April 08, 2021 Your Voice

11 tips to survive your freshman year as an associate

By Dustin M. Paul and Jennifer L. Eaton
Concerns about starting your first job after law school are justified. It is terrifying.

Concerns about starting your first job after law school are justified. It is terrifying.

Image from Shutterstock.com.

Concerns about starting your first job after law school are justified. It is terrifying. For many, the first year as an associate will be your first professional job. Little has prepared you for the difficult, confusing and stressful first year ahead.

Even many summer associate positions fail to provide a realistic picture of what it is like to be an associate—or worse, they intentionally paint a false picture. After years of living through, talking about and guiding others through this process—including formally as part of our firm’s associate development committee—we thought we would pass along some tips to the next generation of young associates.

1. Build trust and stay busy

Building trust and staying busy have the same playbook: Do good work. Doing good work means not only creating a strong work product but anticipating the next step. If you are drafting a responsive pleading, you should be thinking about the discovery you will soon serve to support the claims or defenses. If you are researching whether a particular contractual provision is permissible in a business contract, consider drafting your own clause.

You will stay busy if partners can trust you and your work product. If you do a good job on an assignment, they will come back to you again and again.

2. Don't just identify problems; solve them

Don’t just come with problems—come with proposed solutions. In your first year, don’t always expect your solutions to be the right ones. But a proposed solution demonstrates that you are striving for excellence and independence.

3. Don't get in your own way

You can be your own worst enemy. Avoid self-imposed deadlines unless you can guarantee that you will meet them. That said, if you can’t meet your own deadlines, why would anyone trust you with major deadlines? Remember your mistakes. Most mistakes can be fixed, so be forthright when they happen, and resolve them quickly. Know what you don’t know. You are a first-year associate; you don’t know it all. No one expects you to. If you think you do, you are wrong, and your ego will assuredly get in your way.

4. Remember that responsibility is joint and several liability

You work as part of a team, never forget that. Your mistakes impact a partner, and a partner’s mistakes impact you. But in the end, if something goes wrong, you will likely bear at least some responsibility. Take the initiative to send reminder emails and offer your assistance to colleagues. Saying: “I thought you were handing that”—even when a partner told you they would handle it—will rarely absolve you of responsibility.

5. Learn how to deal with difficult situations and ethical dilemmas

You will almost assuredly deal with difficult clients, difficult attorneys and difficult situations. Usually, the best thing to do in a difficult situation—whether with a client, attorney or colleague—is document, document, document. Make sure your position on difficult issues is known. You want to be on record if something goes sideways. If a partner decides to proceed in another direction, then there are certain protections available to you as an associate performing work under the supervision of a responsible partner under most jurisdictions’ ethical rules.

6. Find a mentor

Much of being a new associate is avoiding common mistakes and pitfalls, and who better to help you with those issues than someone who has already been through the associate experience? Look to current associates, new partners, professors or attorneys you have met through social or professional involvements as a starting point. Ideally, you will have at least one mentor within your firm to ask firm-related questions and one mentor outside your firm to ask for unbiased opinions, often about firm-related questions.

7. Start to build your professional network

Professional involvements—like Inns of Court and voluntary bar associations—are great places to start. Take charge, look for leadership opportunities and ways to shine within the organizations to which you belong. If you don’t see long-term growth potential within an organization, consider dropping it for another involvement.

You should also look for organizations and affiliations that are targeted to your goals, your practice area and your desired clients. For instance, if you know more generally what you want to do, like be a federal court litigator, then join your local federal bar association.

If you have a more specific area of focus, such as wanting to represent transportation companies in highly complex disputes, then consider joining an organization like the Transportation Lawyers Association. The same rules apply: Look for organizations where you can grow and take a leadership role.

8. Make long-term and short-term goals

If your focus is only the day-in and day-out aspects of being a lawyer, you will easily get bogged down and likely never be happy. Make a plan for the short term and long term. Pursue professional opportunities, whether that is attending a conference or going to a young lawyers social. More substantive goals should be measurable, actionable and attainable.

9. Find your daily dose of stress relief

Being a lawyer is stressful. Finding ways to manage stress can help offer a sense of calm. In the legal profession, time is a commodity—and you are worthy of some of your own time. Setting aside 30 minutes each day (at the same time each day if you can manage it) for something all about you is a good way to bring a small bit of order to your life. And it helps to have an extracurricular activity or community involvement that is—and we cannot stress this enough—100%, completely and totally unrelated to law.

10. Know your why

The incentive structure of most law firms has the end goal of making the firm profitable. Remember that. Before you step foot in your new office, you should know why you are there and what kind of impact you aspire to make during your tenure. It is easy to lose track of yourself in the day-to-day of the practice of law. Find your polestar. Keep asking yourself if you are headed in that direction. And don’t be afraid to decide to change course.

11. Remember, this too shall pass

Challenging cases, difficult clients and tight deadlines are temporary, at least on an individual case level. But everything is relative. You will always have a least favorite case or assignment. Get used to the idea of not having a pristine portfolio of work, at least at first.

Before you know it, your first year will be over. You might feel more settled in your role and have a better idea of whether your firm is a good fit for you. Or perhaps you will feel just as lost as you did on Day One. Now is a great time to reflect on your accomplishments from the past year, look again for your polestar and identify areas of improvement for the coming year. Above all, be kind. Your one-year mark usually means a new class of first-year associates are now trying to find their way. Help them if you can.

Dustin M. Paul is a partner and Jennifer L. Eaton is an associate at Vandeventer Black in Norfolk, Virginia. They have had roles on their firm’s associate development committee, and Eaton currently is on the firm’s recruiting committee.

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