You’ve graduated from law school, taken the bar exam and you’re breaking in your new shoes and briefcase. Congratulations! Here are 9 tips you may find useful as you embark upon the first phase of your legal career.
Start With Realistic Expectations and a Great Attitude. You’re just beginning your first job as a lawyer, so get ready for some work that seems menial. Regardless of your law school pedigree, grades, internships, and any previous work experience, you are back at Square One, starting at the bottom of the professional food chain. No matter how skilled you may be (or may think you are), others will not yet have that same high impression of you. Whining about the insignificance of the work you are being asked to do will brand you as a prima donna. Instead, take this golden opportunity to build your reputation for doing great work, in a timely fashion, with a can-do attitude.
Treat Staff With Kindness and Respect. If you think secretaries, assistants, paralegals, mailroom staff and delivery personnel are beneath you, think again. Most of them work very hard, have more life experience than you, and possess a wealth of knowledge that can benefit you tremendously if you take the time to listen. Perhaps even more important, you can’t do your job without them and they know it. Support staff can make your life miserable or make your life easier. They can sit back and let you look like a jerk, or help you look like a hero to clients and senior lawyers. It’s your choice.
Police Your Social Media. Make the assumption that everyone you know is seeing all your social media all the time. Current and prospective clients, partners and employers want to work with a professional and won’t waste their time with you if they see something that makes them uncomfortable or could reflect poorly on them. If your social media pages show pictures of you out drinking all night, your reputation and chance for advancement will suffer. But aren’t consenting adults entitled to post pictures of themselves out drinking all night if they like? Sure. And they are also entitled to suffer the consequences.
Ask Questions. Before you start work on a client matter, make sure you know when the assignment is due, approximately how much time it should take, what firm resources are available to you, how (and how frequently) the assigning attorney or client wants to be kept apprised of your progress, and in what form the work product should be delivered. Don’t flounder around not knowing what, how or by when to do something. Missing deadlines or the entire point of an assignment is usually far more annoying to the assigning attorney than a couple of extra questions. And by asking those questions early on, you will be showing your boss that you are organized, competent and conscientious.
Learn How to Prioritize. Just because you were given a particular assignment first doesn’t mean that’s the first one that must be done. It is up to you to learn how to manage all of your work in a way that allows you to meet deadlines and satisfy the client. Having said that, there may be times when you simply can’t satisfy everyone at once. If multiple people assign you work with a deadline of “as soon as humanly possible,” it may be time to ask for the higher-ups to talk to each other and set some priorities for you. Under normal circumstances, though, it’s your job to manage your workload effectively and efficiently.
Confess Your Sins. As a new lawyer, you may be terrified about the possibility of making a mistake. The good news is that you can stop worrying about it. Why? Because you will make mistakes, probably quite a few. Everyone does, and not just junior associates. Given that you are destined to make mistakes, the question is how to handle them. The easiest and most pain-free method is to immediately bring the mistake to someone’s attention, apologize, and either explain how it was or will be rectified or ask for help in doing so. While admitting your error may be painful and embarrassing in the short term, it’s a far better approach than letting things snowball until you are dealing with a real disaster from which you (and your client) may never recover. They can’t fix it if they don’t know about it, so don’t cover it up!
Engage in Networking. Who me? The new lawyer? The one with no contacts? Yes, you! Newsflash: you’re already doing it. You may call it going out to lunch or for drinks or chatting on social media, but it’s actually networking and it’s worthwhile to continue doing it even if your contacts don’t seem like people who can help with your career or hire you to do legal work. Some of the biggest goofballs I went to college or law school with are now partners at law firms, judges, prosecutors, and in-house attorneys or C-level executives at some pretty impressive companies.
Read. And Then Read Some More. I know, I know. After three years of law school followed by studying for the bar exam, your eyeballs are about to fall out. But there’s a whole new category of reading waiting for you, and this stuff is even more critical to your professional success. Identify at least three newspapers, trade magazines and newsletters that lawyers and clients in your field read. While no one will ask you to take an exam on the basis of that reading, your clients and senior attorneys will expect you to know what’s going on in your area of practice. Even better, you will acquire expertise more quickly and learn about opportunities others might miss.
Live Like a Student. The best financial advice I ever received as a new lawyer was from my dad. He pointed out that I was used to living like a student and, that while it was understandable to want to start living a little more comfortably, especially with a paycheck coming in, it was more important to create some savings and get out from under my debt as soon as possible. For as long as possible, live as frugally as you can. Whether modest living enables you to make your minimum loan payment every month, pay it off faster than expected, reduce interest, or increase your savings, your future self will thank you.
To your success,
Elise Holtzman, JD, ACC
The Lawyer’s Success Coach