All aboard the career express

Congratulations! You have completed your academic training and are set to embark on professional practice. But a word of caution for the naively optimistic – success at one does not guarantee success at the other.

Assuming similar backgrounds and capabilities, some candidates will shoot straight to the top, leaving colleagues far behind. This is because professional life requires more than working to academic capabilities. Those who succeed combine their capability with effectiveness; they combine their legal discipline with other skills such as business-acumen, common-sense, people-sense and an understanding of how the game is played. Your academic qualification will have opened the door but it will not have addressed the real-life concern of getting ahead while in professional practice.

Once inside you need to find a way to let people know your true worth. Can you look good without making someone else look bad? Can you play the game without playing politics? The answer is yes but there are some rules to take note of:

v Survival of the fittest

Darwinism influences almost any pyramid-shaped structure, and the firm is no exception. There are simply not as many senior partners as partners or as many partners as assistants. This means a natural antagonism, however subtle, between the pyramid's different levels. So, know your friends. Your peers are your natural allies – if you alienate them you won't need any other enemies. And learn there is always a system and you need to know it. That is the only way you can work in it, through it or around it.

v Establish the criteria

Unlike college, where you were judged on exams, in professional practice you are constantly being judged by the firm. Each practitioner with whom you work may have different criteria. Ask them before you start what their criteria is.

v Make a long term impression

How the firm relates to you will depend on the conscious and unconscious statements you make about yourself. How you dress, your phone manner, your efficiency, the way you greet people, all affect the impression you make on others.

The key is to come across as your best self by playing a role that features your strongest professional qualities and hides your worst. Self-assertion through personal statements is not a good idea. The trick is to conform and know when to blend in while sticking out at the same time.

However, you don't have to be perfect. If you can take advantage of all the opportunities to create an overall impression of competence, effectiveness, maturity and fair-minded toughness people will overlook the occasional 'off-day'.

Your colleagues and your clients will need reassurance they can rely on you to get the facts exactly right. Lawyers, who are good at this are driven to perform a task well, no matter what the task is or how mundane. In many ways, this requires total commitment.

Dress as though you mean business – and that applies to both men and women.

Indiscretion is professional immaturity and it afflicts people of all ages. Practise listening more than you speak. It is important to act rather than react to situations. Take a moment to put some emotional distance between yourself and the situation – listening gives you this time – then you can choose how to act to achieve the most positive influence.

Many a firm will advocate a work hard-play hard approach – beware. This can only lead to eventual burn-out or boredom. In this respect the "old boy's" network comes into play. Certainly, women need to take more advantage of networking within the system but it does not follow this needs to be done in a macho 'play hard' scenario. The reality is that firms will advance those who work capably as well as efficiently.

Make no mistake, succeeding will not be easy. It requires you to constantly apply these rules to your work. However, as professional demands begin to impact more on your time you will also need to schedule time for other things such as exercise, meeting friends outside of work, time with your family and simply resting. This is important to maintain perspective as well as motivation.

The firm may not care what you do provided you work capably. But, it is your career and if you want to be able to continue to work efficiently you will need to pay attention to these extra-curricular activities.

Catherine Berney is a solicitor and psychologist with CBA.