Confessions of a first year associate: Three things I wish I knew before starting

How does one make the shift from law student to big firm associate? What are the some of the most important things I need to know to perform at a high level? What is the secret for distinguishing myself from the rest of the incoming class? This post, written by a first year associate at a top AmLaw 100 firm, helps answer these questions.

The takeaways are:

  • Keep partners and clients regularly posted on your status
  • Stay productive whether working on billable matters or some other activity that benefits the firm
  • Ask additional clarifying questions upfront to save valuable time later

Manage Deadlines:

When you're in law school, the only academic deadlines you really worry about are final exams at the end of semester. Even if you take classes which have paper requirements or clinical practice requirements, generally you don't develop much of a skillset in deadline management. When you start working at a law firm, however, you generally work with several senior attorneys on a variety of assignments. Depending on how your law firm is structured, you may have a formal system in place to track your workload. In any case, deadline management becomes crucial when you're juggling time-sensitive demands from your clients, both inside and outside the firm. There will definitely be points where you are not able to meet an expected deadline, or otherwise take more time than a partner might expect to complete an assignment. This will often happen when multiple deadlines converge, which forces you to triage your workload. When this happens, it's key to update the relevant attorneys that are waiting for your work product to let them know that you are swamped and need some more time. In most cases, partners won't begrudge you for it, and if a certain deadline is firm, they will let you know so you can adjust your workflow accordingly.

Another thing to avoid is unnecessarily imposing a deadline on yourself. Chances are that the partner you're working with will not give you credit for meeting a self-imposed deadline, and may instead be annoyed if you feel to meet your own deadlines. When you get an assignment via e-mail, it's best to just send a simple confirmation email that you're working on it, and then try to get it done promptly. You can also go the extra step asking for the partner’s preferred timing, but again no need to overpromise.

Stay Busy:

At many law firms, it is expected that associates bill approximately 2,000 hours per year. In practice, associates can differ widely on whether they meet or exceed billable hours guidelines. As a junior associate, you are generally in the worst position to generate client work. Partners understand this, and as a result you get a bit of leeway in your first few years at the firm. Although you should be eager to take on work as it comes in, don't fret if there are periods of time during which your billable hours seem to be low. At many firms there are other activities that you could potentially occupy your time with, such as client development activities or pro bono assignments. Although these may not be as desirable as client work, they do provide activities that you could engage in that are helpful to the firm, and also may be objectively measured in a formal review. Stressing yourself out over a lack of client work won't help you, so instead consider engaging in other activities if possible, or perhaps even reading a treatise on some area of law in which you practice. Since you're a junior attorney, chances are you do not have much knowledge of the law, and there will be many instances in which you have to learn the background law before you can tackle an assignment.

Ask More Questions:

When you first get an assignment, you may not be given the background you need to really understand the work product that you are supposed to produce. It is generally fine for a junior associate to tell a supervising attorney that they have little or no knowledge of a particular issue or area in the law. Although a partner will generally be too busy to give you a thorough breakdown of the relevant law, often partners will give you a few shortcuts and observations which may help point you in the right direction. Partners may forget that they are dealing with a junior associate, or that they are dealing with a mid-level associate who may not have encountered a particular area of law before. By the time you become a senior associate, you are generally expected to know the areas of law in which you practice, but take advantage of the leeway afforded to junior associates. An important role that law firms play is the teaching of young associates, so take advantage of the legal experts that your law firm has. Also, when you are receiving an assignment, if you are unsure what you are supposed to be looking into or producing, ask follow-up questions at the time you receive the assignment to clarify. Your questions can help save you a lot of work later by avoiding situations in which you are aimlessly spending your time reading aspects of the law that are not relevant.

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