Pitfalls of Practice: Ten Common Mistakes New Associates Make - ABA YLD 101 Practice Series

By Christina M. DeMatteo

As a new associate, are you (a) excited about your new career and the professional and personal satisfaction it can offer? (b) overwhelmed by the workload and responsibilities of your new job? (c) struggling to balance work and your personal life? or (d) all of the above? If you are like most first year associates, your answer is definitely "(d)." Your first years as an associate can, at times, seem like a struggle to survive. Meeting billable hour requirements, working with demanding clients, and dealing with the expectations of partners and judges are only some of the challenges that you will face as a new attorney.

While you are perfecting this balancing act, it is very easy to overlook the fact that the first few years of your practice can be critical in establishing your reputation and setting the tone for your career. It is far too easy to fall into certain patterns which, over time, may hurt your career, your reputation, and possibly even your personal well-being and health. This article identifies some of the common pitfalls that affect new associates. By avoiding these mistakes, you can set yourself on a solid path to personal and professional success:

  1. Misusing and/or abusing staff.
    Unfortunately, there is no course in most law schools entitled "How to Work Effectively With Your Secretary." As a result, this is a common pitfall for new associates. One cannot over-emphasize how important it is to work effectively with staff, and this requires a careful balancing act. Yes, it is inappropriate for you to drop a huge urgent copy / filing job on your secretary or paralegal with no prior notice. By the same token, however, it is also a mistake if you insist on doing all work yourself and refuse to delegate any tasks to staff. You need to learn the delicate balance of delegating the correct amount and type of work to your staff. You may be able to learn by observing the types of work delegated by other attorneys in your firm, but it also helps to talk directly to the staff to find out what type of work they are comfortable with and to check with them regularly about their workload. If there is a deadline coming up, inform staff so that they can begin to make preparations. They will appreciate your interest and concern, which will eventually pay off.    
  2. Failing to turn in consistently good work product.
    Undoubtedly, you will start your career with the best intentions, making sure to dot every "i" and cross every "t." Soon, however, you may find that you are overwhelmed with assignments. Time pressures start to creep in, slowly affecting the quality of the work that you do. Turning in lower quality work is a mistake that creeps up on you. When this happens, make sure to prioritize your work. Let the other attorneys that you work with know that you are under time pressure and that you may need help. Postpone less urgent matters. Take the necessary steps to protect the quality of your work product.
  3. Covering up mistakes.
    I hate to be the one to tell you this, but sooner or later, no matter how careful you are, you will make a mistake. You may miss a deadline, or fail to cite a relevant case, or misplace a client document. When it happens, panic sets in, and your first instinct may be to conceal your mistake, cover it up, and pretend it never happened. Instead, stop and breathe. No matter how bad your mistake may be, the worst thing you can do is to ignore it or try to disguise it. Concealed mistakes often become worse as time goes on. As hard as it may be, address the issue head on. Seek assistance if necessary. The important thing to remember is that most mistakes can be remedied or contained if addressed immediately, while mistakes that are ignored (or worse, concealed) often mushroom into much bigger issues.
  4. Neglecting to return client phone calls.
    It is often said that the number one ethical complaint about lawyers is their failure to return client phone calls. I would not recommend that you test this theory. Instead, establish a policy of returning all calls in a timely manner. It will keep your clients happy and prevent criticism.
  5. Forgetting about ethics.
    Remember that professional responsibility class you took in law school? Hopefully, you do, and you have every intention of meeting your professional responsibilities. In practice, however, meeting your responsibilities can sometimes be more challenging than you might expect. You may be required to confront a client or colleague about their actions, or to make decisions about whether to disclose certain information to your adversary or to a court. Occasionally, you may be required to withdraw from the representation of a client. These decisions are not easy to make and even harder to execute, but failing to do so may compromise your ethics and place your license in jeopardy. When you face an ethical dilemma, review the applicable ethical rules, research ethical opinions if necessary, and seek guidance from other attorneys with expertise in the area. If necessary, try to obtain an informal or advisory opinion from the bar association. By carefully considering your obligations and your options, you are better able to protect yourself and make the right decision.    
  6. Avoiding assignments or cases that are outside your comfort zone.
    Once you adjust to your new job and settle in to a practice area, you may find that you are more comfortable with certain types of cases. Be careful not to let this "comfort zone" dictate the bounds of your practice. This should not be confused with taking cases outside your area of expertise. Obviously, it is inadvisable to take cases outside your area of expertise without proper guidance and/or education. However, it is wise to continue to expand your horizons and take on more advanced or more challenging types of work. By doing so, you will grow as an attorney and, ideally grow your practice.
  7. Not asking for help when needed.
    This Mistake goes hand-in-hand with Mistake #2 – Failing to Turn in Consistently Good Work Product. It's important to recognize the limits of what you can handle in terms of work load and work types. Know when you need to seek assistance, regardless of whether that assistance comes from staff or from other attorneys. Moreover, be quick to recognize when a certain case or assignment is outside of your expertise so that you can either get assistance or make a referral. By doing so, you can ensure that your client continues to receive the highest quality representation, rather than simply spinning your wheels ineffectively.
  8. Failing to take time for yourself.
    "Burn-out" is a common problem among attorneys. Sometimes, new attorneys can get so overwhelmed by their work that they lose themselves in their practice. Don't let this happen to you! Stay involved with the people and activities which are important to you. Make sure to carve out personal time daily and to schedule regular vacation time. Without real vacation time, you may find yourself falling into an unproductive pattern of grinding yourself into the ground. If this happens, you will rapidly lose interest in your work -- a surefire way to negatively impact your own career.
  9. Ignoring "dog" cases.
    Let's face it -- everyone has cases or assignments that they would like to file away and forget about. Unfortunately, this is the worst thing you can do. While it may be tempting to avoid or ignore a case, don't fall into this trap. Force yourself to pick it up at regular intervals. Spend fifteen or thirty minutes on it at a time. Even the worst cases are manageable when they are taken in small doses.
  10. Losing sight of your long term goals.
    Once you graduate from law school and pass the bar, it is far too easy to fall into the day to day grind of practice while forgetting about your professional and personal goals. This is a big mistake. The first step is to set both long and short term goals. Where do you want to be in six months, one year, and five years from now? Periodically, take some time to review these goals and determine what you have accomplished and what steps you still need to take. Paying attention to your goals will help you stay out of the proverbial "rut" and ensure that you stay on track professionally.


The bottom line to all of this advice is -- don't bury yourself in your work and lose sight of everything else. Keep your head above water, be courteous to clients and your staff, be professional and ethical, and take time for yourself. By following these simple rules, you will be much more likely to stay afloat and rise to the top.

Reprinted with permission from the September 8,2008 edition of The Legallntelligencer© 2008 ALM Properties, Inc. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. For information, call 215.557.233 or nirali.patel@incisivemedia.com. ALM is now Incisive Media, www.incisivemedia.com.


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About the Author

He Christina M. DeMatteo is an Associate in the Family Law practice at Hangley Aronchick Segal & Pudlin. In the nine years since she graduated law school, she has learned many pitfalls of practice firsthand. She can be reached via email, cdematteo@hangley.com.

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