Evolution of a Superstar Associate

Stephen J Curley - May 26, 2017

Stardate 1L: Evolution of a Superstar Associate

The first year of law school is tough enough. Classes are taught by bedeviling professors with more questions than answers. You learn beside hypercompetitive classmates with massive egos and ambitions to match. You are required to read, analyze, and articulate more material than ever before in your academic career. The notion of finding, keeping, and excelling at a law firm seems as distant as another galaxy, but in less than three years you will be hopefully in that position.

Despite the enormous pressures you are already facing, it is critical that you use your 1L year to begin to develop the habits of the outstanding associate. Fortunately, many of these skills parallel sensible study habits. While there is no guarantee that being an excellent law student will convert you into a superstar associate, the correlation between these two phases of your legal career is significant. Your interactions with your professors and classmates in many way are precursors to how you will work with partners and associates. Crafting solid and sensible techniques now will aid you for years to come.

The idea of comparing a professor to a partner in a law firm seems easy enough. Both pose questions and give direction to their juniors. However, the parallels go beyond that. The best partners in law firms do not simply give assignments to associates, accept their work product, and then edit it to suit their needs. Rather, they see themselves as refiners of their associates’ legal training. Moreover, just like professors, they constantly assess the traits that are manifested in the very best associates: intelligence, knowledge, judgment, collaboration, and respect.


Intelligence means more than academic aptitude. More meaningful to law school is the concept of intellectual curiosity. As a 1L, your success can be accelerated if you exhibit interest in seeing how cases skein into disciplines and disciplines weave into jurisprudence. Similarly, a successful associate seeks out the connections between assignments and constantly strives to learn more about the operation and management of the firm. 

As you proceed through your 1L year, take the time to express to your instructors a desire to acquire more than an “outline-level” understanding of the subject matter. The most effective way of doing this is simple: Ask questions that go deeper than the basic assignment. Whether you do this after class or during office hours, taking advantage of one-on-one time with a professor helps to give him or her the impression that you want to “live” the law rather than just finish papers or pass exams. In the same vein, partners are looking for associates who want to be more than legal “mechanics” who robotically go from assignment to assignment with no interest in gaining a greater perspective about either the future of their clients or the law firm. Approaching a professor with your first private question might be intimidating, but it makes your first question of a senior partner that much easier to ask.


Preparing for an encounter with a partner parallels gearing up for a law school lecture. Just like how a professor is apt to challenge you with sharp questions, so too will partners. Fortunately, the there is a tonic for handling both: knowledge. In law school this translates into the hard work of doing one’s homework and putting in the time and effort necessary to master the material. In the law firm, it means doing the research necessary to go into a meeting with a partner or client to offer constructive and knowledgeable advice or suggestions for further research. Acquiring that mastery of the material and predictive ability to anticipate what may be asked of you going forward will likely be the most demanding part of both your law school and law firm careers.


The product of intelligence and knowledge is judgment. Later in your career, judgment may even evolve into wisdom. Yet, as a 1L, exhibiting good judgment usually is closely associated to what you say (or don’t say) in class. Not every provocative thing said in lecture hall deserves a response. Your in-class comments should be succinct and purposeful. Before you speak, your focus should be whether your words will advance or expand the conversation in a meaningful way that demonstrates your intelligence or knowledge. If cannot determine with confidence that either trait can be shown, then you should likely remain silent.


Judgment is frequently cited as the most important characteristic of the superstar associate. Knowing the right time to propose a new approach to a case, make a recommendation to a client, or file a bold motion in court shows good judgment. More than a few law firm careers have been derailed by offhand or ill-conceived comments made in front of partners or clients, after all. Learning this valuable lesson as a 1L will make your life as an associate much easier.


The very best associates work well with others regardless of whether they are partners, clients, other associates, paralegals, or secretaries. 1Ls can get a jump on this valuable skill by embracing opportunities to collaborate at the outset of their legal career. Working within a study group is one obvious method, but student organizations, legal competitions, and bar association projects all can serve the same end. The earlier in your legal experience that you learn that a good associate enjoys receiving and providing constructive criticism in furthering a common goal, the sooner you will realize that the practice of law is as collaborative as it is competitive. At the law firm level, these abilities will help you mature into the legendary “team player” that every associate strives to become. 

In honing this skill, 1Ls should be careful to remember that the residue of collaboration is credit. When success comes, 1Ls should give credit where it is due—even if it is to an opponent. If you obtain a reputation as a law student who acknowledges and appreciates the contributions of others, then you are well on your way of becoming a valuable member of any law firm roster.


Closely related to the notion of collaboration is respect. It starts with the recognition that the entire law school is a community living through a common experience. It progresses to the extension of basic courtesy in the classroom. Treating professors and classmates with politeness and understanding mirrors the behavior that will be expected of you when it comes to your interactions with staff, associates, partners, and clients. Obviously, disrespectful or demeaning conduct can betray all the good impressions the brightest legal analysis can possibly create. Law school provides ideal opportunities for students to demonstrate respect through public speaking—sometimes in challenging circumstances. Associates face precisely the same phenomenon in the law firm setting. After all, few partners want to work with obnoxious associates regardless of how smart they may be.

Developing the five traits that partners want to see in their associates during your 1L year will create a strong groundwork for your growth into a superstar associate. Focusing on these qualities will surely advance your academic career as well. Each lecture, paper, and exam can take you one step closer to the stars.