Aha! Moment: Surviving the First Year

About the Author:

C. Matt Alva is a Summer 2009 JIOP alum and clerked for Judge Ruben Castillo of the Northern District of Illinois. He is currently an associate at Matushek, Nilles & Sinars in Chicago, Illinois.

Published: March 31, 2014

Landing your first job out of law school is difficult, likely the most difficult job hunt of your career. Equally important, however, is surviving the first year on the job.  Programs like JIOP help provide minority and disadvantaged law students with the opportunity to learn from judges throughout the country with the purpose of preparing these students to become successful lawyers. What good would these fantastic experiences be if you did not also know how to survive when you actually make it to your first job!  Here are some tips I, and some of my colleagues, have learned along the way.

You Are a Professional Now
As an attorney you are a professional and I firmly believe you should take great pride in that fact.  But remember you are at the start of what is hopefully a long and successful career; be sure to start that journey on the right foot. Here are a few essentials to keep in mind: 1) prepare and execute your work with professional pride; 2) look the part, i.e., present yourself to the world appropriately; and 3) be sure to listen and learn.

No matter what else you take from this article, remember that you need to put in the time to have a successful first year. Your work, especially in your first year, is a reflection on you and how you will be assessed by your superiors. Part of putting forth a quality product is putting in the preparation needed to be successful. Understand that during the first year, much like your first year as a law student, you will need to work harder to learn what it takes to succeed at your job.  Law school gives you a wonderful background in theory and a basis in what the law is, but nothing can prepare you for the day-to-day operations of the law. It is going to take time to learn your organization’s computer system. It is going to take time (a great deal of time) to learn how to appropriately bill a client. It will be tough preparing for the first . . . take your pick: deposition, memo, contract, trial, arbitration, etc. You must put in the time in order to be successful. 

All of your hard work will speak for itself, but do not overlook the need to present yourself in a professional manner as well. It goes without saying that you need to dress the part. Whatever the dress code, follow it. You have worked too hard to let poor choices in clothing or failing to look properly groomed impact how you are viewed. It may seem trivial, but how you look can say a lot about your professionalism and why risk the start of your career to something that is completely under your control.

 After you have put in the necessary preparation in your work and appearance, be sure to listen to those offering advice. A colleague of mine who works for the City of Chicago’s Law Department noted that first-year attorneys should “absorb everything” they can from those with experience.  You would be crazy to think you can succeed as a first-year attorney on your own. Your superiors and peers with more experience do not know everything, but they do know more than you do. I often hear around my office that there is no need to “reinvent the wheel” when it comes to work product. If someone else has tackled an issue you now face—ask them about it. Not everything you pick up from your colleagues will work for you, but those with experience can offer insight into what to do and what not to do, and in the end you will be better because you listened.

Think Small Before You Think Big
When I first started out I could not help but get ahead of myself. I was so excited to be an attorney that I stretched myself too thin. For a time, I diverted my attention away from learning the nuts and bolts of my work and looked toward a bigger picture that included going to professional meetings, networking, and volunteering. While it is vital to maintain perspective with an eye toward the bigger picture, it is critical for a young attorney to master the day-to-day responsibilities first. I needed to perfect the routine before I could focus on some of my long-term goals with regards to professional development. My advice to first-year attorneys would be to master the small, and then start to reach for the big.

Much can be said for the small stuff. As mentioned above, mastering your craft before you look to expand your prospects is important. You should also know that some of the small stuff is not as easy as you would think and will require practice and time. Working well with your peers can take time. Lawyers come in all types of personalities and learning to work effectively with all sorts of people can be difficult. Delegating to subordinates will take strength and confidence that can only be acquired through experience and practice. Finally, communicating effectively with your superiors is tough and demands a great deal of practice and preparation. These may seem like small, secondary issues, but successfully mastering each will put you on a fast track to success.

 Remembering the details is another “small” part of the job that is critical to your future success.  Just because you are an employed lawyer does not mean you can forget about your network and those that helped get you where you are. It takes time and effort to develop a network and being employed does not mean you should leave your network to atrophy. Continue to make new contacts. Continue to maintain your existing contacts. You should also keep in touch with your law school classmates. These are your peers, colleagues, and potential sources of business in the future. Maintain these relationships, no matter how small, because they often provide dividends in the long term.

Things to Avoid
With so much to do in your first year as an attorney, here are a few things to avoid doing as you start out. 

Think you know everything. You do not know everything. As a fellow lawyer once mentioned when discussing new lawyers, they “know a lot less than they think they know.” Sure you may have done well in law school and be really bright, but practicing as a lawyer is completely different. The procedures and mechanics of being an attorney are confusing and difficult. Substantive areas of law that you considered well within your grasp are likely more complicated and nuanced than you can imagine, and there is no way you are (or should be) an expert. None of this means you will not one day master these challenges, rather I am just warning you that as a freshly minted attorney you have a lot to learn and it is okay that you do not know everything yet.
 Feel entitled. Never feel that any work is below you.  Every attorney you work with has conquered law school, the bar, and getting a job—so you are not better than them. Take the tough jobs no one wants. Put in the time that no one else will put in. Work the weekends if needed. Travel to terrible places. You get the picture. Appearing humble, hungry, and earnest will go a long way toward your future success.
 Get discouraged. You are going to make mistakes and that is okay. Making mistakes as a first-year attorney is part of the learning process. A colleague of mine also noted that you should not get discouraged if your first job is not your dream job. Few are so fortunate. Take the opportunities you have and succeed. It is through that success that future opportunities will present themselves. 
Fail to ask questions. The best way to get an answer is to ask someone who knows it. In a nurturing work environment, your superiors and peers will all encourage you to ask questions early and often. Asking important and relevant questions while working on a project demonstrates your interest in doing a good job and will not be viewed as a weakness. Failing to ask questions and producing sub-standard work will raise red flags about your work style. Suffice it to say, asking questions is vitally important to your development as a young attorney.

Success in your first year as an attorney is mostly up to you and how you approach the job. As a professional working in a well-respected profession, take pride in your work and how you interact with your peers.  Put your nose down and work hard.  Combining the skills you bring to the job with a willingness to listen and learn will ensure great success as you start your career in the law.


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