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Top 10 Survival Tips for the First-Year Associate, By Gloria Noh Cannon, Esq.

Congratulations!  You’ve survived the bar exam and are hopefully about to embark on a well-deserved,  post-bar exam trip.  I fondly remember the two months I spent traveling throughout Europe – Paris, Amsterdam, Italy, Germany and Prague – before embarking on life as a BigLaw associate.   Enjoy this time because your fall start date will be here before you know it.  For most of you, your law firm job will be the first professional job you’ve had since graduating from college.  Being a new associate at a law firm can be quite stressful since it’s hard to know what to expect.  I practiced in the Los Angeles office of a top New York law firm until I was a 5th-year associate, and wanted to share a few survival tips for your first year as a law firm associate.

1.     Pick the Right Practice Area

When I look back at how little thought I put into choosing my practice area, I have to laugh.  My primary reason for joining my firm’s bankruptcy/financial restructuring group was a simple one:  I liked the attorneys in the group.  Luckily, it was a busy practice group with plenty of work, where I was able to obtain significant substantive responsibilities very early in my career.  In addition, because it was a very well-respected, prestigious group on a national level, it also led to my in-house career at one of the firm’s clients.  In hindsight, my practice group choice luckily turned out quite well.     

Firms differ in whether they let their 1st-year associates choose their practice area.  If your firm allows you to choose your practice area when you initially join the firm or after a rotation through various groups, one important element to consider is the reputation of the practice group and its partners.  Another important consideration is the size of the group, which will dictate how much responsibility you will get.  If one of your long-term goals is to eventually go in-house, having significant client contact can help you establish a meaningful relationship with the client and lead to a future job opportunity, which is how attorneys often go in-house. 

If you realize that after a few months, you do not enjoy your current practice area, then you should try to switch into your desired practice area as soon as you can.  Ideally, your firm will allow you to change your practice group.  However, this is often not possible for various reasons.  Thus, if you truly want to transition your practice, your only option may be to join another firm.  In this market, it is pretty difficult to switch practice areas since there are so many qualified attorneys for the existing job openings.  If you are determined to switch and find yourself unable to do so at your current firm, you should try to make the switch as early as possible in your career as firms are hesitant to “re-tool” more senior candidates.

2.     Actively Seek out Work Assignments

If your firm follows a “free market” approach to work assignments, then it is imperative that you develop the necessary relationships within the firm to find work that interests you.  Many firms follow this approach because they feel it is important for associates to shape their own work experience as well as to incentivize their partners/senior associates to try to earn the trust and respect of their associates so they will have sufficient help on their deals.  Your goal is to receive high quality, substantive work and to remain consistently busy so that you can avoid the end-of-year panic about meeting your billing requirements.  Thus, instead of spending the afternoon on Facebook or reading ATL when you have some downtime, wander down the hall and check in with the partners to see if anyone needs help.  Your partners will appreciate the positive attitude.  It will also help you develop an early reputation as being someone who is eager to learn, and help out when needed.

3.     Treat Everyone with Respect

I cannot stress enough how important your support staff will be in your career.  They will play an important part in your success at the firm since they have the power to make your job easier or much more difficult.  This includes everyone from your secretary/assistant to the word processing department to the paralegals to the receptionist.  Do not be the annoying 1st-year associate who thinks that they know everything simply because you now have a fancy degree from an affluent law school.  Instead, treat everyone with the same level of respect and consideration with which you would like to be treated.  Maintaining good relationships with your support staff will make your life a lot easier, and you’ll find that they can be of great help when you most need them, such as meeting an impossible filing deadline, or getting a document turned around in a timely manner, or covering for you when you need to step out of the office for a quick errand.  Moreover, your secretary (who has probably been doing this for several years) is an invaluable resource who can share important advice about almost every aspect of your practice as well as the firm’s culture.  My old secretary was a former bankruptcy clerk who knew more about the applicable court rules and filling processes than I initially did, and he was someone I could trust to be able to get my brief or motion filed and served correctly and in a timely manner without any oversight.   I definitely learned quite a bit from him during my first year. 

4.     Get Involved at the Firm

While billing hours is going to be your primary focus at the firm, make sure to get involved in the other aspects of firm life as well.  Attend firm events, participate on firm committees, go to summer events, and get involved with the firm’s recruiting efforts.  Your involvement will not go unnoticed.  If partnership is a potential goal, then it is important that partners outside of your practice group get to know you, and being involved in the firm’s activities will help you achieve that goal.  

5.     Maintain a Good Work/Life Balance

I know…this one is much easier said than done.  However, no matter how impossible it may seem at times, it is very important to try to balance work and your personal life.  Even if this means taking just a few moments each day to focus on something other than work.  Your first year will be stressful as you learn to navigate your new career as a lawyer.  However, do your best to not let work overwhelm all aspects of your life.  There will always be something that needs to get done.  The key is to manage your time efficiently and prioritize tasks, and know when and how to say no.  Having downtime to “recharge your batteries” will be essential in ensuring that you have a long career at your firm and not burn out too early in your career.  Do your best not to sacrifice your personal interests and relationships outside of the firm as you may have serious regrets about missing that wedding or celebration later down the road. 

For example, when I was a first-year associate, my friends and family were very understanding when I would disappear for months at a time.  However, one of my biggest personal regrets was not personally witnessing the UCLA basketball team beat Arkansas in 1995 for its first NCAA championship since the Wooden years.  Instead, I watched the game by myself in one of the firm’s conference room as I was preparing exhibits for a brief that needed to be filed that week.  In hindsight, I realize now that I could have traveled to Seattle to watch the last time UCLA won a basketball championship, and that I could have gotten the work done somehow.    

6.     Be a Team Player

This is an obvious one, but surprisingly sometimes hard to achieve.  Establishing strong relationships with your partners and fellow associates is vital to a successful career.  Thus, be willing to pitch in whenever needed.  No job should be too menial for you to do.  Do not complain if you think a task is “beneath” you.  A positive, “can do” attitude will be much more appreciated and ultimately rewarded in the end.  One of your goals as an associate is to become that partner or client’s “go-to” associate who can be relied upon to get the job done.  It takes just a few missteps to permanently damage your reputation within the firm. 

7.     Communicate 

As a first-year associate, you will be asked to work on numerous projects.  You may often find yourself working on several tasks at once.  It is important to meet any deadlines and understand the full scope of any assignment so that you don’t find yourself in a situation where it will be impossible to complete all projects assigned to you.  Keep your supervising attorneys apprised of all of your obligations, and make them immediately aware of any issues that will interfere with your ability to timely complete an assignment so that they can adjust staffing accordingly.  Do not wait until the last minute to let your supervisor know that there is an issue.  As soon as you know there is a problem, let your supervisor know.  Nothing upsets a partner/senior associate more than being blindsided.

8.     Be Responsive

In this day of emails and smartphones, you will unfortunately be expected to be reachable at all hours of the day.  Hopefully your firm and/or partners will be reasonable in their expectations.   Nonetheless, always respond promptly to all voicemails/emails, even if it’s just to let the sender know that you received their message and will get back to them as soon as possible.  By doing this simple task, you will be viewed as someone who is reliable instead of someone who is “missing in action.”

This is important not only with partners/supervising attorneys but clients as well.  Nothing irritates a client more than not having their message returned.   My old boss when I was in-house actually fired one of his outside counsel because he felt they weren’t responsive enough to his messages, and thus made him feel like his work (which represented millions of dollars in billables) wasn’t important enough to the partner and his firm. 

9.     Find A Mentor

Most firms will assign you a mentor when you start at the firm.  If you’re lucky, your assigned mentor will be someone who actually wants to be a mentor.  More likely than not, however, it will be someone who may have good intentions but unfortunately does not have the time to be a good mentor.  In time, you can find a good mentor if you have taken the time to establish strong relationships with the attorneys at your firm as discussed earlier.  A mentor does not have to be a partner within your practice group, or even in your office.  When I was a junior associate, I established a strong relationship with one of the junior partners in my firm’s New York office.  I turned to him for advice on a variety of topics ranging from case law questions to 401k choices.  He was a helpful sounding board who was always available to discuss any topic, no matter how big or small.      

10.  Take Control of Your Career

While this may be hard to comprehend at first while you’re clocking endless hours of due diligence, you do have control of your career.  Hopefully practicing law at your firm is a career path that you’ll enjoy for several years to come.  If you find yourself completely miserable at your firm, remember that there are always other options.  Take time to reevaluate your career and figure out why you’re unhappy.  Are you dissatisfied with your practice area?  Your firm?  As a general rule, associates who have been with their firm for several years are much more marketable than someone who is trying to leave after only one year.  If you are leaving after a short period of time, firms will believe that there’s a problem with your work product or even worse, your personality and ability to fit in.  Thus, if your situation is tolerable, try to hang in there for at least two years.  If your situation, however, is bordering on abusive and making you absolutely crazy, then by all means start to explore your options. 

 

Gloria Noh Cannon is a Director in the Los Angeles office of  the Lateral Link Group, LLC and can be reached at gcannon@laterallink.com.

Lateral Link Group LLC is a legal recruiting attorney placement firm and networking forum founded in December 2005 and is the Exclusive Legal Search Firm Sponsor for Ms. JD. The company provides free career services to "Members" in the form of an online job database as well as traditional off-line recruiting and networking services. Lateral Link works with both law firms and in-house legal employers in the United States, Asia, Western Europe, and Middle East

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