Surviving as a First Year Associate . . . A First Year's Perspective - ABA YLD 101 Practice Series

By J'Antae D. Hall

Oprah Winfrey writes a column in her O Magazine entitled, "What I Know For Sure." In each monthly installment of this highly anticipated editorial, she conveys some profound thoughts that leave readers motivated, refreshed, and empowered. Upon embarking on my career as a first-year associate at one of the world's leading law firms, I felt the exact opposite because I quickly realized that what I knew for sure wasn't much.

Like most new associates at large law firms, I had been an honors student at every phase of my academic career; served as a leader to various social and academic organizations in college and law school; won academic scholarships and coveted internships; and had accomplished many other things that people generally consider indicative of future success. However, by joining the law firm ranks, I had become one of thousands of other honor students, leaders, scholarship winners, etc. - all of whom seemed to know a lot better than I what to expect on a day-to-day basis.

In response to several weeks of feeling completely overwhelmed and inadequate, I realized that many of my first-year colleagues were experiencing similar sentiments. It was then that I started asking senior colleagues the art of surviving as a first-year associate. They provided several tips, which I have grouped below into four key points:

  • Manage Your Career
  • Don't Gauge Your Progress on a Daily Basis
  • Develop Mentor Relationships
  • Attend formal and informal firm functions
  1. Manage Your Career:
    It is very easy to lose sight of the fact that you control your own career, especially when as a first year you're sometimes given tasks seem beneath your stature as a law school graduate. However, it is these tasks that, if successfully completed, will lead to greater responsibility. Additionally, being proactive can build extremely valuable goodwill between you and an assigning attorney. Seemingly simple gestures such as asking if there is anything else you can do after completing an assignment or volunteering to work on a project no one else wants will likely convey your commitment to your practice group and personal development. Finally, do not be afraid to approach senior associates or partners with whom you would like to work. Although they may not have any available transactions or cases in which you could participate, they will likely appreciate your desire to work with them and keep you in mind for a future assignment.
  2. Don't Gauge Your Progress on a Daily Basis:
    During my new associate orientation, a very senior partner gave a presentation in which she conveyed the following advice in regards to career progress: "Don't take your temperature everyday." I found this to be extremely helpful because evaluating your professional development on a daily basis can become very frustrating and counterproductive. The practice of law is challenging and requires one to overcome a very steep learning curve. Consequently, it will likely take several months to a year to develop substantive knowledge, but there are a few skills that a first-year associate can contribute to each assignment to be deemed a "valuable" associate: attention to detail; organization; document management (i.e. knowing that status of all documents involved in a transaction or case); proofreading; effective time management; and consistency.
  3. Develop Mentor Relationships:
    Nearly every law firm has implemented mentoring programs in which formal mentors are assigned from the associate and/or partner ranks. These relations sometimes work very well and other times fail to achieve the intended level of success. Either way, the role of a mentor is invaluable at any stage of a professional's career. Many have the misconception that mentoring relationships can only develop between professionals in the same practice area, of the same gender, and/or within the same age group. However, a great mentoring relationship is not based in whole or in part on any of these characteristics, but rather a professional connection that facilitates open communication and provides career guidance. So, keep your eyes and ears open for opportunities to develop a successful mentoring experience - who knows, he or she may be right before your very eyes.
  4. Attend formal and informal firm functions:
    Firm functions are often overlooked by first-year associates in favor of pulling extra hours at the office or happy hours with friends. However, these events serve as perfect opportunities to interact with your colleagues, partners, and other firm administrators in a more relaxed, social setting. There is an old adage that says, "The devil you know is better than the one you don't." Many time-sensitive transactions or cases are often staffed in this manner, meaning one person may be staffed over another simply because the assigning attorney is familiar with the former's work product. So get to your firm's event, mingle, shake hands, and meet your colleagues, which is one of the easiest ways to assimilate into your firm's culture and make your experience there more enjoyable.

One of the great things about being a first-year associate is that you are not too far removed from your first-year of law school to remember how you felt after your first day of class or the first time you were asked to present a case. Those feelings of being overwhelmed soon went away and law school became much easier because you knew what was expected of you. Now, just like then, you'll sift through the mounds of advice you receive, use what works, and discard what doesn't. But the best part of the whole process is that in what seems like a few short months, you will be able to impart to subsequent first-year associate classes what you know for sure . . . and, surprisingly, it will be plenty.


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About the Author

Ms. Hall is an associate in the Insurance and Financial Services Group at the law firm of Sidley Austin LLP in Chicago. Ms. Hall is a member of the Illinois State Bar Association, Chicago Bar Association, the Young Lawyers Section of the Cook County Bar Association, and the Black Women Lawyers' Association of Greater Chicago. She can be reached at jdhall@sidley.com.

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