December 16, 2014 Articles

Mind Over Matter: 10 Tips for Surviving Your First Month of Practice

By Jessica F. Nwokocha

Most lawyers will always remember the day they began their professional career, and the looming feeling of, “Oh my gosh, I just graduated from law school and have no clue how to practice law.” You may feel overwhelmed. You may even question your decision to become a lawyer in the first place. Don’t panic. These feelings are a natural part of embarking on any new journey. The key to survival is simply to keep everything in perspective, and remember these 10 tips.

You may not start off perfect, but practice will eventually get you there. Be patient with yourself and embrace the learning and humbling experiences of your journey.
Perfectionists are attracted to the practice of law. Quite naturally, you will set the bar extremely high for your work product. However, if you recently graduated from law school, there is a great deal that you have yet to learn. You are going to make mistakes. Own them, learn from them, and move on. Do not dwell on mistakes that you cannot take back. The beauty of failure is in the lesson learned and the ounce of prevention gained.

Remain calm. Many have traveled this road before you and many will travel it after you.
You have to start somewhere. You have to crawl before you can walk. The benefit of starting off at ground zero, however, is knowing that you can only go up from there. You will feel as if everyone has this “practice thing” all figured out except for you. They don’t. No matter how seasoned the attorney, there is still more to learn. It’s not the end of the world if it takes you a little longer to figure out how to do even the simplest of tasks, like using the phone or copier. You’re brand spanking new at this. Take advantage of the substantial room you have to grow.

Dismiss all thoughts of inadequacy or doubt. They will do nothing but weigh you down.
I would equate the first year of practice with the first year of law school. How long did it take you to brief a case or draft a legal writing assignment as a 1L? But by 3L you were much more efficient and knowledgeable, correct? This trend will also be reflected in your career as an attorney. Remember, you are where you are for a reason, and where you start does not define where you will end up. Someone saw some glimmer of untapped potential in you. You have some skill set or personality trait that distinguishes you from others. You may have thoughts of inadequacy. You will feel like a failure most days. But I promise, by day 30, you will know much more than you did on day one.

Protect your reputation.
Determine how you want your name to be perceived when others speak or hear it. You are never too young to nurture your reputation because it will indeed precede you. Legal circles are small and people talk. It is important that others only speak highly of you in your absence. Be honest, thoughtful, and kind to everyone you encounter. Be a good person.

Discover what your goals are. Take charge of your future.
Few people will be as invested in your future as you are. However you picture your legal career years from now, develop a plan to help you reach those goals. Think of creative ways to gain the experiences you desire. You must be deliberate in each step you take and make each one count.

Your fellow associates will be a necessary resource. Learn from them.
Find other associate attorneys who have a few years of practice under their belts, yet who can vividly remember being in your shoes. Ask them all the questions you can. Their answers will most likely save you from wasting countless hours trying to figure the answer out on your own. The wheel does not need to be reinvented. It has been my experience that most people want to help you learn the ropes and prevent you from making the same mistakes they did.

Get involved and deeply rooted in your community. Join organizations that interest and inspire you.
Not only will you gain a deeper sense of community involvement, but you will meet new people and expand your network. Finding a cause that you are passionate about and serving the community in some way will give you an outlet, which will allow you to periodically shift your focus from work to improving the world around you.

Make time for friends and family. They will keep you grounded. Call your mom back, answer your dad’s text messages, and video chat with your sister.
There will never be enough hours in the day. You will never get everything accomplished that you need to. Your time to engage with others will seem extremely limited, but make time for your loved ones. Your parents worry about you. Don’t get so caught up in your newfound adulthood and work responsibilities that you fail to stay connected to those who truly care about you.

Strive each day to be better than you were the day before. The rest will fall into place.
You did not endure three years of law school just to let the challenges of being a new lawyer get the best of you. Instead, welcome those challenges with open arms. You are much stronger than you give yourself credit for. That strength will keep you motivated and will carry you through the many obstacles that you will face along the way. Even more importantly, you must not lose sight of why you decided to become a lawyer in the first place.

Find an attorney whom you respect and admire and form a mentoring relationship.
As much as you think you have things under control, you do not. Having a mentor to help you through this process is crucial. You need someone in your corner whom you can trust and who will be brutally honest with you about everything. You should desire a mentor who will be there to both teach you the hard lessons and to share in your successes along the way. As my mentor would say, you need to have your “safe space.”

Keywords: young lawyers, professional development, new associate


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