From Law School to Big Law: What You Really Need to Know

Vol. 16 No. 3


Crystal Lopez is an associate with DLA Piper LLP in Phoenix, Arizona.

You scored high on the LSAT, got into a first-tier law school, joined a journal, and graduated in the top 10 percent of your class. You rocked 2L summer in Big Law and have an offer to show for it. Then, after nine weeks of nerve-wracking bar study and a background check, you can finally boast you have a license to practice law. Naturally, you feel fully prepared to be a stellar associate at one of the Am Law 100.

The reality is, however, most law schools are not vocational schools for Big Law. Unless you enrolled in a motion practice course, signed up for an externship, or joined a clinic, you will have graduated from law school without ever having drafted a motion, worked on a trial team, or applied the practical rules that are the nuts and bolts of a litigation practice.

To help make your transition from law school to Big Law litigation a little smoother, I share ten lessons I learned during my first year as a litigation associate in a major international law firm.

1.         Clearly identify all the parties to the litigation

Unlike in law school exams, the fact patterns you encounter in practice will likely involve multiple parties. This rings especially true in Big Law, where the multi-national companies your firm represents or is adverse to have complex corporate structures. One of my first assignments as a first-year associate involved several plaintiffs, counter-defendants, defendants, counter-claimants, and third parties. The partner on the case represented a third party that had received a subpoena duces tecum from one of the defendants. My task was to write a letter objecting to the subpoena. I outlined the letter, spent several hours on legal research, and drafted and revised it multiple times before submitting a draft to the partner on the case. The letter was well received, and needless to say, I was pleased. But not for long. Two days after mailing the letter a response arrived from counsel for the counter-defendants. I had sent the letter to the wrong party! Fortunately the delay in getting the letter to the correct party did not automatically waive our objections, and we were able to send the letter to counsel for the defendants, with a note explaining the oversight. The moral to the story: always make sure you identify all the parties in the litigation and understand who represents whom.

2.         Learn to count

Is it worthwhile to memorize the number of days a party has to answer a complaint or to reply to a particular motion (for purposes other than scoring a point on the multistate portion of the bar exam)? Shouldn’t you be more concerned with the substance of your submissions to the court? As it turns out, the substance might not matter if you don’t accurately calculate how much time you have to file your pleading, motion or brief. As a junior litigation associate it is your job to make sure deadlines for responses are on the partner’s calendar. While most large law firms have docketing departments that calculate deadlines based on the date of service, those calculations are not always a safe bet. Don’t blindly rely on docketing. You are more likely to avoid a mistake if you count the days yourself and use docketing to check your calculations. If the deadline you come up with does not match up with the docketing deadline, inquire about the method docketing used to calculate the dates. Deadlines are critical in the legal profession. Missed deadlines are grounds for a court to refuse to accept your papers. Even worse, opposing counsel will make certain to highlight your delay in the record.

3.         Become a discovery guru

Discovery is an integral part of any case, whether in arbitration or litigation. Despite warnings you may have received regarding the dreaded document-review assignment, it may be your opportunity to shine. While it is true that spending endless hours reviewing a data dump of contracts, correspondence, and Excel spreadsheets from your client can become mind numbing, it is also a chance to show partners and senior associates that you are a valuable asset to the team. Imagine the document review as the lawyer equivalent of mining for gold; you may have to sift through many dull documents before you find one or two that are priceless. When you identify those golden documents for the team, you raise your profile and invite opportunities to become involved in motion practice or other interesting aspects of the case.

4.         Learn how to manage unpredictability

The typical law school student has virtually absolute control of her schedule. Law school students often have the luxury of focusing on one assignment at a time, as opposed to sitting at a desk receiving phone calls and responding to e-mail messages while trying to concentrate on writing a memorandum or a brief. Thus, one of the most challenging transitions from law school to the workplace is adjusting to a schedule that is often at the mercy of the partners in your office, your colleagues, clients, and external and often unforeseeable events. Try to develop coping mechanisms to help you embrace and manage spontaneity and unpredictability. One helpful tip I received from a partner is to finish (or at least get close to finalizing) assignments one day before they are due. If you procrastinate on the assignment until the day it is due, you may be pulled in other directions and will likely miss the deadline.

5.         Treat e-mails like work product

In law school e-mail is an informal way to keep in touch with friends. In the workplace, each e-mail, especially ones sent externally, should be treated as legal memoranda. Remember the digital age adage: do not write anything that you would not want to see on Above The Law. Take a minute to stop and read over the e-mail you just drafted before hitting the send button. In our profession, everything we write can and will be used against us.

6.         Learn when to get pushy

I recently wrote a demand letter for a client seeking repayment for a large sum owed to her. The letter recited the facts and demanded repayment, but it was missing an important persuasive element. The partner I was working with indicated that a demand letter must sound and look like it means business. Lesson learned: do not be afraid to use CAPITAL LETTERS and bold in order to get a point across. Note, however, that this technique should not be overused when writing to the court.

7.         Be a team player

Aside from participating in moot court or in a clinic, law school does not involve or promote teamwork. Yet lawyers, paralegals, and staff can and should help each other. The tasks involved in preparing for a hearing or trial are often interrelated. Working as a team allows everyone to be more efficient because tasks can be distributed according to the members’ workload at any given time. Moreover, teamwork is more fun than working alone, saves time, reduces the stress, and creates a safety net in case one of the team players is unable to work or makes a mistake. When you are on a trial team billing 15–18 hours every day, you will find comfort in knowing your colleagues are also working hard towards the same end. Some of my fondest memories as a first-year associate involve team meetings and working with colleagues on filings and trial preparation.

8.                  Manage expectations

Recent articles have observed the number of billable hours per year Big Law associates are logging has steadily increased during the past two years. Associates are clearly working hard. But being a lawyer does not mean being bionic. Not even the most efficient lawyer can complete two intellectually intensive tasks at the same time. Thus, when you have two equally pressing assignments, communicate with whomever assigned each one. In my experience colleagues will understand that you cannot do both assignments at the same time, and they will appreciate you letting them know what your workload is and when they can expect you to finish the task they have assigned you. If you do not keep them apprised of your workload, they might be expecting a quicker turnaround than what you can provide, and you may appear to be unreliable.

9.                  Dress the part

Most law school students become accustomed to dressing casually; the student wearing dress pants or a blazer to class is an oddity. In fact, finals time at a law school seems to be code for slumber party. But most firms enforce a business or (if you are lucky) business-casual dress code. Some attorneys choose not to follow it, arguing they are more productive when dressed in comfortable clothes. While that may be true, the lesson I have learned is that senior lawyers and staff will respect you for dressing your best. If you choose not to, you can expect a comment (even if indirect) from a partner on your wardrobe choices. Why risk it?

10.       Network for fun

Billable hours are undoubtedly a critical metric in Big Law, but most partners will openly acknowledge that they did not become a partner solely by billing 2,500 hours a year. In addition to having high billables, associates who become partners also have strong relationships with their clients and community. Although the value of networking does not necessarily become apparent until you are a more senior associate (who is trying to bring in business in an effort to become a partner), it is important to start early. Developing strong relationships takes time. Networking may not come easily to everyone, but there are ways to make it fun. For example, by joining organizations in which you have a genuine interest, you are more likely to meet members that you enjoy spending time with.

The transition from law school to Big Law is not always smooth and not always easy; but, by using all of the resources available to you—including paying attention to the old war stories senior associates and partners love to tell and making your own list of lessons learned—you will be closer to becoming a successful Big Law junior associate.

Crystal Lopez is an associate with DLA Piper LLP in Phoenix, Arizona.




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