“Do VERY FEW projects EXCEPTIONALLY well. No one will remember how much work you have done. They will NEVER FORGET the ONE thing you effed up.” I received this well-intentioned advice frequently as a summer associate when I split my summer between two well-known national law firms after my 2L year.
But how do you figure out what area of law you like best if you are limited in what you’re exposed to?!
How do you find your place in the vast legal universe if you only see a minuscule fraction of it?!
How do you decide where to focus for 5, 10, 20 years, perhaps your entire career, if you don’t test-drive it?!
If your law school is less than practical and your summer clerkship strategy is to do as few projects as possible, it seems like clairvoyance is a must-have skill for a successful future lawyer. Maybe they should add a section for it on the LSAT!
When it comes to summer clerkships and internships, which is a better strategy – doing a few things exceptionally well or many things 95% there? I crowdsourced this question to my followers.
Sean Rayani, commercial contracts senior manager at Twilio, said, “As a lawyer or legal professional, you will not have the luxury to just do a few things when you start practicing (especially if you start in-house at technology companies in their infancy). There will be times where you will have the kitchen sink thrown at you, and you will have to get it all done.”
He explained, “Inevitably, you can not do everything perfectly if you have an overflowing plate, but you will have to do the best you can. Reenacting what you will experience once you start practicing during a summer clerkship, in my opinion, serves as a really good training and expectation setting for the legal profession generally.”
Likewise, Sarah Feingold, co-founder of the Fourth Floor and former GC of Etsy and Vroom, advised, “I say — try a lot of things, talk to a lot of people, and then prioritize, focus on doing a few things well, and periodically take a step back to reevaluate how your career is proceeding.”
Jamie Szal, Maine state and local tax attorney at Brann & Isaacson, said, “My law school was structured on a co-op model: normal 1L year, then switch to 4 alternating quarters each of class and internship. That model spat out graduates with literally twice as much experience as most new law grads, because we had to do 4 full-time 12-week posts to graduate.”
She continued, “I highly, highly recommend pursuing not only summer positions but also internships, externships, clinics, and other practical skill-building opportunities throughout law school to maximize exposure to different practices. For those like me who had a good sense of what we were interested in, use those opportunities as a finely honed tool: explore different work environments within the same field of practice.”
Lisa Lang, general counsel of Kentucky State University, said, “I never set out with a plan in terms of the practice area. I initially gravitated toward whatever opportunity I found.” She continued, “After several years of practice, I realized where I was strong and where I was weak. That realization helped guide my choices and made me more selective in terms of the opportunities I pursued (and later enjoyed). My choices, at the time, did not appear to make sense. Looking back now, everything makes complete sense.”
Rachel Coll, lawyer and certified life coach at Rachel Coll Coaching, observed, “I’m a big believer in sampling what you might like, and making decisions as you go. I was always a ‘learn by doing’ kind of lawyer. That’s just me. I loved treating the practice of law like a buffet of practice areas that I just sampled until I was full, and I think this experience helps me look back at my legal career as something that I thoroughly enjoyed.”
The Strategic Type
Anjie Vichayanonda, founder and CEO of Leg Up Legal, explained, “We have to constantly try new things, see if they work, and fail A LOT. If you’re not failing, you’re not growing. Do more. Fail more. Fail hard. Fail fast. And you will learn better. For young lawyers, I would urge you to find a firm with a culture that allows you to explore, challenge yourself, and fail in a safe space. I know it’s extremely difficult to find, but in the long run, it will make you a better lawyer.”
Neil Greenbaum, partner at Greenbaum Law Firm and a former general counsel, said, “As a law student, it would certainly make sense to learn as much as you can in various areas of law. That way, you can actually have some idea of what you might like over what you might not like. However, as a seasoned practitioner, you do want to do a few things as possible exceptionally well.”
The Formulaic Type
“80-20 rule — Pareto rules all the way. Do multiple things 80% (then) focus on a few things with 100%. Use the same rule to pick what 20% of those projects you are working on that will likely drive 80% attention from management or provide you learning experience, and provide extra focus on these projects, and less focus on the others.” Yosr Hussein Hamza, director, legal and ombudsman affairs, Middle East at Gartner, explained.
She continued, “You never know which chance at this age can help you know which area of law you’d like to practice. And this rule helped me so much to date. Perfectionism leads (nowhere) eventually.”
This is a question for which there is no universal answer. As demonstrated by the diversity in answers, it’s a dynamic that each person must be mindful of for themselves, in shaping their own career and balancing learning more with doing good work. But it’s also not a question that is settled once you’re a few years in. Careers are constantly changing, and with more and more opportunities to adapt, lifelong learning is part of what it means to be a modern lawyer. We should all, then, stay intentional about how we can learn new skills while continuing to do our current job well.
And finding that balance is its own skill to develop.
Olga V. Mack is the CEO of Parley Pro, a next-generation contract management company that has pioneered online negotiation technology. Olga embraces legal innovation and had dedicated her career to improving and shaping the future of law. She is convinced that the legal profession will emerge even stronger, more resilient, and more inclusive than before by embracing technology. Olga is also an award-winning general counsel, operations professional, startup advisor, public speaker, adjunct professor, and entrepreneur. She founded the Women Serve on Boards movement that advocates for women to participate on corporate boards of Fortune 500 companies. She authored Get on Board: Earning Your Ticket to a Corporate Board Seat and Fundamentals of Smart Contract Security. You can follow Olga on Twitter @olgavmack.