Only one opportunity

President’s Message by Mark Martini

If you only had one opportunity to have everything you ever wanted, would you capture it or would you let it slip away?

I ask this question to all of the young lawyers reading this column because now is your one shot to make a difference in your life and your career. It is often said that you only get one chance to make a first impression. Now is the time to make that impression in your career and set yourself apart from the hundreds of other attorneys who graduated around the same time as you.

Every time a new job hits the market, dozens of newly admitted attorneys submit applications and resumes. How are you setting yourself apart from the other 30, 40, 50 or more young lawyers who have submitted resumes for the same job? Sure, you may have made great grades in law school, been on Law Review or been involved in various activities while you were still in school. But what sets you apart now? You need to think about not where you are now or where you want to be in 10 years, but how you are going to get there.

There are many different ways to set yourself apart and build your resume. Consider joining a local nonprofit organization to build your leadership skills. Consider writing articles for legal journals or step outside the box and write a relevant legal article for a professional or trade publication.

Get involved in your bar association. Of course, my pitch is for the Allegheny County Bar Association, but there are other opportunities available through the Pennsylvania Bar Association, the American Bar Association, the Women’s Bar Association of Western Pennsylvania, and many specialty bar groups. The opportunities provided by these organizations are countless whether your desires are philanthropic, substantive law, social, athletic, educational or other. The connections that you make with lawyers, judges and other legal professionals will follow you for a lifetime.

If you are a new lawyer with little or no experience, I suspect that the number one shortfall holding you back is lack of substantive experience. The $1 million question has always been, “How do I get experience when no one will give me a chance?” My advice is to take on pro bono or low bono legal work so that you can hone your skills and get real lawyering experience that legal employers are looking for. It costs tens of thousands of dollars, if not more, for employers to train new lawyers. Give them a reason to want to hire you by getting the first or second level of training on your own.

Lastly, I will take the liberty to get on my soapbox to point out what I feel may be a change in many of the individuals graduating from law school based on what has been repeatedly expressed to me in my many meetings in Allegheny County and across the Commonwealth and the United States. Contrary to what many newer lawyers may feel, being an attorney is not a 9-to-5, 40-hour job.

In the early 2000s when I was a young attorney, it was expected that new lawyers would work 50, 60 or more hours per week. Young attorneys embraced this, put the time in, and grew as professionals. I do not believe that employers’ expectations have changed since then, but some younger attorneys may not have the drive and desire to put in this type of commitment.

This is not just about “billing hours” and making your employer happy. It is called the “practice” of law for a reason. You need to put the time in to learn the law before you can become proficient and succeed as an attorney. As with any sport or hobby, only after you put in the practice can you excel. Out of the gates of law school and for the next five to 10 years, this is next to impossible to achieve on a “part-time,” 40-hours-per-week basis. You need to put the time in now so that 10 or 20 years from now you may not need to put in the same type of commitment since you will already understand the practicalities and realities of the profession.

Now is the time to set yourself apart, not 10 years from now. You will be amazed when you wake up one day and realize that it has already been a decade since you graduated. Don’t let opportunity pass you by. Write your own story and create your own future. You only get one chance to make a first impression and you only get one chance to build your reputation in this very tight-knit legal community.

Trust me when I say that while we have 6,100 legal professionals in this association, your reputation – good or bad – will spread quickly. What do you want the legal community to say about you?