8 Tips on How to Make Yourself Invaluable at Work
Caution: The contents of this post may be controversial – for me personally, as the tips I describe below may not align with my goal of the website, which is helping professionals take control of their careers. And, for those looking for “work, life balance”, I’ll be frank, I don’t think that “work, life balance” is an achievable goal or should be a goal for young professionals who want to succeed (e.g. get promoted, earn more money, be an expert in their field, etc.).
Judy Smith, a crisis management expert, lawyer, author and inspiration behind the ABC show Scandal, is not a fan of balance. Instead, she said at a conference I was at to “give up on balance” and “just hang on”. I agree. I think there’s no such thing as true “work, life balance” in private practice, and the concept shouldn’t be thrown around lightly. If “work, life balance” is your goal in private practice or in another profession that’s equally as demanding, it’s a way to set yourself up to fail.
I know this lifestyle that I have lived for over 5 years is not sustainable, which is why I started this website, but I know that change in the profession and the recognition of mental health will not happen overnight. I think the future of young lawyers in private practice, especially female lawyers, is at risk and if things don’t change in the profession, more good lawyers will leave. Also, I feel like senior lawyers think millennial’s and young lawyers are just lazy and don’t want to work as hard as them, so senior lawyers (not all of them of course) want to make, whether consciously or unconsciously, young lawyers suffer and have to make sacrifices (like family) just like they had to. They think that the way they did it, is the only way. I disagree with this approach.
Young lawyers want to work more efficiently and use, for example, technology to their advantage. I’ve been working LONG HOURS and ALL WEEKENDS since the beginning of the year, and I find myself asking often whether this is worth it? I think in the long-term for my health, my honest answer would be no. But that’s a whole other post, maybe for another day. I’m not ready to reflect on that just yet, so for now, I’m oft reminded of the famous Dory quote from Finding Nemo, “just keep swimming”.
Now, that I have concluded my short rant. I’d like to turn to my post which is all about succeeding at work.
I’ve been a lawyer for over 5 years now, and I’m also in a management position at the firm (I won’t go into further details on that because I’d like to keep my anonymity). I often get asked what my tips are for success by new hires at the firm. Below I have synthesized the tips and career strategies that I have used to find myself still in private practice and in a management position. I have also incorporated tips for success that I have collected from senior lawyers.
Here is my list of tips that will make you invaluable at work, so that you are in control of your present career choices (as much as you can be in private practice), future career options and hopefully through that, also, your money:
1. Immerse yourself in your job.
Actionable Tip: Give 100% of yourself to your job because, what’s the worst that can happen? You leave that job, but at least if you do, you can say you tried your best and you’ll likely be able to get references from that firm after you leave.
Like any good relationship, it just works better when you’re invested!
A couple years ago, 2017 if I recall correctly, I made a new year’s resolution to “immerse myself in my career”. What did this mean? Well, for me, it meant drowning myself in the practice of law, the business of law and the social aspects of the law as well as stopping my mind from the “one foot out the door” thoughts. It also included controlling the thoughts (or at least to the extent that I could) around what other opportunities there might be with a law degree, because I knew that I wasn’t actually going to leave private practice until I had given it my best shot and at least tried to make it work for me.
So, what did it look like when I “immersed myself” in my career? First, I think this will look different for each of us, but I had to change my thoughts and my behaviour and do things where I was constantly immersing myself in my career. I committed myself to my workplace and my career. I told myself that I was planning to be in this career for a long time and minimized any fantasies I had about leaving my current job. When I was being honest with myself, I knew that it would not be an easy decision to leave private practice or the law completely. It might be one of the hardest decisions – but I knew, that at least for now, I had worked way too hard and long to get here and I was not going to quit.
Here’s what I did to immerse myself at work:
Sometimes I would attend these events with others in the firm and other times, I would attend on my own – whatever the situation was though, I showcased my best self. I never complained about having to go to an event on my “own time” (after hours) – don’t complain, it’s annoying. Instead, I thanked the firm for sending me and allowing me to represent the firm at the event. Because, I also knew that I was making connections and networking, which could lead to other opportunities or new clients in the future.
Actionable Tip: The “one foot out the door” thoughts are no good – try to get rid of or minimize those thoughts. They are draining, make you less motivated and it’s harder to concentrate when you’re at work. You also then don’t invest in relationships with others where you work and don’t build relationships with clients.
It’s easy to spot people who are not invested in the company or in their careers or both. They can even become toxic to have in the workplace. If you want to succeed, don’t become their bff.
2. Show that you are invested in the company and its future.
Another important key to success at a company is showing others (management, staff and colleagues) that you’re invested in the company and its future success. See yourself being at the company for the long-term and have your actions reflect that.
It could be something as small as bringing something in on a work day for everyone to share e.g. a dessert that you made, chocolates from your trip to Hawaii or something that you want to share with everyone (donuts from the best shop in town). This shows that you thought of someone, other than yourself, that you turned your mind to them, took time out of your day, and spent your hard-earned money to bring in something that everyone could enjoy. Another idea could be finding a way to reduce some of the company expenses.
Your long-term stay with the company should also be reflected in your actions and in conversations with others in your workplace. My only comment would be that you shouldn’t be too presumptuous in your future with the company, such that you become overconfident and just annoy people.
3. Be available – in-person and by email.
This is one tip for success that can show your dedication and commitment to the company and also make “work, life balance” – for those of you that are trying to achieve it – not possible.
Although being as available as you possibly can has resulted in me losing control of my life (days flying by and me having no idea what day or what month it is at times), I have found this to be a key to my success in private practice.
When I articled at the law firm, I was of the view (rightly or wrongly) that I had to be the last person in the office because I was the most junior and lowest on the hierarchy. I stayed late most days. When I wasn’t the last person in the office, I would feel guilty and would watch my emails even closer in case someone needed something from me that evening. I was always available, whether in person at the office to do research late at night or by email to answer any questions or do urgent work that seldom came up.
Before you leave for the day, consider if you should ask if there is anything you can do to help. Most times the answer will be no (in which case, the senior lawyer(s) you ask will be appreciative that you even thought to ask), but sometimes the answer will be yes and it might be inconvenient but your help might mean 2 extra hours of sleep for them. Trust me, the senior lawyers appreciate this.
Some of you may have no interest in being available as often as you can, but this earned me a reputation as being someone who was hard working (because I was always working), who was a team player (because I offered to help), who was empathetic, who took initiative and who was organized and timely. (Don’t worry – I have a lot of flaws too, but this post is about sharing qualities that can lead you to success).
Now that I have earned that reputation, however, people have expectations of me and I try my best not to disappoint. It has been both a benefit and a burden.
I should note here that we all have a work reputation. It develops and gets built upon our whole working lives. For lawyers, our reputations are critical.
4. Be perceptive. Be self-aware.
Self-awareness seems to be a buzz word right now, so I’m going to use it to emphasize the importance of being conservative in your workplace, listening more than you speak, and paying attention to the work environment, because sometimes actions can speak louder than words.
When I started interviewing for jobs after law school, I think the best piece of interviewing advice I got was, “be conservative”.
I have somewhat of a loud voice and sometimes I can have no filter, but because I have self-awareness, I knew that I couldn’t be all of myself in the interview.
Being conservative means things like thinking before speaking, rather than just reacting to a question or statement. It’s about knowing and assessing your audience when you are going to speak. I’m not only conservative in the office. I use this approach in the way I dress at work, how I conduct myself in meetings, at firm events and at work social events. People like to talk about themselves so being curious about other people and asking questions about other people, isn’t such a bad thing. It has saved me from oversharing.
Do a value assessment
However, I recognize that being conservative doesn’t work at all workplaces, but I think it’s a good assumption to make until you learn more about the company you are working at or are going to work at. I think it’s important to do a value assessment – an assessment of what values are important to the company and what values are important to you. Do your values line up? Are the values that you have identified something you can work with? We spend a lot of time at work, so if not, it could make you unhappy in that work environment.
Actionable Tip: Although it’s hard to do this from an interview, try to learn about the company culture BEFORE you accept the job offer. Until you know the company culture and values, I would err on the side of being more conservative than not.
I think that being conservative is connected to listening more than you speak, especially when you’re new. It not only shows respect, but gives you perspective to see what relationships have already been established, what the contentious issues are and it gives you insight into the work environment. Paying attention to people’s reactions, demeanour and behaviour can tell you a lot about what’s going on and what people are not prepared to say out loud.
5. Be a team player – and help others whenever you can.
Be aware of your surroundings at the office or in your workplace. If you see someone struggling, stressed or in need of help, reach out to help them. It can be work related or not. It can be something small, like hearing that your colleague doesn’t have time to grab coffee, offering to bring them one or just bringing them a coffee (if you know their order).
My love language is “acts of service” – doing something for your significant other that you know they would like for you to do e.g. cooking a meal, washing dishes, taking out the garbage, making my lunch, etc..
I think that being observant of your colleagues’ love language – or the equivalent in the work context – can be invaluable. It not only builds relationships with your colleagues, but makes your colleagues feel like it’s the place they want to work. We all want to feel like we belong. (Think of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, where belongingness is a psychological need.)
I digress, but if you have never heard of the #1 New York Times bestseller, the 5 love languages book by Gary Chapman, I highly recommend that you read this book and do the quiz in the book and make your significant other take the quiz as well. It’s short, easy to read and provides a lot of insight into personal relationships and professional relationships that can serve you well.
If you see that a colleague needs help in the photocopy room after hours to assemble a brief, for example, go out of your way to help them. I think this also goes to being a team player in the workplace and the need to be perceptive of what is going on around you.
The most recent example of teamwork that I saw was when I was last in the registry office. I went in to renew my car registration, and it was Friday at 5:27 p.m. and they closed at 5:30 p.m. As soon as they saw me in the lineup, team work was in full force and the registry agents each started moving a little faster. One registry agent took a customer who only had to sign a document over to the side so the other registry agent could help me out. I was out of there by 5:29 p.m. and their weekend could start on time at 5:30 p.m.. After seeing this, I wondered why can’t we always be this helpful to each other?!
6. Take initiative and be proactive.
If you work on teams or are lower on the hierarchy, take initiative by tracking when deadlines are approaching and do something to get on top of them. Most lawyers are working to the next deadline, and are constantly trying to put out fires. They don’t have many chances to see the days or weeks ahead of them. But, most junior lawyers do and being proactive on approaching deadlines can be lifesaving – both for your health and the profession.
So, if you know about or notice that a deadline is approaching and no one has started to do anything to meet that deadline, take time to plan ahead. Ask if there is anything you can do to move things along or get things organized. It might be that you can take a stab at the first cut of the letter or maybe it’s that you can do the research for the presentation or write the paper. Taking this kind of initiative and being proactive not only makes you look good but gives you more time to get the work done (rather than rushing through it at the last minute). Your colleagues, staff and more senior people will be happier and just thankful that you brought it to their attention early and started on it early.
7. Be timely.
Don’t be rude. Other people’s time is valuable too – not only yours. Try not to be late for meetings – whether in person or by telephone. Instead, be early for meetings if you can. This will reduce your stress (I don’t know about you, but I get really anxious when I think I am going to be late and am running behind). I hate the feeling, and it’s just not worth the stress.
Be on time to work.
Be timely with your work product. If someone has asked you for something by a certain date, either give it to them early or by the deadline. If you are going to be late, make sure you ask for more time BEFORE the deadline and get it to them by the extended date and time. If you are constantly late, you will get a reputation of being so.
Don’t be late. I know that we are all busy, but especially when you are at the bottom of the hierarchy, you are the least busy person (even if you feel overwhelmed and that you’re the busiest you have ever been). Stay up late and do whatever it takes to get it done on time or by the time you committed to.
If you struggle with being on time, check out Natalie Bacon’s 6 TIME MANAGEMENT TECHNIQUES SO YOU’RE NEVER LATE AGAIN.
8. Build and maintain relationships in the company.
I find that when you talk to the more senior people at the company, you build relationships and when you show an interest in what they do, they are more likely to think of you the next time an opportunity comes along. I have found that I’m more likely to be thought of for a project or for new work than a colleague who sits in their office waiting for work to come to them (don’t be that guy or girl). Building relationships in the company can turn into opportunities.
Actionable Tip: Manage others’ expectations of you. Give status updates BEFORE you are asked to by others both in the company and outside of the company (e.g. clients). This little action can build relationships and maintain them.
When you show an interest in other peoples’ work, you’ll also come across as someone who is eager, determined and interested in learning. You could even get a mentor out of it because if they see your commitment and interest in learning, they may decide to invest in you, if they see you investing in them. Find someone you can learn from and, if you’re lucky to find someone, nurture that relationship.
If you have an issue with another person in the office, don’t let it fester or not discuss it. I think it’s important to have open communication with others that you work with and address issues, or at least most of them, head on. By addressing the issue early on, it can lead to the issue not repeating itself and not result in issues compounding so they become a bigger deal.
- Immerse yourself in your job.
- Show that you are invested in the company and its future.
- Be available – in-person and by email.
- Be perceptive. Be self-aware.
- Be a team player – and help others whenever you can.
- Take initiative and be proactive.
- Be timely.
- Build and maintain relationships in the company.