First-Year Associate Mistakes to Avoid
October 10, 2019
I will never forget my first day as an associate in BigLaw. My subway train had a delay, and I was late. Instead of entering my first day with confidence and poise, I sprinted from my subway train and entered orientation breathless and disheveled.
This was not the first impression I wanted to make.
Luckily for me, when I arrived, only my fellow first years were gathered in the conference room, and the first 15 minutes were like a meet and greet with my peers.
Nevertheless, I should have planned for snafus like subway delays and been better prepared. With the newest crop of first years now starting at law firms around the country, I am reminded of this story and how important it is to make a good impression during your first days, weeks, and months at your firm. Below are some mistakes to avoid as you launch your career at your new firm.
1. Don’t be late.
For the bad rap law firms get for taxing hours, many of them also offer a great deal of flexibility, including when it comes to start times. At many firms, it isn’t unusual for lawyers to roll in throughout the morning, especially if they worked into the wee hours the night before. But that doesn’t mean you should stroll in a few minutes before lunch to start your day. Showing that you are reliable and dedicated is an important aspect of establishing a good reputation at the firm. That doesn’t mean you need to arrive at dawn, but you should be at your desk and ready for the day at starting time.
2. Don’t turn in sloppy work.
As you already know, it isn’t easy landing a legal gig. Your firm chose you because they believed you would be an asset, so show them they’re right. Few things will harm your reputation more than sloppy work product. Obviously, efficiency is important in a law firm setting, but you also should be careful to execute well-researched, fully proofed work product. And if you are unsure about how to approach a certain assignment, ask a more senior associate for advice rather than turning in work that isn’t on the mark.
3. Don’t stay quiet.
Just because you are a newbie doesn’t mean you should blend into the wallpaper. If you have an opinion, share it with your team, as long as it is thoughtful and well articulated. Showing that you are invested in the matter and have valuable insights to contribute will set you apart as a useful team member.
4. But don’t talk just to talk.
While engaging with your team and offering your thoughts is a great way to demonstrate your value, it is also important to know when to just listen. For example, if a partner has already considered a suggestion and decided against it, belaboring your arguments probably is not the best idea. Or if you are still wrapping your head around a subject, it isn’t advisable to try to weigh in just so you can participate. It’s also best not to assume that you know more than the senior lawyers on a matter because of an article you read once or your three months of a law school class on that area of law. Take time to observe the dynamic of the team and fully understand the matter before you offer your ideas.
5. Don’t silo yourself.
The first few months at a law firm are intense. The rigorous schedule can be a shock. But that doesn’t mean you should shut your office door and work every second of the day. Killing it on the work product end is only half the equation—a large part of succeeding as a lawyer is also by making the right connections. And those connections are all around you at your firm. Say yes to the 10-minute Starbucks run or quick lunch at the deli down the street. If the firm hosts a cocktail hour or other event, block out time to go. Introduce yourself to lawyers in other practice areas, and get to know the partners across the firm. The more people in your corner, the better.
6. Don’t take and take.
One of the most difficult aspects of being a junior lawyer is knowing when to say “no.” You want to demonstrate that you are a team player and don’t want to miss prime opportunities. But if you take on too much, your work product will suffer, and you will burn out. If you are already working well past when others have turned in for the night or haven’t had a weekend off in months, it is probably not a good idea to pile on more work. If you are unsure, ask the assignment partner or trustworthy senior associate for their opinion on your work hours. If you do need to decline an assignment, be professional and explain your current billing situation, but offer to help when your other matters quiet down.
7. But don’t be selfish either.
On the flip side, if you are leaving at 5 p.m. every night, and your colleagues are staying until 10 p.m., turning down work would be a big mistake. Being on call 24/7 can be a tremendous adjustment as a new associate. But you are on a team now, and if you don’t do your share, it will fall on someone else’s already burdened shoulders.
8. Don’t be rude to support staff.
When I interviewed at law firms, one request I made after I received offers was to tour the offices. My main goal was to see how people interacted in the hallway—especially toward support staff. Ask any experienced attorney, and they will tell you that without the support staff in the firm, they would be lost. And many of those working as assistants, IT professionals, document center staff, or other positions in the firm have been in the industry for years—they know far more about the ins and outs of the firm and industry than you. Burning bridges with them will only hurt your productivity and reputation. Instead, get to know the support staff and let them help you navigate this new world.
Being a new associate is both exciting and nerve-wracking. Approach the job with confidence, conduct yourself with professionalism, be a team player, and take time to get to know your colleagues across the firm. You will be a law firm pro in no time.
by Mary Kate Sheridan
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