Figuring out how to become a contributing member of a litigation team can be challenging for junior associates. Litigation is a complex practice consisting of various moving parts that are not always apparent to new attorneys. Below, I have identified six ways in which junior litigation associates can become indispensable. I created this list after careful self-reflection; and although the list is rooted in my particular experience in a big law firm, my hope is that this article will be useful to new attorneys regardless of where they practice.
Master the Law
There are aspects of litigation that are foreign to new associates, but legal research is not one of them. Contribute to your team by using your ability to find case law and think critically about whether and how it relates to your case. Demonstrate your resourcefulness and consider how your colleagues will use your research. If your colleague is writing a brief, for example, it may be helpful to craft an email in a way that the brief can be quickly inserted. Think about how you can take work that you are already doing and carry it one step further to assist your colleagues and improve your team’s work product.
Master the Facts
Document review is an essential, and often engaging, part of litigation. By reviewing documents, you will become the person closest to the facts. Master them. Your colleagues will depend on your knowledge of the facts when they are, for instance, deposing witnesses, writing memoranda, and preparing for oral arguments. Mastering the facts is a way for junior associates to become more substantively involved in the case. What may start as a document review can open doors for you to contribute to your team in multiple ways, such as writing motions and basic pleadings (see the “Write to File” section).
Know the Rules
As a junior associate, you have the ability to learn (relatively quickly) a court’s procedural and local rules. Doing so can help you guide a litigation while allowing more experienced attorneys to focus on other parts of a case. Your colleagues should be able to depend on you to confirm whether a court has requirements for the type, format, and contents of documents that need to be filed. Further, procedural and local rules can give you a basic litigation roadmap, which will help you to anticipate and prepare for the next stages of a litigation. Be proactive, identify tasks that need to be completed, and then collaborate with your colleagues to determine how you can contribute.
Write to File
Your knowledge of the facts and procedural and local rules will likely intersect to make you a prime candidate for writing motions and basic pleadings. Although you will likely be required to submit these documents for review by more experienced attorneys, challenge yourself to submit a version that you would feel comfortable filing in court. In other words, don’t write drafts; write to file. Do so by using available resources. The procedural and local rules can provide a framework by detailing the required contents and format of the documents. In addition, your colleagues may have examples that you can follow. Then, when you solicit feedback, your colleagues will be more likely to focus on specific areas of your writing that you can improve, instead of broader aspects of the document like content and format, to truly push your practice forward. Writing to file will ensure that you are making yourself indispensable to your team.
Pay Attention to Detail
Well-written, well-cited, and errorless briefs with strong substance persuade your audience that you are knowledgeable about a particular subject matter. Conversely, typographical errors, grammatical mistakes, and incorrect citations cast doubt as to your capabilities and knowledge of the subject matter. The rationale is that if you did not take the time to cite check and proofread, then you probably did not take the time to develop well-thought-out arguments. Removing typographical and grammatical mistakes and confirming that cases are used accurately will convince your audience that your team is an authority. Help create and reinforce your team’s positive reputation with other parties and the court by ensuring that your team is filing flawless briefs.
Own the Case
Regardless of level of experience, all associates can take a role in managing a litigation. Case management involves tracking deadlines, organizing documents, taking notes during meetings, creating agendas and tasks lists, and continuously reflecting on how to improve processes. Good attorneys are good project managers, and junior litigation associates can become good project managers by assuming responsibility and learning how to drive cases. Notably, the responsibility can (and should) be shared with more experienced attorneys who can show you how to improve efficiency, which will ultimately lead to better results for your clients.
Dorian Simmons is an associate with Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP in New York, New York.