How Do I Succeed as a Junior Associate?
If you’re a recent law school graduate, first and foremost, congratulations. While my law school days at Duke are but a distant memory, I appreciate that law school today is no walk in the park and excelling at law school is even more of an accomplishment. Given the rebound in the legal market, more and more of you have ended up at prestigious firms and are now enduring the challenges that entails. I wanted to impart some of the lessons I’ve learned during my fifteen years as a recruiter (and five years as a lawyer) with the hope your path leads directly to success.
Develop your skills.
As a junior associate, you may find yourself staffed on high profile deals given the prevalence of these deals at large firms and the pace with which they move. At first, it may be exciting to see your deals on the front of the Wall Street Journal. But be mindful, these deals often prove to be a challenge when trying to build a skill set and hone lawyering skills. Teams tend to be large and junior associates are often delegated to administrative tasks. Drafting may be just conforming documents and diligence will consume a fair amount of your time. Strive to diversify your matters and get involved with smaller deals. You’ll get more meaningful responsibility and have contact with more senior lawyers, opposing counsel and the client.
Cultivate the respect of the people above you.
Want to know how to gain respect of the more senior lawyers in your firm? Make their lives easier! Strive to stand out among your peers – be more responsive, anticipate what the lawyers you’re working for may need done and be proactive. Or just work hard and do the best job you can. Bottom line – look for ways to take work off their plate. Once you’ve established yourself as someone they can rely on, partners and senior associates will seek you out in more meaningful ways.
Seek out work, but not more than you can handle.
Once you’ve established yourself as smart and hard working, chances are you may become a go-to associate for one or more senior associates and partners. While attention is great, be sure to manage your workload and not take on more than you can handle. Anticipate staffing issues and communicate quickly and effectively when you see trouble on the horizon. If you do wind up overextended let the people know as soon as possible, take ownership of the situation, offer a solution and learn how to do things differently in the future.
Be visible and ask for what you want.
Seek out assignments. Send out emails. Stop by the offices of the senior associates on your team. Chances are they are busy so you need to make an effort to get in front of them. Ask if you can work on new deals, attend a deposition, help prepare for oral argument, meet with a client or write a by-line article. Much of the time, the answer will be “yes.” At a minimum, you will be on their radar the next time a good opportunity arises.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
If you don’t ask the question, you’ll never know the answer. Make sure to get direction when you need it. Ask for the larger picture if you think it would be helpful. Do not make assumptions unless you’re confident about your conclusion. At this point in your career, you’re not expected to have all the answers. That said, be judicious with your questions. If you can figure out something on your own with a little extra effort, do so.
Seek out feedback and learn from your mistakes.
Compare the final product with your draft to understand the changes that were made. If something is unclear, ask the supervising associate if he or she has time to walk through it with you. Be specific in your questions. “How could I make this better?” “Why was this structured this way?” When you get a new project for the same lawyer, ask whether there is anything you could do differently. And be sure to thank them for their time and advice – people are much more likely to invest in someone who appreciates feedback and wants to learn.
Learn from senior associates.
Senior associates can be valuable mentors and deserve your respect and best effort. If they made it this far, they are probably strong and well-regarded lawyers. They’ve also walked in your shoes. If they take you under their wing, fly with it – who knows, you may end up working for the firm’s next partner.
Develop a good working relationship with your assistant and paralegals.
The better your relationship with staff, the easier your job will be. Say thank you – a lot – and mean it. Set clear expectations for those you supervise. Communicate openly and kindly. Treat them with the same level of respect that you expect. It will only serve to enhance your internal brand while enabling you to do your job more efficiently.
Remember you do have clients – they are called partners.
Every partner at your firm is a client. Some associates will get outside client experience sooner than others, but never forget that the partners are your clients also. What does this mean? Be timely. Be respectful. Be responsive. Be willing to help out whenever possible. Be social and attend firm receptions and client events. By your actions, convey to them that you value being a part of their firm.
Focus on developing relationships.
It’s never too early to start building a network. Make sure it includes not only internal peers but also junior client contacts. Down the road, many of these people will end up in roles which will allow them to advance your career, and you want to take steps now to ensure that they’ll be invested in helping you succeed. Don’t limit your networking efforts to people you already know, reach outside your circle. Join your local Bar Association or young professional organizations and actually attend meetings. Grab coffee once a month with someone you only know casually. If you’re nervous about not having that much to chat about, come up with some thoughtful questions in advance that you think would lead to fruitful conversations.
The bottom line.
Being a successful junior associate at a large law firm is hard work. Not only do you have to focus on the legal work you’re doing, but also on communicating effectively with others and building relationships. You’ve worked hard to get where you are. Keep it up. Law firm success can be a rewarding experience and lead to exciting opportunities.