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Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: Practical advice for new lawyers

Q: Do I have to attend firm social events? I don’t like those kinds of things.

A: I get it. Firm social events can sometimes seem awkward. At first you won’t know many people, and the events may feel like an extension of work. You can’t truly let go, because you have to maintain your professionalism. That constraint at an event with unlimited free booze may seem like cruel and unusual punishment. But moderate, you must. 

Particularly if you are an introvert, after working long hours you may prefer to sit at home on your couch – or lock yourself in a sensory-deprivation chamber. But there are good reasons to take a deep breath, buck up and attend at least some work social events. 

Other lawyers are more likely to want to work with you if they know you. That’s just human nature. Senior lawyers can be apprehensive about working with brand new lawyers, simply because they don’t know anything about them. 

Lawyers often ask their colleagues about their experiences with new hires before asking those associates to work on projects. 

One large firm’s professional development director recounted that a senior partner only wanted to work with the “good” first years. That sentiment is not uncommon. Building relationships helps relieve the apprehension, and meeting in person is the first step. 

You do not need to participate in every possible social event. You also shouldn’t feel compelled to be the last one to leave. But if an event is “mandatory” or clearly a firm priority, you should attend. 

There is an exception: If you are working around the clock on a high-profile project, you get a pass. Clients come first. Just let key people know the reason for your absence. They will appreciate that you are helping to pay for the event. 

You should also get in the habit of trying to meet people during the workday. At large firms, many lawyers will know nothing about you – except what they read in firm financial reports. These lawyers will know if you met deadlines for recording your time. They will know how many hours you billed. They will know how much of your billed time clients actually paid.

Take comfort in remembering that most any living, breathing human being is more compelling than raw financial data. Unveiling your personality to lawyers who previously knew you only as a set of numbers, can only improve your standing. 

Once you have your own clients and are the go-to person for critical skills, you can decide when and whether to socialize with your colleagues. Until then, smile, grab one glass of wine, and attend the most important firm social events. You might actually enjoy them. 

Cheers! 

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. 

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