When seeking out career advice in any field, it is valuable to hear from practitioners who have not only celebrated professional triumphs but also weathered a number of storms. Held earlier in March, this year’s Pogue Panel featured several prominent law firm leaders who shared strategies for success during the first few years of a law career.

The panel included Sam Feder, ‘95, managing partner at Jenner & Block LLP in Washington, D.C.; Lilia Vazova, ‘09, a partner at Latham & Watkins LLP in New York; and Chris Porter, ‘08, a partner at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan LLP in Houston.

This year’s moderator, Professor Bob Hirshon, ‘73, kicked off the discussion by asking for general advice the panelists would give to young associates just starting out—at which all three panelists took the opportunity to dispense recommendations they would have wanted at the beginning of their careers.

All of the panelists emphasized that law is a client service profession at its core, and Vazova recommended that new associates should internalize this from the first day on the job. “What we do as lawyers is serve a client. It can be a little challenging for people who are just starting out their career to fully appreciate that,” she said. “It’s easy to fall into this trap of thinking that you are several layers removed from the client because you’ve never met them and they don’t know who you are, but that’s not necessarily true. The most important thing is to think about how you can be helpful on each case, and build that mentality from the get-go.”

Porter emphasized the importance of digging in when first arriving at a firm. “Starting at a firm can be like a tidal wave hitting you. Spend your first couple of years really learning the law. You have an opportunity where no one is pressuring you to bring in work or generate business. You want to be someone that partners, senior associates, and clients can depend on and trust, and the way to do that is to focus on the law. Do a little extra research so you are able to answer questions that arise.”

When the conversation turned to handling an economic recession, Vazova reflected on her own experience. “My graduating class was ‘baptized by fire.’ It’s important to remember that you are not owed a position at a law firm—and you have to earn it. It’s scary but also empowering, because it gives you a lot more agency and drive to do your best every day.”

Drawing on his boutique law firm experience, Porter recommended that students put a lot of thought not only into their career trajectory, but professional relationships as well. “I would advise you not to fall into the ‘prestige trap’ and go to a big firm just because you can. Whichever firm you land at, you want to feel a personal connection because they want you as a person, and they are not just filling a slot. Research which law firms experienced major layoffs during the last recession. If things go south, you want to be somewhere where they don’t just want you, they need you. Go somewhere that you feel you can build a career and have a true connection with your colleagues.”

Feder drove this point home, saying, “The single best career advice I’ve ever gotten was go to a place where someone in power cares about you and your career.” He added, “Throughout my career, I’ve tried to follow my heart. Be open-minded, try different things, and apply yourself where you end up.”

The Richard W. Pogue Law Leaders Panel is sponsored by the Office of Development and Alumni Relations annually, through a special fund created by Richard W. Pogue, ‘53, senior adviser at Jones Day.