Few things are more intimidating than the transition from law school to law firm. But a little insider knowledge can make things smoother and less stressful.
In my role as Executive in Residence at Gonzaga School of Law, I recently led a discussion on "How to Succeed as a First Year or Summer Associate."
Fantastic lawyers from outstanding law firms gave their very best advice to a standing-room-only group of Gonzaga law students.
Sincere thanks to these lawyers - they clearly understand the importance of supporting law students and new lawyers in their professional development and success.
Caroline Sung, Associate, Stoel Rives
Kevin Jablonski, Partner, Fisher Broyles
Aaron Dickinson, Associate, Perkins Coie
Mike Keyes, Partner, Dorsey & Whitney
Asif Lundstrom, Attorney, Foundry Law
Andrew Schultheis, Partner, Davis Wright
Kyle Sciuchetti, Partner, Miller Nash
Beth St. Clair, Corporate Counsel, Identity Digital (former Wilson Sonsini Associate)
Their top tips are paraphrased below, followed by some additional excellent tips from LinkedIn.
Thanks also to the Gonzaga School of Law Center for Law, Ethics, and Commerce for hosting the panel discussion and for the Business Law Club's help in making it a success.
Make Allies, Build Trust, Bring Energy, Ask Thoughtful Questions, Be Resourceful, Don't Blow Deadlines...
These tips are in no particular order and, again, have been shortened and paraphrased in the interest of brevity.
When you're starting out, you don't really know anything and you're not expected to. But you are expected to be available and to have high attention to detail as you learn. You are in the driver's seat of your development.
Make allies and friends with colleagues you feel comfortable asking questions and who seem to want to spend the time to work with you, including paralegals, other associates, and anyone who knows more than you.
Utilize the firm's training and development resources.
Allow yourself time to create high-quality work product. Everyone is busy, so you want to be able to give others product that is actionable. Everyone understands you are learning, but you still want to try.
Bring high energy to the job. Be willing to roll up your sleeves and work hard, and keep a positive attitude that you are going to learn as much as you can.
Work really hard early in your career to get as good at your job as possible and to give yourself the best future opportunities to have the type of jobs that you want and that you will like, and that hopefully give you more of a sense of control over your destiny.
Being a Summer Associate is about exploration - exploring different types of work and trying to figure out - "do I like this?" "Is this something I could see myself working really hard at?" Understand your natural inclinations.
Build relationships as a Summer Associate. Everyone is excited for you to be there. You can go out to lunch with a managing partner in a different way than you can once you are an Associate. Take advantage of that access.
Because the work can be so demanding, maintain outlets that help you recharge and maintain your positive attitude and energy - music, exercise, sports, or whatever.
As a First Year, they assign you projects and you are usually confused. Ask a lot of questions, but ask thoughtful questions - not ones you could use Google or other tools to answer for yourself.
When drafting, insert margin comments, like "I thought about this and these are the ways we can address it and what I suggest doing, but what are your thoughts? Partners like this approach because you're not just asking, "what do I do here?" It shows you have analyzed the issues and want to have a discussion.
Accept that you are going to mess up, but learn from your mistakes and try to not make the same mistakes twice.
Make yourself invaluable. Go above and beyond what is asked. Think ahead and be proactive - "have you thought about this, have you thought about that?" You may still be learning, but you can always go above and beyond and exceed expectations. That is 100% within your control.
When you get a project, ask the partner how many hours they think it should take to complete, or how much would be reasonable to charge the client, based on your billing rate. Even if it takes more time to complete it, only report that number of hours.
Build trust. If you have more trust, people give you more work. If you lose trust, they give you less work. You lose trust by not bringing your A-game.
Firms generally don't give Summer Associates overly urgent or demanding work. Take the opportunity to build relationships within the firm. Be friendly and humble. And never lose that your whole career. What they want to see is, "can I have a beer with that person?" "Will I want to work long hours with this person?"
Don't miss deadlines. They expect you to check in on your projects. If something is due on Friday the 15th, don't give them a poor work product on the 15th, or don't send them an email on the 15th saying "I not going to be able to get you that." Have regular check-ins - "hey, I've got some questions." People are happy to look at a preliminary draft or answer questions. If you are going to blow the deadline, let them know as early as possible, as soon as you realize it. Over-deliver, don't under-deliver.
Tips from LinkedIn
The following tips are from the LinkedIn article mentioned earlier.
John S. Sears, Founder and Managing Partner of Innovators Legal:
One of the partners I started with told me to "trust no one." What he meant by that is, "trust but verify." It's ok to ask a colleague for their opinion on a rule or law, but if it is your assignment, it is your job to make sure that advice was correct.
Do not go to the senior attorney you are working with just to identify problems, come armed with an understanding of the legal issues and ready to propose a solution. I've seen a lot of senior colleagues blow up when an associate walks in and says "I just found a problem with this ### that we worked on" and then stops there. Always be prepared to finish the first statement with "but I've looked into the legal issues and believe we can fix it by ####."
Start developing your own practice from day 1. Know (or figure out) the type of practice you want and be deliberate in the relationships you nurture to get there. I've seen too many attorneys wait until they are at the partner stage to decide "ok, now it's time to start networking and building my practice." It's too late and too transparent. If you start reaching out to your in-house law school buddies that you haven't spoken to since law school just because you made partner, it seems fake and "sharky." I've never asked for business, just sought to develop genuine relationships with people doing interesting things...at some point many of them just ask to work with you. And once you have a client, do great work. There is no better marketing than just being a good person who does great work.
Cole F. Watson, Attorney:
Bring a note pad and pen every time you meet with an senior attorney. Be sure you completely understand the assignment at the time it is assigned. It's better to ask questions then, rather than deliver a wrong or unhelpful work product. Depending on the firm size or clerkship structure, be sure to do work for every attorney in the firm or section you're in. Keep a running list on the projects you worked on so that you can present that list with your "thank you" note at the end of the clerkship. Become indispensable: find ways to help those around you.
Adel Abrahim, Founder, Privatus Counsel:
Never say no to an assignment... every opportunity is a learning opportunity. Of course, we are also taught to "never say never, and always avoid always." 😆
Adam Griffis, Attorney, Lukins & Annis:
Stay humble as you grow early on. Clients and partners appreciate when you are honest with what you know and do not know, rather than pretending to know everything. You can always quickly find the answer you need with a strong work ethic. Be kind and supportive to everyone, not just the people above you. Be compassionate even when no one is looking.
Do you have a tip or two to add to the discussion? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we just might add them to this article!
Paul Swegle, editor of the StartupGC Blog, has served as general counsel to numerous tech companies and advises a dozen others as outside counsel. He has completed $13+ billion of financings and M&A deals, including growing and selling startups to public companies ING, Capital One, Nortek, and Abbott. Paul speaks regularly at top law schools and MBA schools, where his popular business law books are widely used in courses focused on entrepreneurship and business law.