Launching a career as an entry-level associate is exciting, energizing, and—let’s face it—discombobulating. You’re working with new people and confronting high, often unspoken, expectations. You’re wondering how to translate the common truisms that barrage new associates—“Focus on the important stuff!’ “Act like an owner!” “Project a positive attitude!”—into something that you can actually do at work.
While we haven’t found a complete cure yet for the discombobulation that accompanies the first year of legal practice, you can successfully launch your legal career and sail through even the most turbulent waters by focusing on four key concepts and some simple tips that will allow you to put these concepts into action.
I. Get the Assignment Right
Before plunging into an assignment, confirm that you properly understand it. The assigning attorney’s years of experience might create entirely different assumptions about a project’s scope, and might make it hard to remember what it’s like for a first-year associate to navigate through a task for the first time.
When receiving an assignment, take the initiative to quickly and confidently ask the right questions:
Restate the assignment: “You want me to write a ____, correct? The key issues are ___, right?”
Get a clear deadline: “You want this by ___?” or “Will it work for you if I give this to you on ___?”
Clarify when and how to check in: “How about if I check in with you on ___?”
Ask the best place to start: “Do you have any tips for the most efficient places to start my research?” or “Have you written anything similar that you’d like me to use as a model?”
Ask how long it should take: “Any expectations for or limits on how much time I should spend on this?”
Whenever you feel like you’re spinning your wheels, get help—if not from the assigning partner, then from another associate. If you ask the assigning partner for guidance, demonstrate that you’ve prepared for that discussion. Jot down questions and save them for a meeting, call, or email, instead of asking then one at a time. Efficiently summarize how you’ve thought through and tried to resolve problems on your own.
II. Act like an Owner
“Own the case!” “Take initiative!” These are common words of advice for associates. Woe to associates who display the dreaded “employee mentality” or who “limit themselves to the four corners of their assignments.” But as a new associate, how can you take charge without overstepping your bounds? What can you do to show your commitment and channel it in productive ways?
See the big picture. Before starting an assignment, ask yourself: What overall goal is the client trying to achieve? What problem is the client trying to solve? The due diligence you’re conducting or the written discovery you’re drafting are not ends in themselves, but vehicles to help achieve a bigger objective. If the partner hasn’t taken the time to orient you to a case’s or transaction’s overall goals, talk to another associate on the matter, read key documents in the file, and think for yourself about the big-picture goals. Look for ways that your work can further those goals.
Speak up! Contribute ideas and make recommendations. While you don’t want to shoot from the hip with ideas you haven’t thought out, go ahead and identify issues that the partner hasn’t raised or propose solutions or arguments that the partner hasn’t thought of. Instead of waiting for new directions or assignments, strategically look for helpful times to put the partner in the position to approve or veto your ideas.
Organize projects and create schedules. Never underestimate how much partners will appreciate you volunteering to create and update task-lists, timelines, or other project management tools. While this can be hard to do when you’re first encountering a discovery plan or closing schedule, taking initiative to help plan and track a project’s progress is a great way to master these new processes and demonstrate ownership of your work.
Propose priorities. Without extensive experience to guide you, you’ll find it challenging to set priorities when you have more work to do in a day than you can possibly complete. That shouldn’t stop you from proposing priorities and confirming that you’re setting the right ones, instead of always waiting for someone else to set your priorities for you. In the flurry of a busy practice, many partners might not stop to think through those priorities themselves. If you ask, “Which one of the torrent of tasks that you’ve given me should I do first?” the answer might well be, “That’s what I need you to tell me.”
Play by the rules. Does it really matter if you submit your time entries each day? Participate in practice group meetings, trainings, and firm-sponsored events? Treat staff courteously? Yes. Particularly if you fail to do any these things.
III. Inspire Confidence in Yourself and Your work
How do you project confidence without projecting cockiness? If you’re feeling flummoxed, how do you earn someone else’s confidence? Instead of churning over what you’re feeling inside, focus on what you convey to others through your attitude and actions.
Project a positive attitude. This isn’t as simple as smiling when your heart is weary during a late-night filing, although that helps. And you don’t want to come off as a know-it-all who is more audacious than wise. You can, however, discipline yourself at the office to show an interest in and enthusiasm for your work, colleagues, and clients. When you feel stuck in a routine and unchallenging assignment, the best way to earn more advanced work is to enthusiastically surpass everyone’s expectations on that assignment. When you discover a problem—or worse yet your own mistake—that looks like it might blow up a deal or kill that motion you’re drafting, take a breath and embrace the challenge. Don’t just worriedly bring a problem back to the partner: propose a solution.
Honor deadlines and provide status updates. Even when you’ve set the deadline for submitting a draft, treat that deadline as if it were an imposed one. Sure, the partner might have replied “yes” when you asked if it would be all right to email your draft on Sunday instead of Friday. But is that partner really feeling overjoyed about reviewing your draft on a Sunday night instead of a Friday? If you’re working on a project that will take several days or even weeks, chime in with occasional status updates. With a short email, call, or visit, you can preempt the partner from starting to worry about whether you’re making any progress.
Organize your talking points. Even out here on the more casual West Coast, prepare for a short phone call or quick visit with a partner or client as if it were a mini-meeting with a simple agenda. Outline some bullet points so that the person you’re talking to understands immediately why you’re there and what your point is. If you’re reporting back on research or analysis that you’ve been ask to perform, lead with your conclusion or recommendation, explain why that’s the best answer and what you did to reach that answer, and be prepared to discuss potential limitations, weaknesses, and alternatives.
Deliver client-ready, error-free work product. Don’t let the word “draft” fool you. To a partner it means “a document that requires the least amount of work possible from me before I hand it over to the client.” Even the most collaborative and friendly partners are taken aback when an associate submits a draft brief or memo with an incomplete section that includes a few bullet points and a note that “this needs more work.” And before you send any draft to a partner, proofread it on paper, ask someone else to proofread it, then proofread it again. All of it. You want the partner to remember your clear and persuasive writing, not your failure to notice that the signature block listed the wrong clients.
Learn to be a great lawyer. No matter how much confidence you project, you can’t win confidence in your work unless you deliver outstanding legal work. Take advantage of the formal training programs and informal mentoring your firm offers, and don’t ever stop learning your craft. The legal market’s ongoing transformations have prompted firms to emphasize the types of business and interpersonal skills discussed in this article. But these transformations also require lawyers more than ever to continually hone their legal skills.
IV. Focus on Others’ Needs
As we start our legal careers, we need many things from the people we work with, such as guidance, mentoring, career-advancement opportunities, and support. The best way to inspire others to help you with your own needs is to focus on how you can help them with theirs. You want to create genuine reciprocity cycles, in which your generosity and thoughtfulness surrounds you with people who are eager to help you—not because they feel they owe you something, but because they are happy to do it.
How can you do this?
Find out what they need. Research your clients’ businesses and interests. Inquire about clients’ and partners’ work styles, communication preferences, and quirks. Adapt your approach to suit their needs.
Listen. As lawyers, we can easily slip into thinking about what we need to say next instead of what the other person is saying now. Take the time to listen, empathetically opening yourself to the speaker’s perspective instead of immediately judging it, confirming whether you’ve correctly grasped the substantive of what’s been said, and acknowledging unspoken emotions or needs.
Focus on helping others shine. Instead of worrying about whether you’ll impress a partner with your deposition outline, focus on whether you’re producing an outline that actually will help the partner in the deposition. Instead of treating paralegals, secretaries, and other staff as if they only exist to support your career, find out what you can do to help them excel in their jobs. And as for your client’s employees, who are ransacking their computers before the impending document production deadline, always remember that they’re job is not to make discovery easy for you, your job is to make it easy for them.
Be a successful giver. Research by Adam Grant, Wharton professor and author of Give and Take, indicates that the most generous employees—the “givers”—can be either the most or least successful performers. Successful givers know how to generously help others without burning themselves out or sidetracking their own careers. You can do several things to establish yourself as a smart, successful giver:
Recognize the times when you need to advocate for yourself.
Set realistic limits so that you don’t overcommit yourself.
Develop a network of supporters who can help you deliver what you’ve promised to others.
Develop specialties so that people seek you out for your expertise instead of for random requests.
Look for high-impact, time-efficient ways to help others, what Grant calls “five-minute favors”—answering a request for a template or quick research, connecting two acquaintances with common goals, sharing an article about a topic or cause that interests a colleague, or jumping in to help a paralegal pull together documents for a closing or filing.
While the tips in this article can help you as a first-year associate, they can also serve as lodestars as you sail far beyond the harbor where you launch your legal practice. In the years ahead, you can develop into an experienced lawyer who:
sets clear expectations and deadlines when delegating assignments, and as a result, efficiently delivers the work product that the client needs;
builds collaborative teams, in which everyone understands clients’ priorities, takes initiative, and freely contributes ideas;
inspires those who work for you to confidently deliver their best work and those for whom you work to happily seek your services; and
develops a network of clients and supporters eager to reciprocate your generosity.
Set a course for that successful career through the habits you start developing now as you launch your first year of practice. Bon voyage!