Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: Practical Advice for New Lawyers

Q: I am a second year attorney at a small overseas branch of a large international law firm. Essentially, I have one boss. Over the past several months, my boss has been giving me less and less billable work and more and more non-billable administrative work, such a marketing pitch work. My hours are meager. If this continues, I am concerned that my legal skills will lag behind those of my peers. Any thoughts?

A: Yes. Your concern is warranted. Your boss is using you as a pricey administrative assistant. And as the saying goes, “No one will care about your career – as much as you do.”

You need to be a team player and do some non-billable work. But as a lawyer, working without advancing your legal skills or generating revenue is not a proposition that a firm will sustain long-term. 

You first need find out why your billable work dried up. Maybe there is not enough work to go around. Or perhaps your boss does not trust your legal work.

But if you are going to stay at the firm -- one way or another -- you need to get more billable work. A question you need to answer is how much help you can expect from your boss.

Start by reflecting on your past billable work. If you were the assigning attorney, would you have been happy with the work? How would you assess the quality? Do you think it was useful to your boss or the client? Did your boss make many changes? Did you meet the deadline? Is there anything you would have done differently?

Also, consider any feedback your boss gave you on projects and the information from your most recent performance review. If there were any issues with your performance, you need to make sure you have already resolved them – or that your boss is willing to give you a second chance.

But the problem may not be your performance. If your boss has very little work, your boss may not have much to give you. That could be the reason your boss is working on marketing pitches and asking you to help out. What you have to figure out is whether your boss will give you billable work if it comes in the door. The best way to find out is to ask.

The start of a new year is a logical time to assess your own goals and create a professional development plan. A recent article in the Harvard Business Review counseled readers to ask themselves: “How can I ensure I’m more valuable at the end of the year than I was at the beginning?”

Tell your boss you would like to discuss the skills your boss thinks you should learn over the next 1-2 years. Frame the conversation as a desire to be more helpful. Ask for advice about what you need to do to advance in your career – including how to meet the firm’s billable hours standards. Get specific. Ask how much billable work you can expect from your boss over the next 12 months. Ask if your boss could help you get billable work from other lawyers in your office – or from other offices. Also ask about other learning opportunities, such as writing articles.

Your boss may well express a sincere desire to help you enhance your skills and meet the firm’s financial goals. If so, work together to develop a plan. If not, you may need to consider other options. If your revenue remains paltry, someone (possibly on the other side of the globe) will soon sound alarm bells.

Finally, you don’t want to be perceived as going behind your boss’ back. But all large firms have professional development professionals to help associates advance in their careers. You won’t be the first or the last associate who has had a similar challenge. And someone on the professional development staff will be responsible for your office and should be able to give you sound advice. Make sure you understand whether or not your conversation can be confidential. But don’t overlook this critical resource.

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.



This is great advice Grover! I truly enjoy your blog. Thanks for sharing.

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