As we enter the second full week of September, it’s probably safe to say that the vast majority of new associates have arrived at their law firms. Beginning is almost always a wonderful time: expectations are high (as are hopes and fears) and just about everything seems possible. That phase doesn’t last long when it comes to any kind of employment, unfortunately, but with dedication, it’s possible to move from the honeymoon to a solid day-to-day lifestyle with a minimum of angst. Although I’m targeting today’s post to brand new lawyers, it’s applicable as well to anyone starting a new position. With no further ado, here are the top 10 tips to maximize your success as a new associate.
1. Find a peer mentor, and preferably more than one. I don’t mean an assigned mentor; I mean someone more senior than you who can teach you the ropes. For a new associate, you’re looking for someone who’s been there for a couple or three years at a minimum, someone who exudes camaraderie rather than competition. This is the person who’ll be able to warn you about which partners will load you with nonbillable work, which will give you an incomprehensible assignment that requires tons of interpretation just to identify the question, and which really have an open-door policy. Your peer mentor is the one to ask all of the critical but embarrassing questions.
2. Establish a great working relationship with your secretary. Eight times out of ten, the secretary paired with a new associate knows significantly more about practice than the associate, and she (to stick with the prevalent gender for secretaries) certainly knows the firm much better. Take your secretary to lunch as soon as possible and get to know her. Don’t pander or patronize, but if you can get your secretary on your side, your life will be far more pleasant. When she asks how you’d like things handled, I’d suggest you ask for her recommendation since she likely has more law firm experience than you do.
3. Accept every invitation you can. Whether it’s a formal firmwide luncheons or a casual invitation to get a cup of coffee, go. You will be spending most of your time with your colleagues, and your personal satisfaction as well as your career advancement will depend, to some extent, on the relationships you build.
4. Ask questions, using good judgment. Unfortunately, in law firm life, there is such a thing as a stupid question. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask it, but it does mean you must consider who’s an appropriate person for various questions.
5. Spend plenty of time at the office in the first few months, so you get a feel for the rhythm of the office and the people with whom you’re working. Although you’ll want to adhere to your own rhythm to some extent, if you discover that the senior associate you’re working with prefers to work late and likely will want your help then, life will run much smoother if you’re able to adopt that schedule as your own. At a minimum, you’ll want to know his preferences so you can let him know, for instance, that you usually leave around 7 PM but will stay later if he needs you to do so. You will be able to shift into your own schedule in time, but knowing how the office operates will allow you to do so intelligently.
6. Be sure you maintain a life outside the office. High achievers frequently take on new challenges with a gusto that leaves little room for anything else. When you start to think that you have to spend more time at the office just because there’s more work to be done (excluding deadline-based work and assuming you’ve put in enough time to meet or exceed your billables), remember that the office existed before you came on board. Decide what time is yours — time to exercise, to go out with friends, to relax — and guard it zealously. You will have to cancel your plans at times because of the press of business, but do what you can to avoid that.
7. Aim for excellence and don’t allow yourself to be paralyzed by fear. Legal practice calls for perfection. Any mistake has the potential to prejudice a client’s interests. There’s no room for carelessness in practice. However, no lawyer is perfect and mistakes do happen. When they do, move through the mistake to the solution as quickly as possible, and make sure to keep the lawyer who’s supervising your work aware of the problem and the solution. It’s easy to get sucked into a constant state of high adrenaline, checking and rechecking to be sure no mistakes exist, but living that way leads to burnout remarkably fast.
8. Take charge of your career from the beginning. It’s a little counterintuitive when you’re just starting to work for a law firm, but every lawyer has a responsibility to manage her own career. In the early years of practice, you have the opportunity to become well-versed in your substantive area. Use the time to read the law broadly. Spend time making sure you enjoy the area in which you’re working, and give thought to what you need to do to improve your knowledge and skills. If you’re so inclined, investigate pro bono opportunities. They may be your best chance to get particular kinds of fast-track experience, most notably courtroom experience. Your key asset for the rest of your professional career will be the skills, knowledge, and judgment that you develop. Give attention to maximizing that asset.
9. Develop good in-office habits. Pay attention to the habits you develop. It’s easy to be busy and to allow your desk to pile up with papers, books, yesterday’s coffee, and so on. Don’t allow it. Decide whether you’ll clear your desk daily or weekly (any less frequently than weekly and you’ll spend too much time hunting for papers you’ve lost on your desk), and stick to your schedule. Complete your time sheets as you’re working and don’t leave the office until you have that day’s time sheet ready to submit. Get in the habit of getting up from your desk and walking every hour or hour and a half. Be sure you drink plenty of water, not just coffee. All of these habits, and many others, will pay off throughout your career — and there’s no time to form good habits like the present.
10. Have fun. Practice is hard, and law firm life is demanding in many ways. Connect daily with the intellectual challenges, the moral imperative, or whatever made you decide to become a lawyer. Practice can be a wonderful career, and it’s important to stay mindful and to be attentive to the path you’re on so you continue to move toward your professional goals. Exercise your sense of humor. It’s often in vogue for associates to complain about practice, and unfortunately those complaints are often merited. Keep your eye on what’s right (while seeking to correct what’s wrong) and stay attuned to your satisfaction with the law, your firm, your caseload, your clients, your specialty, etc. Enjoy as much as you can.
So, to the new associates: welcome to your career. It’s going to be a long road, marked with many challenges and victories. It won’t be perfect, but it may very likely be quite good. If it isn’t, you will have developed marketable skills to facilitate a transfer to another firm, another practice, or another career. The power of choice is yours.