It’s spring and there’s change in the air. You may soon be preparing for OCI, starting a summer position or joining a law firm. As you take your first steps into professional life, you’ll want to know how to position yourself to stand out.
Finding mentors and sponsors who can help guide you in your career can make a big difference, and mentoring new lawyers is something that Sullivan & Cromwell partners Inosi Nyatta and Melissa Sawyer, who are both associate development partners, have a lot of experience doing. It’s also something they really enjoy.
“I had tremendous support at all stages of my career,” said Melissa at a recent panel discussion where she and Inosi gave tips to soon-to-be professionals. “I think it’s really important to give back and help others come along.”
Inosi couldn’t agree more. “I want to help others develop because guidance has been so valuable to me. No one can do it alone,” she says.
Here, Inosi and Melissa share some of those tips to help you as you experience the new possibilities that await you.
Launching your career.
When you’re choosing a law firm, ask how the firm will support your career. How your chosen firm provides professional development, mentoring and sponsorship, the ability to try different practice areas and how it pursues inclusion efforts are critical factors.
You should also look beyond the lawyers at the firm to its alumni and professional network when making your decision. A strong network provides a wide range of contacts in-house, in public service and at specialty firms and that can mean having more options as you develop your practice.
“The firm you pick first will be the stepping stone to your professional network,” says Inosi, who helped develop S&C’s innovative Career and Alumni Resource Center. “Think of your choice as your launch pad. The support your firm provides and its alumni network will have an everlasting impact on your career.”
Be curious and connect.
Melissa is no stranger to the performance evaluation. She estimates that she’s given between 600 and 700 reviews to provide formal feedback and says there’s no single model for success. In fact, different skill sets and talents are what make for great organizations.
In all that variety, there are two qualities she consistently sees in successful lawyers. The first is having a curious mind.
“People who are willing to dig into problems and get excited about solving them will do better because they are intellectually engaged in the subject matter,” she says. “They like to take things to the next level and, because of that, think beyond the original problems they’re solving.”
The second is the ability to connect with others, which doesn’t mean that you have to be an extrovert.
“I am not an extrovert by any means, but, as a lawyer, you’re in a client-service business and you’ll be dealing with other people all day long,” she says. “The ability to sit down with someone and have a meaningful conversation, and really connect with them, is an important skill to develop.”
Learn from your mistakes, don’t dwell on them.
You’re smart, you’re talented and you’re committed to doing a great job. In addition to all those things, practicing also requires experience. If you’re a perfectionist, when you realize that something went wrong, it can consume you and agonizing over it can take up too much of your time.
“Something I’ve found to be difficult for new lawyers is not being able to get over something that went wrong,” says Inosi. “Admit that it went wrong, identify why, but pick yourself up, move on and do a super job next time. If it goes wrong a couple times, turn it into a learning experience. Being committed to learning from your mistakes will make you a better lawyer and teammate.”
Internalizing your mistakes, and dwelling on them, is counterproductive. If you’re working on a team, don’t let a mistake affect your confidence or relationships with team members. Use the experience to improve.
From theory to practice.
The law is highly technical and complex by nature, but your solutions need to work for your clients in the real world. You’ll be putting a lot of time into your research, and you might find yourself envisioning many theoretical possibilities for solving a problem, but you also need to take the time to step back, to see how all of your work can feed into a workable approach.
“Sometimes when I talk to new lawyers they are hyper-technical about issues,” says Melissa. “When you take a step back and look at the bigger picture, taking everything into consideration—the people involved, the strategy or what’s happening in the markets— you’ll see that the solution doesn’t work in the broader context.”
Complexity made simple.
You will need to be able to explain complex ideas to non-lawyers. In interviews, and at OCI, you might be asked about specialized knowledge you have, for example, a topic that’s listed on your resume. This gives you the opportunity to show how you would explain a complex topic that is well-known to you but not to your audience.
“For example, if you wrote your thesis on a topic in chemistry, I might ask you to explain that to me,” says Melissa. “I have no background in chemistry. I look to see if you can frame it in a way that’s understandable to an outsider, because we do that often as lawyers."
Ask original questions in your interview.
Imagine you’ve been interviewing law students all afternoon. When it comes time for the students to ask you questions, who’s going to stand out?
“If you’re really invested, prepare for your interview and ask original questions about what interests you,” says Inosi. “When students say, for example, ‘I read about the work your firm is doing on this deal and the piece was very interesting to me’ and then ask a related question, it shows they spent a little more time. It’s a great way to distinguish yourself.”
In a few words, what advice do you have about…
Skills a new lawyer should develop?
- “Interpersonal skills: emotional intelligence, talking to people, writing to people,” says Inosi.
- “Presentation skills. Get comfortable speaking in front of others by looking for any and every opportunity to do it,” says Melissa.
What have you learned about mentors?
- “Informal mentors and friendships at work can be just as valuable as formal relationships—sometimes even more valuable,” says Melissa.
- “You might be surprised about who will be the best mentor for you. You might not have guessed it would be that person on your first day,” says Inosi.
Inosi Nyatta is a partner in Sullivan & Cromwell’s Finance & Restructuring Group and is an associate development partner, handling staffing for that group. She is also head of the firm’s America’s Project Finance and Development Group. She works on financing transactions, including project financings, capital markets offerings and cross-border financings.
Melissa Sawyer is a partner in Sullivan & Cromwell’s Mergers & Acquisitions Group, a co-head of the summer associate program and an associate development partner. She is also co-head of the Corporate Governance & Activism practice and Consumer & Retail Group. She advises clients on M&A transactions, joint ventures, strategic alliances, corporate governance, activism and takeover defense.