Pike: An open letter to the new law school graduate

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Dear new law school grad,

You made it! You completed a bachelor’s degree, your law degree and years of life experience to get you to this exact moment. Take some time to reflect on those accomplishments. You’ll likely be headed into the pressures of studying for the bar exam, or maybe searching for your next career move, and those things are going to work out. We believe in you, and more importantly, you should believe in you, because look what you just accomplished!

Our challenge to you is to think about how you will show up for yourself and your co-workers as a colleague in the legal community. You are no longer a student, and that can be a challenging landscape to navigate as a new attorney. So, what do the best professionals know and how do they make their marks at the beginning of their careers?

The best early-career professionals actively participate in bar associations. The Indiana State Bar Association, IndyBar and Marion County Bar Association are just a few of your fantastic options for formal engagement with peer attorneys. These organizations do the obvious service of helping connect you to programming to earn your required CLE hours, but there is much more to membership than meets the eye. The bar association social events, philanthropic service days and pro bono engagement opportunities give you a chance to make friends outside of your office and give back in meaningful ways, relieving stress and boosting morale throughout this next chapter. You might meet your mentor or your next best friend at a bar conference.

Whether it is through a young lawyers section of a bar association or a more informal meetup with former classmates, the best professionals connect regularly with their supportive network of peers. These are the people growing their careers at the same stage as your own — your colleagues and friends who are navigating how to adjust to life in the law firm or growing their families or counseling clients on new and novel issues. Finding a supportive network to grow with is an important piece of your professional identity.

The best professionals are smart about which commitments they take on. If you’re in a law firm environment and you’ve been paying close attention, you will probably realize that your senior partners are your best clients. Your relationships within your own organization may be the most critical in terms of growth potential over the next couple of years of your career. Getting to know partners and supervisors well will serve you and the organization overall. Delivering good work will be your best move every time.

But what do you deliver, exactly? There will be research projects and document review, clients to meet and memos to draft, pleadings to file and dockets to track; all this is your billable work. In addition to those things, you’ll have the opportunity to contribute in “nonbillable” ways. When you think about both the billable and the nonbillable contributions you make at your workplace, think about how you’re going to measure success for yourself on those projects — what will both serve the critical mission of your organization and help you as a professional?

Maybe you can contribute an article to a periodical, and the research topic could be something that helps your current clients or something that reflects the niche practice you’re hoping to grow in the future. You could support pro bono projects for causes close to your heart or those that require particular skill sets you’re hoping to grow. Nonbillable time can contribute to your own professional development, or it can be a distracter from the things that absolutely must get done each day. No new professional can do all these things, but the best early-career professionals are smart about the projects they take on and continuously follow through on their commitments.

Finally, the best early-career professionals ask for help. There is going to be a day in the next year when you feel overwhelmed. Look to those trusted relationships and talk to those who have been there or those who are going through it right now, too —especially if your peer network includes folks who are employed in different organizations. Sometimes a little bit of distance is just the shift in perspective you need to be able to sort through what you’re experiencing. You may have resources right within your own organization, especially if you have a professional development or human resources officer in house. As a member of our legal community, you always have the support of the Judges & Lawyers Assistance Program. Of course, your supervisors and senior partners within your own organization want to see you succeed, too.

Congrats, new law school grad. You’re going to be one of the best.•

Whittley Pike is senior associate director of professional development at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law. Opinions expressed are those of the author.

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