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by Mary Kate Sheridan | September 26, 2018


Woman laptop outside

Your bar trip is in the rearview, and the billable hour harkens—it’s time to start your new career as a law firm associate. From wrapping your mind around complex legal issues to being always “on call,” law firm life is like nothing you’ve experienced, which is simultaneously exciting and terrifying. Don’t let nerves get the best of you—start your legal career on the right foot with the following tips.

Maximize Resources

You’re the new kid, and it’s okay that you don’t know everything about the firm and how it works. But you’ve got backup, and if you’re at a big firm, you’ve got lots of backup. Use it. From assistants and paralegals to librarians and the document center, many law firms have a host of resources to help attorneys work more efficiently. Get to know the resources available and how you can use them to maximize your time. You may be tempted to eschew help in an effort to prove yourself, but these resources are there for a reason, and learning to work most efficiently is key to successful lawyering. Also, it never hurts to get to know as many people at the firm as you can—they may have insights on the ins-and-outs that may prove invaluable as you launch your carer.

Find a Junior Mentor

Obviously it’s important to seek out partners who can mentor you and sponsor you throughout your legal career. But as a green associate, some of the best mentoring will come from your contemporaries. When I was a junior associate, my firm placed each first year in an office with a second year. At first, I assumed it was a space-saving measure, but I soon realized the value. Directly next to me was a person willing to answer all of my questions, from inquiries as small as the best take-out nearby and how the copier works to those as big as which partners are best to work for and how to juggle the demands of multiple cases. A second or third year still has the perspective to understand the learning curve you’re on, and you’ll likely feel less self conscious asking them how to find the water cooler.

Say No . . . Sometimes

While you shouldn’t hide from your phone every time it rings, it’s okay to say “no” to assignments sometimes. The idea of turning down work from a partner was difficult for me to accept as a junior. And I certainly don’t recommend turning down assignments just because you don’t like them or have delusions of leaving at 5 p.m. every day. But if you’re stretched to capacity and are already burning the midnight oil on the regular, be candid with the assigning partner about how many hours you’re billing. Of course, you should use your decline power judiciously. Sometimes you’ll have to take one for the team even if you’re busy (because the reality is, every associate may be at their max sometimes, and someone will have to shoulder the extra work).

Get Involved

As a first year, your focus will be on learning how to be a lawyer and how a firm works. Activities like business development and firm committees are probably far from your mind. But part of learning how to be a lawyer is juggling and thinking long term. So while I don’t think you should be joining every firm activity on day 1 or immediately trying on a rainmaker hat, you should consider ways to get involved with the firm to better grow your understanding of the business and meet other attorneys. This may mean attending affinity group lunches, recruiting activities, partner presentations, or industry dinners. Building connections even as a first year can only help your career growth, and gaining a better understanding of the firm’s work can help you as you navigate your path.

Cross the Ts

If you’re like most type-A lawyers, you can’t wait to dig in to substantive work. But to get the best assignments, you have to prove yourself. And as a junior, you should go in with the mindset that no job is to small. Like it or not, your job is to make the partner more efficient in best serving the client. Of course, as a junior, you are learning, and a good partner will take time to guide you and answer questions. But a partner shouldn’t be fixing careless mistakes. And a partner should be able to rely on juniors to complete the work assigned without having to chase them down. You may feel like you’ve made it now that you’re at a law firm, but the truth is that you’ve just begun, and you must prove yourself capable of taking on the more sophisticated work.

Enjoy Free Time

It’s true that you never know when a partner may email with an urgent matter, so taking focus off work can seem impossible. And your me-time may be significantly reduced nowadays. But you should strive to enjoy the free time you get so that you don’t burn out in a matter of months. Try not to check your phone every five minutes, challenge yourself not to talk about work for a period of time, and give yourself a chance to decompress from the grueling hours. They’ll be waiting for you tomorrow!