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Steps for First Year Attorneys to Create a Successful Legal Career

Excited to start your new role as a law firm associate?

You’ve probably heard the scary stories (the hours, complex matters, and stress). Hopefully you learned of the rewards as well: the monetary compensation, work experience, and learning from some insanely smart people. Having made the transition before myself, here are a few tips that I would offer to bright-eyed law school grads who are ready to kill it as new associates:

Prepare for the grind—eat what you kill.

Learning to handle the day-to-day grind requires some strategy. Most first years have to adjust to “hunting” for their work. Here’s how I suggest you start:

First, pay attention to detail! Coming out of law school, not only will you THINK you do not know much about the actual practice of law—your partners and colleagues KNOW you don’t know much. Your first year is an extended training period  that even clients understand (proven by the fact that more and more clients refuse to pay for first-year work). To master your practice, begin by coming a master of details. This can be done right away. Be the member of the team that knows the facts inside and out. At this early stage of your career, you’ll get noticed and will bring value to the team by being the master of details.

Second, remember that too much work is better than too little work. Great lawyers are rewarded with more work. If you’re not getting much work, you need to do some self evaluation on your work product. You want to be working on matters with a good shelf life where you are given a good amount of responsibility. You will start small, but aim to increase your responsibilities as opportunities present themselves. When you hit a point where you must decline work, be sure you learn how to properly decline work. Be totally upfront with your ability (or inability) to complete the tasks on time. If necessary, the partners will have to work it out amongst themselves or seek out additional help.

Third, keep track of your hours. Understand how many billable hours you’ll need to bill to be on track and to receive your annual bonus. Once you know the total number, divide it by twelve so that you know how many billable hours you need per month. Learn to audit yourself to see if you’re on track. If you’re not on track, you might need to go looking for work and take on additional matters.

Your partners (and senior associates) are your clients.

To please your firm’s clients, you please your supervisors. This means in your first year, your clients are mid-level associates, senior associates, and partners. By pleasing them, you are pleasing your firm’s clients by proxy. Most first years do not have client contact. Contact is most often with associates and partners—and they are the ones you need to impress every day. You impress them by completing solid work, managing their expectations, and maintaining open communication channels. The easier their lives are made by your work, the more likely they will trust that you will make their clients’ lives easier.

It is also critical to be clear on how many billable hours that your partner or senior associate expects on a discrete research project. If you’re billing too much time, clients will complain, and it will cause headaches for your partner, which trickles down to you. You don’t want to be that first-year who has the reputation of completing work that creates trouble. Communicate. Let assigning attorneys know if you feel like you’re approaching a threshold but still need more time to research. Treat them like your clients.

Take ownership and show accountability.

You may decide that all you need to do is to come in, do your work, reach your minimum billable hour threshold, and repeat. If that were the case, the role wouldn’t be challenging. You’ll eventually reach a point where you will be evaluated—and the firm will determine whether you have what it takes to continue on the path to partnership. If not, you will be essentially forced to move on. That is why it is absolutely critical to take ownership of your career.

As a first year, you can get started on this with a few simple steps. First, get to know your practice group and the firm generally. After meeting with attorneys, find mentors inside and outside of your firm’s mentorship program. Learn about getting involved with one of your firm’s committees in the near future. Learn about what it takes to be a dedicated associate who (1) does a great job with your work, (2) hits your minimum billable hours count every year, and (3) has a genuine interest in contributing to the firm outside of your normal role.

As you enthusiastically participate, you may be discouraged by the demanding nature of partners (and their clients). As a first-year associate, you are at the very bottom of the ladder. This is where taking ownership and showing accountability matters even more: don’t take criticism personally, and learn how to ask for help. There’s no shame in learning that you made a mistake so long as you recognize that you’re working in a challenging environment and willing to grow. Don’t make the same mistake twice.

Create a Plan

Find time to think about short and long term plans.

What are your goals? Why are you honestly at your firm? Do you enjoy what you are doing?

Learn about the options available if you might be transitioning into something else. At some point, you will have to decide whether you want to become a partner at your firm or another firm. You might also decide to do something else completely. Whatever your motives, keep them in mind as you’re starting off and as you encounter major transitional stages.

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