Survival Guide, Esq.

Unwritten Rules: What they expect you to know on Day 1 but don't tell you

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Unwritten rules of legal profession illustration

Photo illustration by Sara Wadford/Shutterstock.

Things can feel chaotic early in your career. Showcasing your substance—what you can do, your work product, relationships and instincts—is already hard enough in these years. But what we might call the “clockwork”—adherence to the stealth, meaningful rules that govern this profession but have little to do with your substance—can either build or erode trust in you before you’ve left the gate. And fair or not, others’ trust in you is fundamental to your success.

For generations, seasoned lawyers have held these rules close to the vest. Either you figured them out on your own, or you were fortunate enough to have a mentor share them with you before it was too late.

This system shouldn’t be allowed to stand. Not only is hiding the ball unfair, but it’s also dangerous for the generation of new talent. So it’s time to open up the clock and show you what your managers expect you to know when you walk in the door on Day 1.

Unwritten rules illustration

Do small tasks well

Years ago, I read the memoir of journalist-turned-chef Jonathan Dixon titled Beaten, Seared and Sauced. It fundamentally influenced my theory of early career talent development over the years. I call it “The Perfect Dice” theory.

Dixon externed for a high-end New York restaurant. The culinary student was quickly overwhelmed by the skill and speed of everyone else on the kitchen line and relegated to the most basic prep station. The sous chef would come by, run his fingers through the diced onion and chastise Dixon for uneven pieces. Dixon wanted to advance, but leadership remained immovable until he demonstrated perfection—and most importantly, consistency and respect for quality—on his existing station. “It isn’t until someone knows their station inside and out that we let them try another one,” one of the crew told him.

Performing unglamorous tasks with precision and consistency is a key building block of trust with management. If you can’t be trusted to do well with the easy stuff, no one is going to hand over the file to you to run the show.

Respect others’ time

As a more junior teammate, being first to arrive or sign on for meetings demonstrates reliability and respect. Walking into meetings with a focused list of priorities, next steps and questions also shows respect for others’ time, offers you a chance to showcase your acumen and is great practice for becoming management. If you become known as the last to arrive or aimlessly ramble, leadership may focus on these shortcomings, not your brilliant mind.

Be a team player

If you want to develop professionally and get new opportunities to grow, then people need to trust that you have the team’s best interest in mind. This doesn’t mean sacrificing your ambitions. But presenting too many ego markers corrodes team trust and may cut off advancement. Start thinking of what you do in the team context. You did great work on a project? Excellent. Accept compliments, but credit other team members for their help. Teammates overwhelmed? Offer to pitch in without seeking credit, and resist urges to commandeer the project. Everything you’re assigned is an opportunity to serve (this is a service profession at its core).

Tracey Lesetar-SmithTracey Lesetar-Smith. Photo courtesy of Tracey Lesetar-Smith.

Pick your battles

I’ll save you the suspense: Somebody or something in your early career is going to tick you off—big time. Just remember: You cannot (and should not) fight every single battle. It will exhaust your emotions, health, time and, importantly, your workplace capital. Start developing instincts now that distinguish between skirmishes you allow to blow over and conflicts you fight like a hostile pack of wolves. (Pro tip: This is easier said than done; it takes years of discipline and effort. Trust me.)

Navigate office politics

Whether you work in a law firm, at a company or for a nonprofit, office politics (i.e., relationships) pervade everything. Think of it like a giant layer cake. Under decorative frosting are layers of history, culture, personalities, lessons learned and bridges burned—in short, context. As a junior member of the team, it’s impossible for you to absorb all this context. Nor should that be your goal. Instead, observe and consider. Get a general understanding of the camps and alignments. Avoid taking sides, gossiping or flaunting loyalties. Simply consider viewing yourself as a loyal player on everyone’s team unless and until you are forced to choose.

You are the company’s face

Individual voices can be influential. Your voice has the power to help your career and your company. It also has the power to hurt both. It’s important to think seriously about how you use it. From your social media accounts to how you comport yourself at work events, your unique voice is a great way to show who you are to the world.

Be thoughtful about how you connect with your professional network on social media. Think about which accounts are public versus private, consider giving your accounts a good cleaning (as a rule, think about staying away from content that might appear irresponsible, petty, uncaring, egotistical or overly impulsive) or locking down certain privacy settings, and start cultivating a professional online reputation.

In the same vein, work functions offer wonderful chances to connect on a more personal level with colleagues. Socializing outside the office is key to developing relationships and building trust. Don’t waste these opportunities, and treat them equally thoughtfully.

Take feedback in stride

In your early career, you’re hired not for what you have already accomplished but for what they think you can accomplish. And you must build that case and prove it out. You’re not expected to know everything, so don’t be defensive with feedback or concoct some phony intellectual reason why you missed the mark (or worse, deflect blame onto another). You don’t know everything. Not even close. In fact, early in your career, you don’t even know enough to be scared of how little you know. Embrace being a beginner who can ask questions and try things. You will make mistakes. Own them, apologize and try not to make them again. Most importantly, if your superiors give you feedback, believe them. They’re doing you a favor by drawing a map of their expectations, so don’t make excuses or say it can’t be done. Ask for guidance if you need it, figure it out and implement it. Some of the most painful feedback I’ve ever gotten unlocked potential within me I never knew possible.

Tracey Lesetar-Smith is CEO of TLSK Advisory and a seasoned sports and entertainment executive with over 20 years of experience, including as general counsel of NASCAR and general counsel of Bellator MMA.

Editor’s Note: The ABA Journal, in partnership with the ABA Young Lawyers Division, is launching Survival Guide, Esq., a new column offering advice for early-career lawyers. The authors of the column welcome any of your questions. Send them to [email protected].

This column reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal—or the American Bar Association.

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