Hard-earned lessons of associate life

This month marks the second anniversary of my call to the bar — time flies! I can’t believe how much I’ve learned in my first two years as a lawyer. To celebrate the second anniversary, I asked my friends, colleagues, and even adversaries of the 2011 vintage to share their hard-earned lessons. Imagine you are sharing a drink with your newly-called self after the ceremony, I asked them. What advice would you give?
The response was immediate and enthusiastic, coming from men and women in a variety of legal communities, doing different kinds of legal work. In reading through the comments, I was struck by the similarity of the experiences, and found it reassuring that as a community, the 2011 calls are waging the same battles. In the hope of passing on some wisdom to new calls, here’s a sampling of the great advice I received.

Work hard
First impressions last. Come in on time, dress smart, work hard, and keep your head relatively low until you’ve figured out how things work at your office. You should ease into the fabric of a firm gradually. 

Remember that private practice is a business before all else. The best way you can protect your job security is to work hard and do good work. If you’re not meeting your targets, speak to someone about picking up new work.

Take initiative on files. Once you get the gist of what a case is about, track its progress and make suggestions for next steps. That can mean sending a letter to opposing counsel to tell them X, or researching the law on Y in advance of factum-drafting time. Take initiative and the partner will feel like you’re keeping an eye on the file, which you are.

Keep your balance
Conduct yourself in the practice style that works for you. If you don’t want to be available 24/7, don’t be. Don’t allow a level of expectation to be set regarding your willingness to break plans, and/or be constantly available, if that is something you are not comfortable with. Either you will find people to work with that meet your practice style, or you won’t and you’ll move on to another firm where you will.

If you let someone else’s practice style dictate your own, and it doesn’t work with what you want for your career and life beyond the firm, you’ll just end up unhappy and leaving in any event.

Preserve some of your weekend (minimum one day) unless absolutely impossible. You don’t get time back. Last month’s “urgent research” wasn’t worth missing your best friend’s birthday for. It almost never is. See your friends and don’t complain to them about work.

Join something social/athletic/etc. that occupies one night per week and commit to it. Try to protect that time on a weekly basis. Although it won’t always be possible (especially if you’re in litigation), it is great to have a steady non-work related “thing” which you can look forward to every week.

Practice tips
Develop a thick skin. You’re going to screw up. Accept it with grace, and you’ll earn far more mileage with those you work with than by delivering any five-star factum.

For the litigation folks, always check the rules. No, seriously, always check them. There are tidbits that touch on everything in that bad boy, and we’ve all been burned more than once by assuming the rules would be silent on something when in fact they were not.

Clear your inbox at the end of every day.

Start your business development early! Profile building, such as having a blog, writing an article, or even just posting a link to a recent interesting case on your LinkedIn profile not only gets your name out there (in both the legal community and beyond), but also allows you to gain a better understanding of the substantive law. Building a network of supporters (inside and outside of your firm) doesn’t happen overnight, so get on it.

Be nice to everyone at your firm, regardless of their role. Kindness is always appreciated and it doesn’t hurt to be friends with the IT person when your computer conks out on Friday afternoon at 5 p.m. and you’re on deadline.

Develop good docketing habits early on — do them at the end of every day and make them detailed.

As one of my friends put it, becoming a lawyer is not a one-day event. Lawyering is a journey and true to the traditional expression, a practice. Allow yourself to continue to learn, make and own mistakes, and grow. It will get easier and you will get better, so settle in and enjoy the ride.

Congratulations to the 2013 calls.

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