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Nine Career-Building Moves for (Young) Lawyers

How do you get ahead in the competitive legal industry? During a luncheon at Duane Morris, lawyers shared their experiences and advice.



Pepco Holdings associate GC Amy Blauman, Duane Morris DC office chair and founding managing partner Sheila Slocum Hollis, Sutherland partner Susan Lafferty, and Department of Energy senior program manager Angie Colamaria. Their careers are in energy law, but these nine behaviors are key for success in any career at any age.

1) Say yes. Agree to opportunities that come up, from both fellow lawyers and clients. Susan says she learned early on—by emulating the most successful lawyers at her firm—that you need to keep evolving, taking advantage of new opportunities, and making yourself relevant to the client. In Sheila's case, she said "yes" at age 29 to starting up FERC's Office of Enforcement as its first director.



2) Communicate. Once you say "yes" to those opportunities, remember to communicate. "You almost can't over-communicate," says Susan.

3) Get to know "who's who." Sheila tells us that her mother, a nuclear weapons designer from Colorado, had always been big on Who's Who in America. When Sheila came to Washington in the '70s, her mother suggested looking up "who's who." That led to Sheila sending letters to 25 or so of the top energy players in DC and having lunch with them to get to know and learn from them.

4) Be open-minded. Stay flexible. Sheila referred to it as the "ability to jump from one rock to another in a very fast-moving stream." (Now an energy law guru, Sheila was planning to be a real estate tax lawyer until the '70s financial crisis.) Angie spent three years as a lobbyist, until noticing that decision-makers, especially in DC, tend to listen to you more if you have a law degree. She's now building up a new DOE program on the third-party finance of transmission projects. (She points out that it's not an official attorney position—though she uses her legal skills every day—another thing to be open to.)


5) Stay in touch. A crucial lesson is to keep in touch with people, Amy says. After graduating from law school, she wanted to work for the Office of Administrative Law Judges at FERC. She wasn't immediately hired and called back six months later to express her interest; several months later, she was called about an open position. Susan agrees; she came to DC wanting to work on the Hill but couldn't find openings. While working at a law firm as a paralegal, a congressman for whom she'd interned during college became head of the Energy and Commerce Committee. Susan called somebody she knew there and came in for what she thought was an interview—they asked if she could start tomorrow.

6) Write well. "Nothing brings a tear of joy to a partner's eye better than a well-written memo," says Sheila. Other panelists mention to approach even writing emails with respect. That means treating them more formally than would be your inclination (even when they're internal), knowing what your reader is expecting, and considering spelling and conciseness.


7) Be confident (but polite). Show self-assurance and knowledge of the topic but also don't be a jerk (even when, say, taking a hard line in negotiations). You never know whether the person on the other side of an enforcement action one day may be on your side the next, or seated next to you at dinner. 

8) Learn from every experience. No matter what you're learning, no matter how obscure, it comes in handy later. Whatever challenges you're facing, you have to keep learning and keep moving. Do a good job where you are (while keeping an eye out for the next opportunity).

9) Be persistent. You have to have the mindset that "If you get knocked down seven times, you stand up eight."


Attendees enjoyed meals from The Corner Bakery and cookies from Woodward Takeout Food. The event was presented by the DC Women's Bar Association's Energy & Environmental Law Forum and co-sponsored by the DC Bar's Environment, Energy and Natural Resources section. We snapped one organizer, Simpson Thacher's Shannon Beebe, flanked by Allison Speaker and Shadie Parivar.