10 Tips for Beginning a Successful Legal Career
With that in mind, here are our top 10 tips to transition seamlessly a successful legal career.
1. Realize how little you know, and ask questions.
In the coming years, there will be countless situations when you don't ask a question because you don't even know enough about the topic to formulate a question. Failing to disclose your ignorance on a topic when given an assignment will, ultimately, catch up with you. Don't think that, by virtue of being a smart person, you can accept the assignment and figure it out as you go.
If you develop a reputation for having a false sense of confidence, more senior attorneys will ultimately lose their ability to detect when you can actually handle an assignment, and when you are faking it. So if you have a question, ask.
2. But ask your questions at the right time and direct them to the right people.
Feel free to ask for assistance, but make sure you ask the right people at the right time. Questions about the scope or deadline of an assignment, for example, are perfect questions for partners, and should probably be asked at the time you receive the assignment.
Some questions, however, such as how to format a memo or how to find a document in the firm's document management system, are probably better reserved for fellow associates. Try to find a mentor who will support you in your career growth, anticipate your problems and answer your questions (even the stupid ones).
3. Don't live lavishly.
If you receive a big starting salary, don't spend it all. Instead, try to live on about half to three-quarters of your income and save the rest as if you never made it. This will prevent you from living a life that you cannot walk away from, and will make transition to other fields easier. The best way to deal with the prospect of one day having to take off the "golden handcuffs" is to never put them on in the first place.
4. Get to know the staff and be courteous to them.
No matter where you went to law school or who you clerked for, you're no better than anyone else in the office, and you should act accordingly. Most staff members know more about the practice of law than most new associates. They know how to file motions, they know how to serve subpoenas and they likely have relationships with key administrators at the courthouse.
You're going to need the staff members' help, often when you least expect it, and it'll be much easier and painless to get that last-minute assistance if the staff knows and likes you. The same goes for staff at the courthouse and in chambers. Get to know them and be respectful; they can be an important resource.
5. But learn to do it yourself.
Local filing rules can be quite confusing, especially for a new attorney. You need to learn the filing process. Figure out what attachments you need, cover sheets, certificates of service, other forms, etc. For litigators, learn how to electronically file, both locally and the federal courts. For corporate or transactional attorneys, learn EDGAR and the other tools available to you.
While having a good secretary that knows all these things and does them without prompting is great, you need to learn how to do this yourself and be self reliant.
6. Learn the rules of civil procedure.
Yeah, we know you took a Civ Pro course (maybe two) during your 1L year and studied the topic as part of your bar review. But young litigators need to become masters of civil procedure. If you know the rules, you can use them to gain real advantages against your adversaries. (See, for example, Fed. R. Civ. P. 6(d)). And nothing is worse than trying to explain to an irate partner or client that you lost an important motion because you miscalculated the response time.
Ask your librarian or a more senior associate to recommend a good civil procedure treatise and get a copy that you can keep in your office.
7. Become an expert and seek out new opportunities.
Become the office expert on some area so that people come to you as a resource. This may mean spending extra time that you don't get to bill for, but it makes you a valuable member of your firm and will pay off in the long run.
Closely related, raise your hand at work more often (following a theme from last month's editorial) and request opportunities that you haven't experienced yet or that have not yet been "assigned" to you. Ask for the assignment. For example, if you want the experience of defending a deposition, ask the lead attorney to let you defend some depositions.
While as a new associate you will be busy learning the ropes and working toward making your billable hours goal, you also need to take time to connect with a diverse range of other attorneys and non-attorneys who may be good business contacts down the road. When meeting new people, write down what aspect of their business or experience you find interesting or useful. To start a relationship with someone you met at an event, send a follow-up note to that person to set yourself apart from all the other people he/she met.
Such relationships come in useful when a novel issue arises for your managing partner, and you know the perfect contact to help out with that issue. This only works out, though, if you've done the legwork to maintain a relationship with that person. Calling someone out of the blue and having them not remember you is just embarrassing.
9. Work really, really hard.
In law school, you had almost complete control over when and how you completed your outlining and otherwise managed your time. Now you are expected to focus and make the most of the time in the office, and that can be a challenge.
Firms will no doubt vary with respect to oversight and management of associates, but do not abuse a firm environment that seems really relaxed. The firm may say, "We don't care about face time," and it may very well be true, but all firms will care about your billable hours come year-end. Partners know which associates are the worker bees, and you'll want to have your name on that list.
10. But keep perspective.
As an associate at a firm, you can tend to have "tunnel vision" and get focused on doing just work. That's probably not the best thing for you. It's preferable to get involved with other activities, whether they are bar associations, hobbies, athletics or whatever. Having a life consisting solely of going to work at a firm and then going home every night will not be as rewarding as having other things going on. It is possible to have life outside of the firm; make it a priority.
This article first appeared in Young Lawyer.