Excelling as a Law firm Associate: Key factors towards Professional Growth

Presented at the Webinar organized by Members of Legal Ideas Forum International on Saturday, 8th February, 2020.
It gives me great pleasure to address this distinguished gathering of lawyers and law students – both at the University and those currently at the Nigeria Law School on the topic ‘EXCELLING AS A LAW FIRM ASSOCIATE – KEY FACTORS TOWARDS PROFESSIONAL GROWTH’.
I am optimistic that at the end of this session, we will all be able to take away one or two key tips towards our individual and collective professional growth.
Let me also note at the outset that today’s discourse is not limited to Associates currently engaged at Law Firms but also those among us who are engaged as company secretaries and/or administrators.
The topic of today is all encompassing and not even necessarily limited to law students.
To any of our international friends on this platform, the discussion also addresses your questions even though reference to some Nigerian contents might be made.
It is crucial at this nascent stage to consider the KEY WORDS in the topic of concern to enable us set a ground or a foundational framework for our discussion.
The Key words I have identified are – Excel, Associate and Professional Growth.
What is:
Excel or To excel: This means ‘to be exceptionally good at or proficient in an activity or subject’. The Cambridge English Dictionary defines the word to mean ‘to do something very well or be highly skilled, and be better than most others’.
Associate: Associates are typically younger (not necessarily determined by age) attorneys who have the potential of becoming partners. Large firms divide associates into junior and senior associates, depending on merit and experience Level. The typical lawyer works as an associate for six to nine years (in some cases, the years are lesser) before ascending to partnership ranks or “making partner.” When and if an associate makes partner generally depends on a combination of factors, including the associate’s legal acumen, his client base, and how well he fits into the firm’s culture.
Professional – This can be an adjective, to mean: ‘relating to or belonging to a profession or engaged in a specified activity as one’s main paid occupation rather than as an amateur.’ And it can also be used as a noun to mean: ‘a person engaged or qualified in a profession’. In all, a professional is a member of a profession or any person who earns their living from a specified professional activity.
Growth: The process of growing. Full development; maturity. An increase, as in size, number, value, or strength
the act or process, or a manner of growing; development; gradual increase.
Professional growth: This is all about gaining new skills and experience. That means your development is either related to your current role or the role you will be taking on next.
Now that we have our working definitions, what are the key factors we will consider towards delivering fantastic results as an Associate, excelling at your job and ultimately attaining professional growth?
For the purpose of this session I will address the topic of concern in a disjunctive yet related approach. First, we will consider EXCELLING AS A LAW FIRM ASSOCIATE and then we will consider KEY FACTORS TOWARDS PROFESSIONAL GROWTH.
Congratulations!!! You have now completed your Law Degree and have also completed your Nigeria Law School programme. You are currently serving Nigeria under the National Youth Service Corps scheme or you are a 2nd Year or 3rd Year Associate.
Whatever the category you fall into, congratulations, now you are in the corporate world and ready to learn and make as much money as possible!
Let me quickly point out at this stage:
In his book, Rain Making:  A Professional Guide to Attracting New Clients, Ford Harding puts it thus:

“I have already noted that Professional Firms do a –fair job- training their employees … If you do not take responsibility for your own development, no one will! Be thankful for whatever help you can get and then go out and take care of yourself.”

In recent times, some law firms and corporate organizations now prioritize the professional development of their Associate by sponsoring them for professional courses and trainings both domestically and internationally.
Let us then rapidly consider IN-OFFICE DEVELOPMENT STRATEGIES.
A law office or corporate organization basically comprises of different professionals from different backgrounds and with different experiences. Standing out in this setting is therefore crucial. You should be known as the Associate who will do a fantastic, error-free job.
Depending on your plan, whether you intend to use a year in this particular organization or two, before jetting off for further studies or whether you wish to gain a considerable working experience in this particular firm before moving out to another firm or corporate organization or for further studies, in all these scenarios, you must do a good job in your current position for the time being.
The key to being successful in a law firm is often dependent on how quickly you acclimate to the demands of the environment, how flexible you are, how effectively you can manage your time, and the strength of your communication skills.
Let me note also that many successful law firm partners built their practices from the bottom up, with the skills and relationships developed as junior lawyers as the foundation.
Below are some key factors which I find worthy of note towards excelling as a law firm associate:
Do a fantastic Job – While some law firms and corporate organizations will give their Associates an Entry Level Training upon their employment into the organization, some do not. In both cases, you are still expected to apply yourself to the job at hand, you need to learn fast.
You need to be adaptable and take corrections. Deliver on your billable hours. How do you do this? You do this by constantly improving yourself, your drafting skills, your research skills, your reading skills, your communication skills and your networking skills.  Prepare well when appearing in court. Prepare well when having client meetings. All these develop your professional skills.
Read Case Files: This is one of the best ways to learn the practice of law. Case files contain everything you need to know about the practice of your current firm and of other firms as well – since you will see correspondences from these firms. Case files enable you to experience firsthand, real life drafts and processes as opposed to the hypothetical ones you are exposed to at the Nigeria Law School. Case files enable you to read Orders of Courts, Correspondences, Documents used in Corporate Organizations, whether in banks, insurance companies, Tax Advisory Organization and many more.
Ask Questions: You are not a master of all. You just joined this Organization – or better still, you have undertaken an internship with this organization. No one was ever shot for asking questions. Ask from your senior associates, from colleagues and from Partners. However, do not ask silly questions or those resulting from laziness. Only ask where you are totally confused and your confusion has not been resolved by a thorough research on the internet and through reading.
Cultivate a Strong Research and Writing Skill: Dot all your I’s and Cross all your T’s. Read your draft again and again.
A Client Cannot pay your firm N100,000,000.00 for an Agreement and expect to meet typographical or grammatical errors in the draft.
Always bear in mind that you represent the firm, whether through email communications or physical interactions. Do not dent the image of your organization.
Develop strong communication skills, listen and make sure you understand the problem/issues and goals at hand, propose creative solutions, be responsive, make sure you deliver a superior work product, meet deadlines, follow-up to insure you have completely satisfied the partner, and be sure to ask for feedback so you can identify your weaknesses and continue to improve your skills as a lawyer.
Marketing, Client Development and Networking Skills:
One of the significant developments we have observed over the past few years in the lateral market is the expectation of firms that senior associates and income partners have strong business development skills. Indeed, some firms have required senior level/income partner candidates to bring with them a small portfolio of portable business. Although these marketing skills are most often required at the equity partner level, it would certainly serve you well to begin honing those skills very early in your career. Good client development skills spring from strong relationship and communication skills.
Attend corporate and non-corporate events and network. Hand out your business cards as appropriate and discuss with people of different fields.
Cultivate a Great Team Spirit:
You are all in this together. The success of one associate on the job is the success of all. And this means meeting turnaround time and also results in more time to do other tasks or follow up on other prospects. Ask how you can help your colleagues where appropriate and ask if they need any help completing a task.
Respect is Reciprocal: Always observe a level of respect for your professional associates. The workplace is not a place to bicker or hold grudges. You don’t have time for that. Apologize to each other when you’ve wronged one another and move on. You are in this organization to grow. Do not let anything hold you back.
Double Check Your Processes and Learn How to Operate All of the Machines. Above all, assume that the responsibility for the final product is always yours.
Ask For More Responsibility.
You must be your own advocate if you wish to develop in your career and learn more. Instead of waiting for your boss to give you more responsibility, actively
seek out opportunities to take on additional tasks – especially projects that will allow you to learn new skills or flex your leadership muscles. Even if the experience does not directly lead to a promotion or a title change, it can be instrumental in propelling your career forward and preventing you from stagnating in your current role.
Be the ‘Happening Now’ Associate – Call the attention of your Partners and fellow Associates to new discoveries in the legal industry, new technologies as well as case laws. Opinion articles can be developed from this.
Dress the Part:
This cannot be overemphasized. Dress smart and appear smart.
Have Fun and Connect with Friends:
Create time to relax from time to time, connect with friends over dinner and bond. You get to learn more from them and they will also learn from you.
We have talked about in house factors and developments – Now, let’s move on to KEY FACTORS TOWARDS PROFESSIONAL GROWTH.
Let me reiterate again that, these days, you are responsible for your personal and professional development and you need to look for your own opportunities.
When you aren’t growing, you’re stuck in a cycle that eventually leads to stagnation. It’s searching out development opportunities, whether they be on the job or off, that can break the cycle and get you moving forward again.
How then do one grow Professionally, I find these Five ways by Sarah Berry useful and I have expanded them.
Set a clear goal about what you want to achieve:
Once you have a clear goal, you’ll find it easier to manage your personal and professional development. You’ll be able to choose the training that stretches you personally and gives you the experience you need to grow professionally.
Right now, what do you want to do – You should aim to learn as much as possible.  What are the industry trends? How does the industry operate? How do I engage with Clients? What soft skills do I need to learn or improve on? What are my financial and business skills? These are all key factors to consider in setting your goals.
Be intentional and plan your development:
One of the best ways to develop yourself and your career is to ensure you keep learning. Work out a training plan for each year and aim to complete at least one piece of significant training each quarter. If your employer only pays for training that gives them a return on their investment, you may need to pay for it yourself.
Last year, apart from attending a number of Conferences such as the International Chamber of Commerce Conference in Lagos, I also took some online courses such as the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) ‘Unlocking Investment and Finance in Emerging Markets and Developing Economies (EMDEs)’ and ‘The Future of Work: Preparing for Disruption’ offered by the World Bank Group. This year, I am already enrolling on a number of courses, some of which I paid for and some which are free. For instance, I recently completed a paid training with the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators (UK).
There are many developmental and networking programmes that are being offered these days, some are free and some are available for a little fee.
You can take online Courses on the following websites:
Look for and take the right opportunities:
Training isn’t all about the learning. You also need to find opportunities to use your new knowledge and skills. But not all opportunities will be right for you and may not fit your personal brand, so choose carefully.
How then do you gain Visibility? These include:
1. Writing and Publishing Your Own Article – It should Include Your Picture (Where possible) and Contact Details.
2. Networking;
3. Giving Speeches (Both Paid and Unpaid).
From time to time, discuss your career plans with your Partner(s).
When it comes to personal and professional development, it helps if your Partner(s) is on board with your career plans. Since your Managing Partner will be signing off on your training, select the right one to take on new projects when those chances appear.
Bring to the attention of the firm, trainings which you believe will serve significant purposes to the Associates developments.
And finally,
Set goals and measure your progress:
The best way to manage your development is to ensure you go through a regular process of planning, taking action and reviewing your progress.
Now, let us consider some other points.
Learn From a Coach/Mentor:
You can learn a lot just by watching some partner(s) or senor lawyers at your law firm at work, and he or she will help you as you advance along your development.
Join professional groups and associations:
Professional networks give you the right environment to grow correctly; plus extra perks like access to exclusive training events, discounts, updated learning materials, and the chance to meet influential people in your field. Think of your network connections as your key professional support and always surround yourself with the right people.
When it comes to advancing your career, sometimes the simplest of steps can carry the greatest impact. For example, building, nurturing, and maintaining your professional network can have a tremendous impact in helping you find a new job or move up in your current organization.
Stay connected: Networking isn’t just about meeting new people; it’s also about staying in touch with those people you already know. Do your best to stay connected with former co-workers, supervisors, and professors who can alert you to potential opportunities within their organizations. Depending on your relationship, these connections may also put in a recommendation on your behalf.
Attend industry events: Attending lectures, trade shows, meetups, or other events specifically targeted to professionals in your industry is a great way to meet people who might one day help you pivot your career.
Be a good contact: People are more likely to do you a favour if you first do a favour for them. If you want to be someone that others in your network promote and help, then you need to make sure you are putting in the work on your end to be a good contact. An act as simple as writing a recommendation or alerting someone to a job posting you thought might interest them could be enough to help you stay top of mind—increasing the likelihood that they will do the same for you when the opportunity presents itself.
Social Media – Linkedin Etc.
Linkedin is one of the fastest growing professional media.  LinkedIn has over 575+ million users, with more than 260 million monthly active users.
Linkedin is an avenue to connect with industry experts and learn from them. The platform also provides for applying for opportunities from various organizations.
Take time each week to read the publications (magazines, websites, etc.) that cater to your industry and attend trade shows or lectures that offer you the opportunity to learn even more than you already know. Then, look for opportunities to leverage that information to improve in your role. You can get most of these publications from firms on Linkedin.
Leave Time For Your Personal Life Too.
We’re all caught up with deadlines and the pressure of developing ourselves. And it’s so easy for us to get swamped into the daily work life tasks (clients, meetings, demos) and forget about the things that matter the most to us. Always remember to connect with your family and friends.
Professional/Personal Growth is critical in anyone’s life. You have been privileged to complete your education, aiming towards professional growth whatever your field should be your next point of call. This gives you the necessary capacity to help as many people as you’re planning to help.
As law students and lawyers, professional development should be a priority. We should all endeavor to do a fantastic job as we all represent the legal profession, individually and collectively.
Thank you very much.
About the author
Toheeb Oluwabukola Amuda, Esq. AICMC.


Toheeb O. Amuda, Esq is an Associate at the Law Firm of Dorothy Ufot & Co, a top tier law firm in Nigeria where he specializes in the dispute resolution, corporate and commercial practice area of the firm.
Toheeb is an Investment Consultant and advises companies on major investment decisions and commercial transactions. He prepares routine and non-routine commercial agreements and has cognate experience in Arbitration and ADR, Enforcement/Setting aside of Arbitral Awards and general commercial and civil litigation in the Nigerian Courts.
He is a member of the Barack Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), World Youth Association (WYA), the Institute of Chartered Mediators and Conciliators (ICMC) and the Young International Council for Commercial Arbitration (YICCA) amongst others.
He is an avid writer with publications in both national journals and newspapers and other international platforms.


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