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17 Things I Wish I Knew as a First-Year Associate

By Jay Harrington

When you are a first-year associate in a big law firm the way is fraught with booby-traps. Here are 17 tips to help you become an excellent attorney.

first-year associate

A family friend recently graduated from law school and will be starting his career at a large law firm next fall. Asked to provide some advice, I started compiling tips and recommendations — things to do and not to do. As I considered my own experiences as a first-year associate at a big firm, and subsequent experiences as a more senior attorney, I quickly formulated a list that required a scroll rather than a Post-it.

There are so many things not taught in law school that are only learned by young lawyers through the hard-knocks school. These tips are intended to help young lawyers develop the attribute that is the single-most-important building block for future marketing and business development efforts — namely, becoming an excellent attorney.

Here’s What You Need to Know as a First-Year Associate

For what it’s worth, and in no particular order:

1. Being busy is no substitute for being productive. For a first-year associate, billable hours are important, but the most valued associates are those who not only bill but get the job done. Be a finisher.

2. Stop making excuses. You may get an occasional unfair review, or you may not get along with a particular partner, but law firms are, by and large, meritocracies. You must own up to your shortcomings, failures, and disappointments. Learn from them.

3. Work on your writing skills. This will serve you well wherever your career takes you. Identify the skilled writers in your firm and emulate their writing style.

4. Learn how to use a calendar. You’ll soon be busier than you can imagine and you don’t want to miss a conference call or blow a deadline.

5. You have no idea how much partners value good associates. This may not be clear at first, but it will be after a couple of years.

6. You have no idea how much partners detest bad associates. Did you really think they wouldn’t notice sub-par work or a bad attitude?

7. Understand business and learn from clients. Just because you went to Harvard doesn’t mean you’re smarter than your client that went to State U. After all, who built the $100 million company?

8. You’ll never develop clients sitting behind your desk. You may not consider yourself a “schmoozer” or think that networking is important. Get over it. So you were told that generating business is not important as an associate? How do you think you’re going to stack up when being reviewed against your colleague with a book of business?

9. Eight years will go by faster than you think. Study the attributes, skills, and approaches of the associates that make partner at your firm. Model yourself after them.

10. Be serious, but please don’t take yourself too seriously. You are a first-year associate. You have a lot to learn.

11. Treat your colleagues with respect. Be respectful and courteous to paralegals, marketing staff and assistants at your firm. You are going to need them to bail you out of a jam soon.

12. Take vacations. Enjoy your time off. Recharge your batteries. Reconnect with family and friends. Just kick butt when you get back.

13. Don’t be afraid to say no. If you’re too busy to take on that new client matter, or non-billable project, say so. The implications of taking on something you can’t follow through on will be exponentially worse than any impression created by saying no. (Note: this presumes you are, in fact, too busy.)

14. Don’t hide from that notorious partner. There’s at least one, usually many, in every firm: the attorney who has a reputation for being brutal to work for. There’s a big difference, however, in having high expectations and being rude, condescending or unfair. Attorneys with high expectations for associates are usually top performers (i.e., the ones you want to hitch your cart to).

15. Get out of your silo. Large firms have experts in almost every conceivable skill set and practice area. If you’re a bankruptcy lawyer, you can always tap a litigator to take that deposition or put on that witness. But you’ll become a much stronger, well-rounded lawyer by getting out of your comfort zone and learning to do it yourself.

16. Prep your family/significant other. Practicing law at the highest levels is demanding, stressful, at times unreasonable, and occasionally outright unfair. It will put strains on your personal relationships. Prepare for it.

17. Stay confident. You are going to screw something up — an embarrassing typo, a misinterpreted opinion, an errant email. You may get reamed for it. But you need to stay confident and aggressive. A timid, defensive-minded lawyer will be stressed out, dislike the job, and not be very good at it.

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The Essential Associate by Jay HarringtonBooks for New Lawyers from Attorney at Work

The Essential Associate by Jay Harrington

The Ultimate Law Firm Associates’ Marketing Checklist by Ross Fishman

Getting Clients: For Lawyers Starting Out or Starting Over by Merrilyn Astin Tarlton

60-Minute Mentoring for Lawyers and Law Students by Amy Timmer


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Jay Harrington Jay Harrington

Jay Harrington is the owner of Harrington Communications, a leading thought-leadership PR and marketing agency that specializes in helping law firms and lawyers build awareness, influence and new business. Jay is the author of three books for lawyers on issues related to business and professional development, including “The Productivity Pivot,” “The Essential Associate” and “One of a Kind: A Proven Path to a Profitable Practice.” He podcasts at The Thought Leadership Project and writes a weekly email newsletter. Previously, he practiced law at Skadden Arps and Foley & Lardner. Follow him @JayHarrington75.

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