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Advice For New Law Firm Associates: Don’t Stay on Auto-Pilot

If You Don’t Know Where You Are Going, You Will Probably End Up Somewhere Else

By Carol Kanarek
Learning to drive with purpose.

Learning to drive with purpose.

Congratulations!  You have already arrived at a destination that few new lawyers will ever reach.  The pathway was arduous, but the GPS provided clear instructions:  excel in high school and college; get the best possible score on the LSAT; don’t take your eyes off the road during law school (especially during the first year); keep your hands on the steering wheel during the interview process; and get yourself admitted to the Bar. And now you are an associate in a law firm.

However, the GPS you have been using will no longer be of much value. If you have been following the conventional road map for success since you were a child, this is a BIG change.  Law firms as a genre (because they are in the professional service business) are a largely uncharted terrain.  Changes in the economy, politics, laws and regulations, client needs and desires, and the movement of lawyers in and out of your firm can make it difficult for even the top lawyers and rainmakers to determine exactly what they (and you) will encounter during these turbulent times.  If you stay in “auto drive” mode, you may find to your dismay that you are not acquiring skills that will enable you to move forward in your career in a way that will be both satisfying and realistic for you.

The good news is that you in a great place right now.  Your law firm will undoubtedly provide you with its own GPS in the form of orientations, training programs, mentors and pro bono experience.  That’s very valuable to you, because it teaches you the formal rules and culture of your firm, and provides you with information about the clients and practice groups that are the firm’s biggest revenue producers.

Unfortunately, however, wisdom gleaned by these presentations is similar to the knowledge gained by memorizing a driver’s education manual.  It’s necessary, but by no means sufficient.  Unless you are comfortable with the unpredictability of actual driving, you are likely to end up on the wrong road or—even worse—crash.  But if you observe and learn from the actions of the clients and the more senior lawyers who occupy the drivers’ seats at your firm, you will be well on your way to arriving at the next winning destination in your legal career.

In light of the foregoing, what can you do to balance your own practice development needs and desires with the absolute necessity of making sure that the firm’s clients have a successful journey to their own destinations?  (i.e.  The deal closes successfully; the controversy is settled or won; the advice your firm provides keeps clients on the right road re laws and regulations.)

  • DO YOUR BEST TO GET YOURSELF INTO THE CAR (OR CARS) THAT WILL BE HEADED IN THE DIRECTION TO GIVE YOU THE SKILLS THAT WILL BE MOST USEFUL TO YOU.  The junior lawyers who know how their strengths, interests and experiences are the best fit with one or more of the firm’s core practice have a big advantage over the others.  By finding a substantive niche as soon as possible you will become a “go to” person for the next journey that needs to be completed perfectly and on time.  As a first year associate, your job may be the functional equivalent of washing the car.  But that will give you valuable insights into what the clients and more senior lawyers are hoping to accomplish.  A successful associate becomes a navigator.  He or she is the person who makes the clients happy and the senior lawyers at your firm look like heroes.
  • ALWAYS KEEP IN MIND THAT YOUR FIRM’S ONLY MISSION IS TO KEEP THEIR CLIENTS ON THE ROAD TO THEIR CLIENTS’ DESTINATIONS.  Be mindful of the need to deliver value. It is critically important to be aware of your billing rate, and to always ask the lawyer who is giving you an assignment how many hours he or she estimates it should take you to complete it.  You will probably be ranked monthly or quarterly in terms of how much revenue your work generates vis a vis other associates.  Aim to be high on that list.
  • SEEK OUT AS MANY “DRIVING INSTRUCTORS” AS POSSIBLE–ESPECIALLY IF YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOUR NEXT PROFESSIONAL DESTINATION COULD/SHOULD BE, OR IF YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT SKILLS ARE NECESSARY TO REACH IT.  Strive to establish good relationships with one or more fast-track mid-level associates—but only to obtain guidance on how to succeed within your firm. If your next destination is likely to be elsewhere, immediately begin to identify people who have already arrived at those destinations.  Seek counsel from them regarding the road map (in terms of both skills and connections) they followed to get there.  It’s also a good idea to find trustworthy people outside the firm from whom you can seek trustworthy guidance with respect to issues where your long term interests may not be aligned with your firm’s short term interests.  Your law school career services office or a legal career coach (not a headhunter) can provide assistance if you don’t know how to begin that process.  LinkedIn is an absolute must.
  • STAY POSITIVE.  No firm wants someone with a bad attitude giving any form of assistance to someone who is in the driver’s seat.  Identify your firm’s malcontents, and steer clear of them.  Even if you are planning to make a job move within a couple of years, tackle each project with the same diligence that you would give it if you were aspiring to become a partner.  A good attitude will pay off in innumerable ways, regardless of whether you plan to stay on the road to success at your firm, or to successfully navigate your way to another destination.


Carol M. Kanarek, JD, MSW, a New York licensed psychotherapist and a former large- firm corporate lawyer, has provided career management assistance to lawyers and law firms since 1984.  She can be reached at [email protected].