New Associates: How to Become an Excellent Attorney

By | Sep.05.14 | Daily Dispatch, Law Practice, New Lawyers

A family friend will be starting his career at a large law firm this 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.

Back to Basics Refresher Course- Horizontal

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.

17 Things I Wish I Knew as a New Associate

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

1. Being busy is no substitute for being productive. 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 to you 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. 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 her job and not be very good at it.

Jay Harrington is co-founder of Harrington Communications, where he leads the agency’s Brand Strategy, Content Creation and Client Service teams. He also writes weekly dispatches on the agency’s blog, Simply Stated. Previously, Jay was a commercial litigator and corporate bankruptcy attorney at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom and Foley & Lardner. He has an undergraduate degree in journalism and earned his law degree from the University of Michigan Law School. Jay writes Attorney at Work’s new “One of a Kind” seriesFollow him @harringj75.

First published on March 11, 2014, on

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5 Responses to “New Associates: How to Become an Excellent Attorney”

  1. John Grant
    5 September 2014 at 10:00 am #

    How about the most important piece of advice: It is OK to quit and do something else. The big-firm associate path is not a good fit for many, if not most lawyers. If you wonder whether you should quit, you’ll probably be happier if you do.

  2. Josh Brown
    5 September 2014 at 10:41 pm #

    As a practicing attorney that has worked at large firms before I decided to bet on myself and launch my own practice, I appreciate the sentiment of this article to a degree, but it also frustrates me. Here are the missing, yet most important, points that were left off the list:

    18) Figure out what you are passionate about in law, if you don’t you will be miserable and a terrible attorney;
    19) Take your passion and become highly competent in the areas that you care about;
    20) Utilize economic models that go beyond trading time for dollars. Leverage your skill set so you can generate other sources of revenue. Your firm, if they have any sense, will appreciate it; and
    21) Last, but not least, figure out if you even want to practice in a big firm. Don’t let money and the false sense of stability steer you away from a practice you have envisioned for yourself that is different from the one you are currently experiencing.

    Be unique. Be memorable. Be different………but always be yourself!

  3. Jay Harrington
    10 September 2014 at 3:27 pm #

    John and Josh – I appreciate your comments and I think they are good ones. Josh – the only caveat I would add to your comment is that perhaps this evaluation (i.e., whether the big firm path is the correct one) is one that should be reserved for someone’s second year. For most, the first year is going to be stressful, confusing, and unpleasant, at least some of the time. It takes a bit of time to get your feet underneath you, get a sense of the routine, and to clear your head. In my experience, I didn’t really get into the groove and get a clear sense of what life would be like for 6-12 months or so. At that point I was able to make a better judgment as to whether it was the right path for me. That being said, I didn’t make the leap and change paths until 6 years in, which was probably too long, so the core your advice which is to self-evaluate as early as possible is definitely warranted.