I had the chance to chat recently with an outstanding former student who is starting work as an associate at a law firm. This student described some of the challenges that I remember from my own time as an associate. With the benefit of hindsight, I shared some thoughts on strategies that I wish I had employed myself (but didn’t). I’m going to repeat that here along with some wisdom shared by former students.
This discussion may also be relevant in light of the widely circulated resignation memo of one associate who found it impossible to meet the demands of being both an associate and a parent/human being:
Please take all of this with a grain of salt. Everything depends on context, firm culture, and individual personalities. That being said, here are some recurring issues and suggestions for how to anticipate and handle them:
Multiple partners and senior associates are loading you up with projects; none of them is aware of the assignments others are giving you.
You may have learned some things about managing your time in law school, but law practice makes much more extreme demands on this skill. In addition, you are not just managing time—you are managing expectations and you are managing people. People who have power over you and whom you do not want to disappoint.
The power dynamic in law firms can make it very difficult to set boundaries or turn down work. But if you say “yes” to everything, this will lead to disaster. It is critical that you develop strategies for being assertive while still signaling that you are enthusiastic and eager to help. Being enthusiastic does not mean you have to be a pushover.
I strongly recommend blocking out time in your calendar for every project that you are assigned. Slightly overestimate the time a project will take (especially because you will not be very good at estimating how long a project will take when you first start practicing). In connection with this, young associates tend to worry excessively about taking too much time on projects. Worry about doing a good and thorough job. If you take too much time, the billing partner can write it off and if they perceive it as a problem, they will tell you.
Use your calendar to review your available time before accepting new assignments. Saying “I have a deadline that I need to meet by Tuesday, but I should be able to begin working on your assignment after that” is probably better than saying “I don’t have time” or “I have to prioritize Partner X’s project right now.” But even both of these options are better than saying “yes” when you won’t have time to do a good job.
This way you are informing other attorneys about your workload in an objective, assertive way, without dropping names or coming off as someone who doesn’t work hard.
Also anticipate that once you have met the first deadline for a partner on a project, she or he may expect you to continue working on other projects in the matter right away. Some partners are good at expressing these expectations while others are not.
For this reason, every time you accept an assignment, be sure to get a firm deadline from the assigning attorney, an estimate of how many hours they think it should take (but don’t feel bound by this—more senior attorneys often underestimate the complexity of projects—but knowing their estimate gives you a guideline for checking in), and whether they anticipate that you will continue to work on the matter after this particular project.
Different partners/senior associates have very different expectations in terms of what they want from your work product.
Develop a checklist that you go through whenever accepting an assignment. Obviously, don’t be annoying or heavy-handed about it, but collect a set of the questions you most frequently find yourself asking about the nature and format of an assignment, and make sure you are clear about what you are doing before you start.
DON’T ASSUME. Don’t ever, ever assume. I really wish someone had told me that.
You are assigned a project you have no idea how to complete.
Do not “fake it till you make it”! Young associates often assume they are supposed to know more than they do, and more senior partners make the same mistakes assessing the knowledge and experience level of junior associates. Add to this the fact that you may worry about being seen as incompetent if you admit to not knowing how to complete an assignment, and it’s easy to just shut yourself in your office and try to figure it out on your own.
One way to handle this is to say something like, “I’m really excited to work on this project. This will be the first time I have drafted interrogatories—could you tell me the basics of your approach and maybe provide me with a sample or two?”
You may get pushback for asking questions. It is still better to persist than to hand in work that does not meet the assigning attorney’s expectations. Also, along these lines, just as your professors vastly preferred if you prepared thoughtful questions before meeting with them, don’t ask the assigning attorney everything that pops into your mind in your initial meeting. Get a sense of the assignment, create a list of thoughtful questions (excluding anything you can actually figure out on your own), and schedule a follow-up meeting.
Directions from a more senior attorney conflict with your instincts—about the law, about strategy, or about ethics.
It is an unfortunate truth of many hierarchical environments, including law firms, that the people at the lower end of the hierarchy are expected to conform without pushing back or asking questions. In this way, law practice can at times mimic one of the most difficult dynamics of law school—forcing you to abandon your instincts and intuition in the service of what is supposed to be a higher logic.
Don’t stop listening to your gut. Don’t reflexively follow your gut, but pay attention to it and investigate any rumblings.
These tips are not just about preserving your sanity, but also preserving your ability to do your best work. Being overwhelmed and distracted leads poor work product, poor client service, and yes, unfortunately, ethical lapses. Many of us became lawyers because we were good at meeting expectations and following directions. But being a practicing attorney entails a level individual responsibility for your workload and ethical commitments that you likely have not encountered before. Both of these aspects of your practice will be challenged at some point in time, and perhaps multiple times. For some of us who have always been “good students,” becoming an attorney involves developing a sort of interpersonal assertiveness and self-direction that may be unfamiliar. My best advice is to appreciate and embrace the challenge, with open eyes, courage, and integrity.
I welcome your thoughts, disagreements, and commentary.