How to Survive a Meeting as a Junior Associate
June 30, 2016
One of the things that really drew me to my first, Biglaw law firm was the setup of its impressive conference rooms. The firm lives high in the sky, 30+ stories up and occupying several floors of one of New York’s tallest skyscrapers. Almost every floor has a conference room on both the north and south side, and each conference room is bordered by walls of glass that allow you to look all the way from the elevator banks in the center of the building, through the hallway, and through the conference room, to either Central Park or the Financial District. The tables gleam and the chairs look perfectly designed for rich people’s bad posture.
Flash forward to a few months after starting my job there, when I had actually spent some time inside those beautiful glass boxes, sitting through endless internal meetings and endless conference calls with clients. I learned that the glass walls on the hallway side make each conference room a fishbowl, allowing your colleagues to peer in at you and send you sympathetic glances (depending on the room’s contents, in particular the other people in attendance). The glass on the other side gave me glimpses of what was happening in the outside world, as I watched the seasons pass in the trees in Central Park, without really experiencing them myself.
My first experiences attending meetings in those rooms were intimidating and confusing. As a junior associate in a meeting, you’re expected to be everything and nothing. You need to be prepared for any question that may come your way, but you might be silent for the entire duration. Here are some survival tips for your first meetings as a junior (I’m a corporate lawyer, but I’ve asked a litigator for some input so that this won’t be so one-sided).
- Practice using the conference call system. At my BigLaw firm, we called the phone system in the conference rooms the God Phone, because it made the voices on the other end come down from out of the air above you, and you just had to speak aloud to be heard. But getting those voices to emerge from the heavens required pushing a specific sequence of buttons that was not entirely self-evident from the phone equipment itself. I recommend that you practice using any relevant conference room equipment prior to the meeting in which you will be expected to set things up. If you want to decrease your chances of being seen, do it late at night, and have a fellow associate who is also stuck at work (there will be some, don’t worry) dial into your conference line so you can practice (a) getting the call started and (b) getting the voices to come out of the phones or speakers you need them to come out of.
- Order coffee and soda, and maybe food. This is client and partner dependent, but ask if you should get coffee and soda for the meeting (you can probably ask the partner’s assistant if you aren’t comfortable asking him or her directly). The caffeine will be helpful for keeping you awake during the meeting, and some partners expect it. If it’s a client meeting or it’s taking place during lunchtime and is likely to be time intensive, you should also find out if you need to order food. These orders will likely be done through your firm’s Office Services department, but you can ask your assistant how that works, or just have him or her do it for you (bringing leftover snacks for your assistant, also called “buying their love”, is also highly encouraged). Be prepared to eat a lot of mediocre sandwiches and salads. I once ordered Mediterranean food for an internal meeting to break up the monotony, but a lot of people told me they thought it was “weird.”
- Bring every possible document, including old versions of documents (and maybe a laptop). If you are fairly far into a deal or case, you should be shuddering under the weight of the Redwelds you are bringing into the meeting. I’ve had partners ask for copies of documents multiple versions behind the current one because they wanted to see where we had started from on a particular point. I’ve had people ask for specific diligence documents so they could review them on the fly (obviously you can’t bring every diligence document, but bring the important ones that contain issues, and definitely bring the diligence memo). And bring extra copies of the operative documents—often partners won’t bring everything they need, and they’ll probably ask you for a copy. If your firm gives you a laptop to use at your desk, you may also be expected to bring it with you to meetings—ask around your class, or maybe a friendly second or third year.
- Be prepared. Your involvement in the meeting may be limited (see Number 7 below), but if there is something you specifically have been working on, you should be prepared to speak intelligently about it. As a junior, this may be related to a portion of the diligence or document review. Be ready to speak to the status of anything you’re working on.
- Get there early. If you are the most junior person attending, you should be one of the first to arrive. Don’t show up as the meeting is starting. Make sure the room is set up the way it needs to be set up. This also gives you a chance to chat with people as they come in to the room, which is helpful for getting to know your co-workers.
- Pick the right seat. Unless there are no other seats available, don’t sit at the head of the table, or in the exact middle on either side. Those seats are for people who outrank you. And if there aren’t enough seats for all of the people senior to you, be prepared to find another chair or sit on the air-conditioning vent (a much better position for being forgotten, which was sometimes my goal as a junior anyway).
- Don’t say anything unless acknowledged. This tip is dependent on the partners involved, your relationship to the client, the type of meeting (is it an internal lawyers’ meeting, or a meeting or conference call with clients or opposing counsel?) and your work on the transaction/case. You may want to express opinions and information at times, as this is probably how you feel you can show competence and add value, but, as a junior, generally you will be keeping quiet during meetings, particularly meetings involving clients and/or opposing counsel, unless a question is asked of you. The partners or senior associates will let you know if and when you should speak.
- DON’T USE YOUR PHONE. DO NOT be playing around on your phone or blackberry (do those still exist?) during a meeting. From time to time you may have to quickly check it—perhaps if you’re involved in another case that is in the middle of a fire drill, or if your partner is currently having a baby. But this should be infrequent and quick (if at all—some partners will not want you to check it, however briefly, while a meeting is occurring). Do not be scrolling through Facebook or checking Snapchat or reading the Onion while a meeting is going on. People always notice, and it is taken as incredibly rude and unprofessional.
- Take a soda on the way out. You earned it! And you’ll need the caffeine for your next late night.