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Advice for First-Year Attorneys

186122233Seven years ago, I was a first-year attorney at the firm of my dreams. No doubt, many of you recently sat for the bar exam and started your first jobs as attorneys. You know you need to work long hours. You know you have billable hours to meet. However, being a successful attorney is about far more than cranking out work product.

I worked in a midsize law firm (over 100  in my office and more than 400 attorneys in nine offices at the time) as a first-year, but I think the advice I have for you is applicable pretty much anywhere:

Love, honor and cherish those without law degrees

Some of the most valuable relationships I cultivated during my career as a practicing attorney were with staff members – receptionists, assistants, paralegals, runners, IT professionals and so on. In my experience, these folks move between firms less frequently than attorneys, so they’ve often been at the firm for an extended period of time. They know where the bodies are buried. They can tell you who to cozy up to and who to avoid. Want to navigate through firm red tape like a pro? They know how to do it.

The staff members I cultivated relationships with showed me the ropes, bailed me out and covered my butt. I learned more from them than most of the attorneys I worked with. Assistants have sometimes been with attorneys for a decade or more. They can tell you what annoys them and how to impress them. Along with paralegals, these staff members can often answer questions for you that keep you from having to bother the partner – and impress him/her with your ability to get things done without constant supervision and assistance. Some of these attorneys have moved their assistant or paralegal with them from firm to firm. They listen to these staff members, and they value their opinion, so it’s great when these staff members want to see you succeed and have your back.

I keep in touch with far more of my lunch crowd (in which I was the only attorney) than I do with attorneys at my first firm. I made lifelong friends with that group. In fact, my former assistant and two other assistants from my first firm were at my wedding this past spring. Two of them have moved on to work at another firm, and they recommended that firm bring me in last fall as a keynote speaker.

I’ve had a couple of friends tell me their firm would have frowned upon an attorney having lunch with staff members. I can tell you I wouldn’t work at a firm like that. I started my career in the legal field as an assistant and then paralegal. I have no tolerance for a class system within a law firm.

Be indispensable to at least one partner, but not necessarily always the same partner

You’ve probably heard you should hitch your wagon to a partner. After all, in the beginning you’ll need them to pass work down to you in order to make your billables. They can also be a powerful ally in any number of situations – annual reviews, year-end bonuses and advancement within the firm.

You also have to know when to cut bait (and by that I mean you can’t just sit around and wait for one partner to take care of you when your work is lean). During the little more than two years I spent at my first firm (and one summer), I jumped from one partner to the next to the next. It was the economic downturn, and I was just trying to get fed. The partner I’d set my sights on as a summer associate ran out of work for me within my first few months thanks to the commercial mortgage-backed securities market tanking. So, then I stumbled into working with Partner #2, which I think was in no small part due to a recommendation from his assistant (see above on loving and cherishing staff members). Things were great with Partner #2 for awhile – he even passed off a client to me who I would take with me to my next two firms – but he couldn’t give me enough work to keep me busy, and associates were getting laid off left and right. I knew I’d be next if I didn’t find my next partner.

The third partner was someone I’d been warned about through the grapevine. He had a reputation for being incredibly tough on associates and staff. I wound up working with him on a client who happened to cross into the same niche area as the client Partner #2 handed off to me. Turns out he was only difficult to work with if you were incompetent or lazy. I was neither. I did good work for him, and I was rewarded. First, he got me moved onto his team when billables on my team were really starting to dry up. When I did finally get laid off the following year, he not only tried to stop it from happening, he called friends all over town trying to find me another job. And he did. I was never unemployed for a single day, despite being laid off during one of the worst times to be a young associate.

Having a partner who will feed you work and go to bat for you is a crucial part of surviving your associate years, but it’s also important to not to have your future solely in the hands of one person…which brings me to my next point….

Learn how to market

You don’t magically learn how to generate business when you make partner, so you can’t wait until then to learn how to market. In fact, at many firms you’ll never make partner if you haven’t proven you can bring in new business.

God bless my first firm, Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, who had the marketing staff meet with us during our very first week as brand new associates. I felt like the firm emphasized marketing and learning to generate business from day one, which I know from a later experience with another firm is not necessarily the norm. What I do know is that I brought in two paying clients (very small deals, but still) and two pro bono clients by the end of my second year. In addition, I partner transitioned one of his smaller clients to me who would later follow me to my next two firms and ensure I was never without a job during a horrible time period to be a young associate.

Here’s what you can do, even if your firm doesn’t have a formal program or process for teaching associates how to market: ask to go to client meetings, particularly with prospective clients, to observe. While building relationships comes naturally for some, you can learn a lot by watching a partner interact with potential and current clients. In my experience, partners were almost always willing to let me come along. However, you likely won’t be able to bill that time, which means you’ll have to make it up somehow. Trust me, it’s worth it. It’s also a great way to form a bond with partners.

Do you work at a firm that doesn’t believe young associates should worry with marketing? Start looking for a new job. I’m serious. I went to work for a firm that actually sat me down at one point and told me that the way to make partner was to attach myself to a current partner and hope he/she passed down their work to me when they were ready to scale back or retire. I thought I was being pranked. That’s not an actual strategy is it?

Apparently at that firm, it was. Despite having paying clients as a third-year attorney, they told me I’d never make partner if I continued to operate on my own. I actually got in trouble for spending time on marketing. They said I would need a partner who could stand up for me at the meeting where they considered new partners and vouch for me, and that I would never develop that relationship if I spent all my time on my own work and not on partners’ work. The firmly believed young associates shouldn’t be marketing or attempting to generate new business.

The only way to control your own destiny is to build your on book of business. Yes, you should be developing relationships with partners. However, I don’t think you have to spend 100 percent of your time on a partner’s work in order to build that relationship. I was able to change firms twice during one of the worst times for young associates largely because I had my own client willing to move with me. Do not tolerate a firm that only wants you to be a workhorse and never helps you develop as an individual. Don’t put your future solely in their hands.

What other advice would you be interested in as a young attorney? Let me know, and I’ll plan a future blog on it.

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