27 May 2019

How to back yourself and know your worth as a lawyer

Published on 27 May 2019

It’s a million-dollar question no one ever answers in the profession: how do you ask for a promotion or pay rise? How do you know and show your worth to management, and back yourself when it really counts? How do you turn down work when you are overworked and overwhelmed, while staying on track to career advancement? How do you promote your potential as a later lawyer? 

Insights spoke to College of Law Victoria Lecturer Desi Vlahos and Careers Professional Susan Pincus, who recently co-presented a careers session on these questions.

Know your worth

“Do your due diligence and research the market,” recommended Desi and Susan. “Don’t undersell yourself when looking for jobs, attending interviews or having salary discussions, but be realistic – particularly when starting out.”

Self-confidence can go a long way. 

“Keep a positive mindset and stay away from self-limiting beliefs,” stressed Desi and Susan. “Working as a lawyer, particularly in the first few years, involves an extremely steep learning curve. Have faith in yourself. It’s normal to feel a little lost at the start. Ask lots of questions, and ask for help before you become counter-productive. Above all, remember you are not expected to know everything!”

Defining and appreciating the value you bring to a potential employer is particularly critical when landing your first graduate role, negotiating salary or competing for a promotion. 

“What sets you apart from other candidates is more often than not an intangible point of difference - the self-confident belief that you are the best fit for the role or worth the salary increase,” said Desi. “If not this, at least possess an enthusiastic and positive mindset to rise to the challenge. Often we are capable of much more than we give ourselves credit for.”

Don’t doubt yourself out of opportunities

Conversely, doubt can deter you from opportunities, challenges and difficult conversations like asking for a raise. 

“The truth is that everyone misses out at some stage,” said Desi. “Being realistic and not catastrophising about isolated incidents will assist you to bounce forward from adversity. Viewing every setback as a learning experience rather than as a failure will not only build your resilience but demonstrate professional maturity and credibility.”

Advantages for later career lawyers

As the Juris Doctor mainstreams as a degree alongside the LLB, more ‘later career’ lawyers are entering the profession. How do you distinguish yourself from legal graduates starting out? 

“Later lawyers have a wealth of knowledge and experience and need to remind themselves of their transferrable skills gained from their diverse careers,” said Susan.

Life experience can reflect the attainment of many valuable, sought after skills.  These might include emotional intelligence, leadership ability, resilience, adaptability and time management. 

“They can use their breadth and depth of experience to mentor others within the workplace,” said Susan. “Be open to learning and capitalise on your other capabilities.”

Focus always on upskilling and adapting to new technology. This is critical to mastering the change that is transforming legal services. 

“The key is to stay relevant and current in the changing legal landscape,” said Susan. “Always ask yourself, “How can I as a professional add value?” 

Saying ‘no’ while staying on track for promotion

For new lawyers, the biggest challenge may be effective time management. Lawyers are often torn between their desire to prove themselves, and the sense of being overwhelmed and unable to turn down a task that is too difficult or beyond capacity.

“The unpredictable nature of a legal workload often results in new lawyers feeling a lack of control as urgent tasks arrive at 4pm in the day and require immediate attention,” said Desi. “While there may be times when urgent matters will require late nights in the office, a level of caution must be exercised if this continues consistently over an extended period of time. 

“Research unequivocally proves that a prolonged lack of sleep and high stress will result in burnout. So how do you manage competing tasks? In my experience it all comes down to open lines of communication, honesty and transparency with your supervisor. In determining your capacity to complete a task - asking questions is key. This may include: when the task needs to be completed by, level of urgency, approximate time allocation for the task and whether you might require additional assistance to complete it within the time frame sought. Often supervisors are not aware of your personal capacity particularly if you are working for several supervisors across many different matters.”

Find an opportunity every day to have a brief ‘check-in’ with your supervisor about your current workload. This will assist them to distribute work evenly and help you better manage your time. This also shows you are a proactive problem-solver.  

Making the most of a promotion

Is it possible to be promoted too early? According to Desi, generally no.

“A promotion suggests that your skills, attitude and potential have been considered in elevating you to a more senior position where you will be assuming greater responsibility. It’s presumed that your promotion has been carefully considered by your employer and that there is a belief that you are able to step up and develop in the role. 

“Provided that YOU feel equipped with your own personal knowledge and resources to take on the challenge then we don’t believe there is any detriment in an early promotion,” said Desi. “In saying this, if your promotion requires a level of team management, you might wish to refine your skillset by enrolling in a leadership course.”

“Personal belief and the grit to accept new opportunities and challenges will open new doors in your career,” said Desi.

You only have one reputation

The legal profession is small. Your reputation, therefore, counts among one of your greatest assets. 

“Don’t assume that your good work alone will speak for itself,” cautioned Desi. “Remember it takes years to develop a reputation, seconds to destroy it.  Continue to develop your professional network and relationship collateral.  Be involved, talk to people and be curious.  Attend events and conferences, join your local law society and any special interest committees.  Share knowledge with others and develop a community of collaboration.”

Finding a mentor or sponsor can assist. Mentors can be found through a law society or bar association, or through your firm or own network.

“A mentor will be instrumental in equipping you with the tools, skills and confidence to develop and become more effective,” said Susan. “A sponsor can become your advocate and actively support your career by assisting you to make connections and improve visibility in your work environment.”