Real Attorneys’ Perspectives: Ten Tips for Succeeding as a New Attorney or Summer Associate

Recently, we asked area hiring attorneys two questions. First, what do you wish you could bluntly tell new associates?  Second, what makes for an impressive or unimpressive associate?  Read on for the top ten responses to the first question, and a roundup of responses to the second!

1.  Treat a summer job like an extended job interview, not summer camp.  Do this no matter how much the firm makes it seem like they’re tripping over themselves to ‘land’ you…in the current economic climate, when the few firms that are hiring can pick from the best of the best. Attorneys are not camp counselors.  Unfortunately, we don’t all come in every day to organize activities and come up with interesting things for you to do.  If you do a good job on your projects, however, people will like you and invite you to do fun and interesting things.  If you annoy them with your annoying personality or your annoying questions, they will dislike you.

2.  Lose the attitude of entitlement. The fact of the matter is as a new associate you are valuable to the firm, but the firm does not revolve around you and will not grind to a halt without you.  Frequently, a seasoned paralegal or secretary is more valuable than a new associate and acting as if simply acquiring a J.D. makes you superior to the staff can be irritating.  You need to understand that as a new associate, you are likely to get some of the worst projects in the firm.  While this is unpleasant, there is not another attorney in the office who hasn’t been there before.  You learn from each project, billable or not, and it is all part of the process to make you a better attorney.   This is especially important right now where new associates are as dispensable as they have ever been in my dozen years of practice.

3.  Ask questions and seek feedback. Don’t try to pretend like you know everything, and don’t worry that I will think less of you if you tell me you don’t understand the assignment.  It is frustrating for the associate, and a waste of time for the other attorney, to produce something unhelpful.  If something unexpected comes up, report the development and ask for clarification.  Make sure you are going down the right path before you get too far down the wrong path.  Ask for feedback—but when someone gives you feedback, don’t argue with them or be defensive, even if you think they are wrong.  Some ideas for questions:

  • Ask for a time frame to complete the project. Partners will say about half of what it takes. So I find a way around that is to ask, “How many hours should I spend on this      before I come back and let you know what’s out there, or that I have hit a dead end, etc.”
  • Ask if your supervisor realistically expects you to find anything. Nothing like stressing over looking incompetent because you can’t find anything only to discover that they never expected you to find anything in the first place!
  • If it’s a research project, ask how the information you provide will be used. Is this for a pleading? An objective memo to client?  This information will help you write your results in a way that is more copy/paste-able.

4.  Never promise what you can’t deliver and always deliver what you promise. If you don’t have time to do a research project by a certain date, tell the attorney who is trying to assign it to you at the time the assignment is given.  The worst response is to agree to do something and then give it back undone or poorly done.  If the attorney had a problem at the time the assignment was made, you have created an even bigger problem.  Attorneys quickly learn if an associate solves problems for them or creates problems for them.  Once an associate is determined to be someone who creates problems, he or she may never be given another opportunity to change that perception.

5.  Do your best work and proofread written work closely before handing it in to a supervising attorney. I think new associates/clerks are so concerned about speed and deadlines that they put all their time into research and focus less on the final written product. It’s amazing how much better you can make a memo or brief by spending just one last half hour cleaning it up a bit.  Always do your best work, even if you don’t like a particular assignment/attorney/area of law.  Learn what you can from each attorney and project.  Sometimes people discover that they like things that they did not expect to like.

6.  Never be the most casually dressed attorney. Dressing casually means that you have enough power to dress however you want whenever you want (and you don’t have this much power) or that you are so far down the chain that you are unimportant.  If you dress too casually it shows that you don’t care enough to present a good impression, or that you don’t understand the dress code.

7.  Try to control your paranoia. It’s hard because we’re all overachievers.  However, the summer associates who typically draw the most unwanted attention are the ones that go out of their way seeking self-assurance.  If you are constantly worried about the quality of your project or the whether you are going to get an offer, we start to wonder if we should be worried about you too.  For example, last summer I was working with a student who turned in a routine research memo.  The student brought it back with dozens of disclaimers from I “couldn’t really find law on point” to “this was not his best work” to “not sure he had all the facts”, etc.  Not a good image to send out. So chill out, do your best, and turn it in on time.  You are a good student at a good law school and chances are you did just fine.

8.  Don’t be a gossip. You don’t know what office politics are swirling around you. Just stay out of it.

9.  Don’t whine about your work load/ be negative. Do be realistic–if you get another assignment and you are worried about how much is on your plate. Say to your assigning attorney, “great, this will be a great project, but can you help me prioritize it with these other two assignments I have due the same day from x partner and y partner? Since I’m not experienced, I’m not sure how long it will take, and I don’t want to disappoint anyone.”

10.  Be yourself. In particular, summers are for figuring out if we will all work and play well together. We can’t do that if you’re not genuine.

Impressive: an honest day’s work.

Unimpressive: lying about hours.

Impressive: Making a partner look good.  (They will love you forever.)

Unimpressive: Telling a partner (a seasoned practitioner of tax law, Ivy-League grad and one of the drafters of the tax code of a small nation) had misread a provision of the tax code (this actually happened, and the clerk was not invited back–shocking as that may be).

Impressive:Asking thoughtful questions of both the attorney and the attorney’s spouse at the firm’s summer party.

Unimpressive: Being the only one to get in the pool at the firm’s summer party, while wearing a red bikini (also true).

Impressive: Trying hard.  You can’t always get it right when you are first starting.  (Or even many years later.)  But learn to be humble and to laugh at yourself.  Then learn from your mistakes.  We have a new associate that I sent to a hearing about a month after he was sworn in and before a particularly demanding judge.  I only gave him a few hours’ notice, and it was an area of law that he was not familiar with.  But he did the best he could and kept his chin up even after the judge reprimanded him for not being completely familiar with the case or the law.  Best of all, the new associate came back, thanked me for the experience, and asked to do it again the next time the opportunity arose.  Now that was impressive!

Impressive: Getting work done on time, or, heaven forbid, early.  Taking the time to proofread your work before handing it over.  It is so nice to have a finished work product that needs little alteration.  Having a willing attitude and volunteering to help a more senior attorney that is busy, even if it means you might stay later than you like.