Volume 19, Number 1
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Ten Rules for Successful Associates
By John A. Ragosta
We all know that being a success as a law associate requires intelligence, years of training, hard work, and fortitude. But it’s what we don’t know that often determines our success in life. In practice, I have been blessed with excellent teachers who taught me not just the law but also many of the simple, even mundane, rules that have proved invaluable to me over the years. Reflecting that teaching are—in no particular order—ten simple rules that you might not have been taught in law school.
1. Take extensive notes. Never attend a meeting or venture into a partner’s office without a pad and pen at the ready. The junior person on a team, in particular, needs to take detailed notes. Who said what? Who responded? Get quotes when possible. After 16 years of education, a junior associate should be adept at taking precise and accurate notes, and you will find that these are often invaluable. As an associate, I frequently found that my notes provided a detailed summary of a meeting that was often relevant even several years later. The notes might enable us to tell a government official or industry representative that "at a meeting on July 8, 1986, attended by Messrs. Jones, Smith, and Ms. Wilcox, Mr. Jones indicated that there was no need to seek additional commitments, as a ‘recourse to sanctions is clearly provided.’" This kind of attention to detail is a powerful tool for any lawyer, but it can quickly make a junior lawyer indispensable.
2. Prepare memoranda to a file. Sometimes the most important memoranda are not those sent to anyone but those kept in a file. They can provide a more detailed, formal version of notes. The litigation attorneys who first taught me how to be a lawyer used to reiterate wistfully that litigators in New York treated as a mantra the phrase "memorandum to the file," after every phone call or conversation. (This explains, perhaps, why litigators spend so many evenings in the office.) Yet, if not taken to absurd levels, it is valuable advice. After a telephone call in which substantive issues are discussed, prepare a memorandum while your memory is fresh. Another use of a memorandum to the file is a "CYA" memo. Perhaps you suggest that there may be a conflict in a certain representation, but a partner tells you to proceed. It might be wise to have a memorandum to this effect in the file.
3. Focus on confidentiality and privilege. In preparing any privileged document, always note "PRIVILEGED AND CONFIDENTIAL" across the top. This demonstrates professional awareness and is invaluable should your documents ever be subject to a discovery request. Similarly, be cautious when speaking. I suspect many a career has suffered from a partner’s overhearing a casual business conversation unwisely held in a crowded elevator. Early in my career I showed up unexpectedly for dinner one night, after I’d been working all my waking hours on one project for quite a while—although that might lead you to believe I’d slept—and explained to my wife that the principles in the well-publicized antitrust suit had agreed to settle. The next evening my wife told me that a neighbor had been very interested to hear the case was settling. I lived in dread, until the news was publicly announced, that a leak might be traced back to my dinner table. My lesson was learned, however: Confidences—even small ones—must be protected.
4. Keep organized, detailed files. Every matter requires a chron file, which is a master file containing the following types of information: a reverse chronological filing of pertinent letters, memoranda, notes, etc. (some lawyers keep incoming and outgoing chrons separately); subject matter files; pleadings files, if litigation ( every piece of paper that was formally filed, in reverse chronological order with each document numbered, tabbed and indexed); and a detailed, accessible index of all files. Even if official "firm" or "case" files exist, keep your own backup of appropriate materials that you can readily retrieve. Early in my career my files were stacks of documents spread around the floor of my office. Luckily, an experienced law secretary came into my office one morning and showed me how to create and maintain professional legal files. Her assistance, and the system of voluminous and detailed files she introduced me to, have been invaluable.
5. Respect your secretary and other staff. They often know more than you about filing, office procedures, court deadlines, word processing. and other matters. Staff is a valuable asset. Those who fail to use a staff’s expertise, not to mention those who are simply offensive, function only to their own detriment.
6. Volunteer. This may sound like extremely bad advice to an associate already struggling with billable hour requirements. Volunteering, however, does not mean simply taking on more work, although successful associates are generally capable of delivering prodigious quantities of work. It can mean simply taking on particular tasks, expressing an interest in new areas or requesting "the next GATT case that comes into the office." A senior associate in my office is both famous and infamous for his ability to get good assignments. This is largely because he staked out territories and volunteered to help anyone who needed assistance in those areas. He is now the expert in areas of his choosing.
7. Keep an organized calendar. It doesn’t hurt one bit to be the one in the office who always knows when meetings, conferences, or other agendas are scheduled (including relevant events outside the firm such as congressional hearings, state visits, Federal Reserve auction dates, and such).
8. Train others. It is imperative for success that a junior attorney not only direct but also help train other attorneys, legal assistants, and secretaries. Don’t think for a moment that you are training "competition." Quite the contrary; you’re training allies.
9. Maintain professional respect for others. It should go without saying that any behavior derogatory to a particular gender, religion, or ethnicity has no place in a professional office (much less anywhere else). Yet we’re reminded daily that this obvious rule is routinely broken. Frankly, inappropriate behavior or statements are not just morally intolerable but, in today’s world, stupid and dangerous. Partnerships do not need loose cannons.
10. Participate in firm functions. The volume of work associates face often makes it difficult to take on additional responsibilities, whether it’s recruiting assistance or attending a firm’s formal dinner. When I was a senior associate, I asked an otherwise capable mid-level associate why he never attended firm functions. He reported that he didn’t find the functions "fun" and would rather be home with his family. In my view he was thinking of these events all wrong. As social functions they may not be fun, but, when understood as work, they could be a lot worse. These events help build institutions; if you want to be part of one, you need to participate.
Will these rules make you a partner? Probably not. There are still matters of intelligence, training, hard work and fortitude, not to mention business development, timing, and luck. Yet these rules may help, and I remain grateful that others taught them to me.
John A. Ragosta, a graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law, is a partner in the Washington, D.C. office of Dewey Ballantine LLP. The article is adapted from "Twelve Rules for Successful Associates," Student Lawyer, Vol. 27, No. 9, May 1999, ©1999. Reprinted by permission.