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The Dos and Don’ts of Your First Legal Job

Seema Iyer

The Dos and Don’ts of Your First Legal Job

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It’s that time of year when many law students start an externship, which may be, for some, your first professional work experience.  Or perhaps you are preparing to begin full-time employment. Well, either way, take those principles from your high school job at McDonalds or the mall, dress them up in a suit, add the following ten tips, and you’ll be on your way to a successful career.

1. Don’t Be on Time: BE EARLY

If you strive to be on time to work, you are in danger of being late. This is the easiest way to impress your supervisors with something completely under your control. And let’s say, heaven forbid, you are late; do not use the “planes, trains, automobiles” running late, etc., excuse—no, no, NO! Just apologize. If you are late, don’t blame it on the bus. If you are late, it is your fault.

2. Nobody Cares about Your Personal Life

If you get into a fight with your boyfriend, girlfriend, mother, father, sibling, or best friend—keep it out of the office. Don’t discuss it with your boss by any means. For that matter, don’t discuss it in the workplace at all because someone could hear you. And let’s say you have something serious going on, such as a sick parent or maybe you’ve been a victim of a crime (sorry, this is getting dark to prove a point)—you have to keep it out of the office. Sure, it’s awful, but listen, the world is competitive. For every person whining about their plight, another keeps their head down and pushes through. I promise you that work is the greatest distraction from sorrow.

3. Eat Lunch at Your Desk

Since I started my practice 15 years ago, I am proud to say I have never gone out to lunch. I don’t understand interrupting the day when it is time to accomplish more. You can still get a break by stretching your legs when you go out to get food. Then eat at your desk while working. You will definitely impress your bosses. Also, I guarantee your energy will stay up by not breaking the day and having to revamp the momentum to work after lunch.

4. Don’t Have Drinks with the Boss

It’s tempting, I’m not going to lie. You start a new job; people invite you to happy hour; you want to fit in; it’s too easy to say yes to drinks downstairs at the bar. But don’t. Do NOT. First, you are too geographically close to your employment, thus in danger of being seen by many supervisors (I would avoid having drinks with coworkers altogether for this reason). Second, a casual setting may allow you to neglect number two (above) and start talking about your boy/girl trouble. Third, alcohol loosens us up, so you are more likely to discuss things you know you should not—for instance, what you dislike about the job.

5. Making Friends or Frenemies?

This ties in perfectly with number four. Of course, you should make friends at work, but you must be cautious. It’s too easy to get stabbed in the back by a coworker you confide in that you think you can trust. Just be wary and do not divulge anything personal for a while. Keep it positive; keep it about the job. (I’m assuming you know NOT to sleep with a coworker, let alone a boss, right?)

6. Yes, There ARE Stupid Questions

Ask Google first. That should be your policy in life. I despise when people ask me questions, wasting my time without finding the answer. Let’s break this down. If you have a substantive question that can only be answered by a coworker/boss, go to the coworker who is least likely to tell the boss you asked. For instance, in the legal setting, research before you inquire if you are working on a case and it’s an issue about the law. If it’s a factual issue on a case, you may have to ask another associate. Be careful to pick someone who won’t throw you under the bus. Even if it’s a completely logical question, a good lawyer can spin it to make you look like an idiot for asking.

7. You Don’t Need to Go to Your Cousin’s Wedding

If you are starting a summer internship/externship, it’s highly likely that someone is getting married during it because it is the season! Well, terrific, if it’s on a weekend and you can leave Friday night, but what if you need Friday to travel? You can’t go. Sorry. You cannot request a day off to go to Cousin Sally’s wedding within the first three months of a new job. If it is a short-term internship, you cannot take a day off. Maybe your parents or relatives will be upset, but too bad—will they support you for the rest of your life? This is the first step in your career; every decision going forward matters. Focus on this opportunity. This rule applies to bar mitzvahs, graduations, and the like—do not take a day off.

8. Business Casual (but Not THAT Casual)

Many companies and law firms have a “business casual” or “casual Fridays” dress policy. This is not a license to dress like a slob or a seductress. Guys, this means no T-shirts, shorts, or skinny jeans. Girls, no short skirts, tight pants, spiked heels, or revealing tops

9. Don’t Get Sick, Just Don’t

I know. I know. You are saying, “But I can’t control getting sick. What is she talking about?” For starters, no one will believe you if you call out sick. We old folks are convinced Millennials feign illness. Next, you can control it. Take care of yourself, will yourself into health—do what it takes to be healthy. Before I became a solo practitioner, I took sick days like a normal salaried person. Then I discovered if I don’t work, I don’t eat. However, I’ve had several fitness-related injuries over the years, but even on crutches and in pain, I go to court. I have grown convinced that the only people who get sick have the luxury to do so. They have a safety net. Stop thinking you do. If you convince yourself that your future depends on staying healthy—you will.

10. Do MORE

Come early. Stay late. Volunteer for more work. This first job is your first impression. You have the gift of being a blank slate. Wow your colleagues and superiors by being the hardest working person. Your diligence will pay off down the road, I assure you. And after all the accolades, accomplishments, and praise settle in, just don’t forget one thing—I told you so.