never be afraid to express your interest in advanced responsibilities such as taking depositions or handling speaking roles in court or before the client. By proactively seeking out these opportunities and demonstrating your willingness to learn, you will show that you are more than just a passive observer in your legal journey. After my first argument in federal court, I made sure to thank the client before the day was over. I knew it was likely my supervising partners who advocated behind closed doors for me to have the opportunity; but it was the client who ultimately had to say yes to the idea. His response to my soliloquy of gratitude was simple, “you deserved it.”
Recently, I heard a panelist at the ChIPs NextGen Summit perfectly summarize how I arrived at that experience. She said, “as a junior associate, make it easy for other people to make it possible for you to take advantage of opportunities because half the battle is getting someone to say yes.” With that said, I wholeheartedly encourage you to speak up and relentlessly pursue your “yes.” Don’t be shy. Fearlessly ask for the opportunities you want. Then keep asking, even when it seems too far-fetched. Your ceiling only exists if you choose to acknowledge it. Remember, the worst they can say is no, but, on the other hand, there is no harm in asking when you have branded yourself as someone to whom they want to repeatedly say “yes!”
Written by Tracea Rice, Associate Winston & Strawn, LLP