Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: Practical Advice for New Lawyers

Q: As a new associate, how much can I change the firm?

A: That should not be the first thing on your mind when you walk in the door. But here is the answer: As a brand new lawyer, you probably have less influence over change than most other lawyers. You are likely to have more influence than staff members (except the non-lawyers who run the place).

Isaac Ruiz, a partner at a Seattle firm, developed a list of personas that he counsels new associates to avoid. One of those is “The Union Leader,” the associate who “swoops into the firm and immediately starts organizing the associates to petition the firm for change.”

When you arrive at a new job, it is easy to identify things that seem to need fixing. Lawyers are great at spotting problems. But your suggestions may not be well received early on. If you are not careful, the stated or unstated reaction may be, “Who do you think you are?”

Take some time to learn about the firm and focus on being a rock star associate. If you work to make yourself indispensable, you will have more influence and will be able to enlist allies.

Over time, you may find that your perspective on what needs changing will itself change. As I advanced in my career from an associate to a senior associate to a partner, things I thought were “wrong” at first seemed spot on – later on.

There is usually a reason for most policies and procedures. One reason may be that the policy or practice benefits the equity partners. If you owned a business, isn’t that how you would set policies?

It is also easier to identify problems than to fix them. Change can be difficult in large organizations, particularly at law firms. As a group, lawyers are not the most compliant bunch.

Your main job is to do your job. If there is something specific you need to do better work or advance your career, always ask. Otherwise, pick your battles.

Focus on what is most important, and don’t go it alone. Find an ally who will advocate with you. If there is a real problem that needs changing, it is unlikely that you are the first person to identify the issue. Show that your proposal will help advance the firm’s business goals, and you will get a better reception.

Good luck!

Grover E. Cleveland is a Seattle lawyer, speaker and author of Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: The Essential Guide to Thriving as a New Lawyer (West 2010). He is a former partner at Foster Pepper PLLC, one of the Northwest’s larger firms. His clients included the Seattle Seahawks and other entities owned by Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen. Grover is a frequent presenter on new lawyer career success at law schools and firms nationwide. Some of the questions in this column come from those presentations. Readers may submit questions here or follow him on Twitter @Babysharklaw. He is not related to the 22nd and 24th President of the United States. 


Courtney Gabbara

I really enjoy what you’re saying in this post because I think it’s really translatable to fields outside of the law as well. New associates, especially those who went straight from college to law school, should hear this advise. Also, I really enjoy the baby shark theme—a baby shark is still a shark after all, right?

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