It is only after you have started on your first law firm job that you will realize how true it is that law school prepares you to be an excellent appellate judge and a crummy practicing lawyer. You will know nothing about local court procedures. Subjects that were of only passing interest in law school--statutes of limitations, jurisdiction, the Statute of Frauds--will suddenly become enormously important in handling Real Cases.
This article is intended to pass along some real-world advice about how you can win as a junior associate. It is the sort of advice that I wish I had had when I began my legal career.
Obviously, the most important factors for success as an associate are a good working knowledge of the law, an ability to apply legal concepts to factual situations and a capacity to communicate clearly and effectively in written and oral presentations. If you have those skills, you are already far ahead of the game. If you don't, then this article cannot help you.
Winning as a junior associate requires much more than sheer legal ability. It also includes a variety of more mundane factors which govern how well you adapt to life in the strange environment of a modern law firm. No one will tell you these things, but your career can be derailed if you fail to apply these principles successfully.
I am now going to reveal those secrets. If you want to succeed as a junior associate, you would do well to follow these fifteen rules:
1. Be Nice to People. Of course you are going to be nice to the partners. They, after all, control your destiny. All too often, however, an associate may act as if it is beneath his or her station in life to treat secretaries, paralegals, clerks, court reporters, bailiffs and other support personnel with the respect and friendliness they deserve.
But be careful if you do. These people operate the machinery of the legal system. From a purely selfish standpoint, they can do amazing favors for you when it comes to obtaining an emergency appointment or working late to get out a particularly important deposition excerpt. If they dislike you, they can block and impede your efforts. In the final analysis, you need them more than they need you.
2. Help the Other Associates. You are all in this together. While you are also in competition with the other associates to become a partner, it is a competition based entirely upon your own efforts. No one ever became a partner because another associate failed. When an associate is jammed with an emergency project, be willing to help out by shepardizing his or her cases. There will come a time when you need help too.
3. Don't Avoid Mundane Tasks. As a junior associate, you will have an army of helpers at your command for the first time in your life. There will be people standing ready to type your memos, Xerox your copies, sharpen your pencils and fetch your lunch. It can be a heady experience.
Don't, however, think that you can abandon all responsibility for those sorts of administrative chores. Pitch in and help in an emergency. Reconcile yourself to the fact that you will be spending time at the Xerox machine late at night or when an urgent project is due. Above all, assume that the responsibility for the final product is always yours. If a court paper is filed with an upside-down exhibit, who do you think will get the blame?
4. Don't do Ninety-Nine Percent. This is very important. Your goal should be to do everything within reason to produce a complete product. A good rule of thumb to follow is that a partner should never have to do anything except sign his or her name. Thus, if a partner asks you to prepare a report to the client's board of directors, don't just hand in the finished report. Include a transmittal letter. The partner will be impressed at your initiative and thankful that you have saved the partner's time.
5. Find a Mentor. Frankly, it never hurts to become the protegee of one of the law firm's more powerful partners. You can learn a lot just by watching such a lawyer at work, and he or she will help you as you advance along the partnership track.
Choose wisely. Ideally, your mentor should practice in an area of the law which interests you, and your personalities should be compatible. A partner whose name is a part of the firm's name is not necessarily the best choice; he or she may simply be a holdover from times past whose influence within the firm has waned. After about six months, you should have a clear conception of where the true power centers lie. Gravitate there.
Be careful, however, not to become one partner's exclusive property. This happens with surprising frequency since partners regard bright and compatible associates as worth their weight in gold, and they therefore tend to monopolize their services. Your talents must be made apparent to a range of different partners if you are to have a good chance of becoming a partner yourself. One partner can sometimes make the difference, but there is always the danger that that partner may leave the firm or change his or her opinion about you. In other words, put your eggs in several baskets.
6. Don't Limit Your Practice Too Early. This is simply a matter of common sense and the law of supply and demand. Unless you are truly a superstar tax lawyer who spends time advising the Treasury Department on tax policy, for example, your chances of becoming a partner in a major litigation firm with a three-person tax department are less, all things being equal, than a litigation associate. Partnership slots are not filled only on the basis of talent; they are also often determined on the basis of need.
Hence, you should probably avoid attaching yourself too closely to that very nice young partner who is the firm's only specialist in trusts and estates. All things considered, go where the demand is likely to be the greatest, and your chances of becoming a partner will improve.
7. Preserve Your Reputation at All Costs. Unfortunately, there are lawyers whose ethical standards are not what they should be. Sometimes, these lawyers attempt to enlist the aid of a junior associate in their unprofessional activities. If a partner ever asks you to back-date a certificate of service, for example, refuse absolutely to do so. There are certain things which you cannot and must not do.
And begin circulating your resume. This is not the law firm where you want to spend the rest of your career. The job market may be tight, but your professional reputation is essentially all that you have. These things get around, and unethical practices tend to besmirch even innocent bystanders like yourself. You would be better off somewhere else.
8. Don't Let Clients Control Matters of Professional Courtesy. It is understandable that clients tend to become emotionally involved in their cases. They will usually want you to treat litigation as a matter of all-out war.
You should never succumb, however, to a client's insistence that you treat opposing counsel shabbily. Thus, some clients will be incensed that you have agreed, for example, to opposing counsel's request for an enlargement of time. Too bad. While you can permissibly make adjustments in the stance and tenor of court papers and other matters so as to accommodate a client's particular ideas, you should never sacrifice professional courtesy just to satisfy a client's lust for hardball tactics. Clients come and go, but opposing counsel stays around forever. Life is already difficult enough.
9. Let the Partner Take the Credit. The Judge has just granted your motion for summary judgment. Informing a client of a major victory is one of the most rewarding aspects of practicing law, and you pick up the telephone to convey the good news.
Put the phone down. What you should do instead is to advise the partner in charge of the case and let him or her have the pleasure of calling the client. Is this unfair? Of course it is. But you are better off winning points within the law firm than basking in the very temporary adulation of a temporary client.
10. Bill All of Your Time...Usually. How to handle time sheet entries is one of a law firm's greatest mysteries, and I am still not sure what the correct answer is. It varies from firm to firm. If you ask a partner, the partner will tell you to bill every second of your time spent on client matters. It is the partner's responsibility to cut your time if it seems unreasonable and due allowance will always be made for your lack of experience.
Well, maybe. No matter what the partners may say, they are still influenced in their opinions of you by excessive amounts of time spent on projects which they consider routine. They forget how much time they wasted when they were associates. If you have a gut feeling that six hours is way too much time to bill for the preparation of a notice of taking deposition, cut the time yourself. It is better to take the hit to your billable hours than be thought of as slow and inefficient.
11. Don't Worry About Getting Business. Obviously, you will be set for life if you can bring General Motors into the firm, but that s not going to happen. While the partners will note and appreciate any business you do develop, at this stage of your career you will generally be limited to attracting less desirable clients with less desirable cases.
So don't worry about it. Getting business is not your job; it's the partners' job. Your job is to concentrate on becoming the best lawyer you can be. If you someday become a great lawyer, then the business will follow. If you spend much of your time attempting to develop your own client base, you will probably wind up without clients and without the skills you need to attract clients.
12. Keep Your Mouth Shut. Most law firms are hotbeds of gossip and political intrigue. Stay away. Do not ever engage in gossip or the spreading of rumors. It may be a fun thing to do, but more than one associate has gone off the partnership track because of an unwise comment or the repetition of a particularly juicy bit of scandal.
At the same time, keep your eyes and ears open. You will learn a lot about the internal operation of the firm if you simply watch and listen carefully as a silent observer. You should endeavor to develop a reputation as a person who can keep confidences. If you ever lose that reputation, then you've lost it forever.
13. Learn How to Operate All of the Machines. A modern law firm cannot function without computers, copy machines, facsimile devices and other high-tech gear. You may be tempted to leave the operation and servicing of these devices to the law firm's staff or to professional repair people.
Resist that temptation. Believe me; there will come a time late at night and with a service deadline rapidly approaching when the Xerox machine runs out of toner. If you don't know how to replace the toner, you will be in trouble. If you don't know that the postage meter will not print postage greater than $1.00 without holding down that little red button, you will be in trouble.
14. Practice Good Telephone Habits. No, this is not an admonition to speak clearly or to pick up the telephone promptly; you already know that. There are certain techniques to using the telephone in a business context which you should learn to apply religiously. For example, many people think that it is impressive to have all of their telephone calls placed by a secretary. It isn't. In reality, you usually gain a tactical advantage if you make your telephone calls yourself. At a minimum, your secretary should never place a call to a judge's chambers; it is, after all, a chance to ingratiate yourself with the judge's secretary or bailiff and why waste such an opportunity?
Don't use the speakerphone unless other people in your office need to participate in the conversation. It irritates many people. Try to return every telephone call on the same day. This is especially important when a client calls. Don't use the telephone to summon paralegals and other helpers to your office. If you take the trouble to visit them, you will soon find that they are giving you extra effort.
15. Look and Act Like a Lawyer. There is a certain uniform style and set of mannerisms which most successful lawyers share. That's why you can always spot them on the sidewalk; it is almost a caricature. Every institution tends to hire and reward people who look exactly like the members of that institution, but some associates, by background or inclination, come into a law firm not knowing what the rules are or determined to preserve their own unique style.
Sorry, but the Rules prevail and those Rules are conservative. Suits (preferably blue or grey) and ties for the men. Tailored suits with a minimum of jewelry for the women. No long hair for the men. No dangling earrings for the women. In case of doubt, dress and act like the senior partners do. It may seem like a trivial or obvious matter, but it counts more than you might expect.
In many respects, a law firm is an exclusive club with its own unique initiation rites and unspoken code of conduct. The sooner that you learn those unwritten rules, the sooner you will be on your way to becoming the wealthy, famous and powerful attorney that your mother always meant for you to be.