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Tips for Using Excel to Stand Out as an Associate

Kelly Trout

Tips for Using Excel to Stand Out as an Associate
AndreyPopov via Getty Images

Developing an understanding of Microsoft Excel that will make an associate stand out is a low bar in the legal industry, where backgrounds like business and coding are relatively sparse. And the return on investment is enormous. Most associates only need a couple of hours to reach the standout threshold. Associates looking to set themselves apart from their colleagues through their Excel knowledge should consider the following tips.

  1. Understand what Excel is not. It is not merely a tool to organize information into columns and rows. A column/row visualization is better executed in a word processor like Microsoft Word or Google Docs. It is also not impossibly complicated. Some of the most basic features in Excel are the most powerful. Avoiding Excel because you are intimidated is a huge missed opportunity. Remember, all an associate needs to stand out is a functional understanding of Excel.
  2. Set your baseline. Do you know that Excel uses formulas? Can you make a spreadsheet sortable and freeze the top row? Do you know how to access multiple worksheets? If the answer to any of these is no, start with a course or publication that explains the basics. This will give you the requisite foundational knowledge to stand out down the road. There are even resources targeted to lawyers who want to use Excel to improve their practice, including the ABA’s e-book Microsoft Excel for Legal Professionals.
  3. Stay curious. Whether working with an existing spreadsheet or building one from scratch, pay attention to the pain points. Are you typing the same (or similar) thing over and over? Getting an unexpected result when you try out a formula? Spending a lot of time scrolling or using Ctrl+F? Do not suffer through or lose hope. Anything that feels tedious or frustrating is an indication that you can learn something new to increase your efficiency.
  4. Seek answers. There are countless blogs, videos, and message boards available for free to answer Excel questions. Finding answers often takes less than a tenth of an hour. When starting a search, do not let unfamiliarity with terminology stand in your way. For example, searching for the phrase “add up only rows showing in Excel” will return plenty of results on the Subtotal function. If searching online fails, consider reaching out to non-lawyers in your firm or in your personal life who may have more Excel experience.

Excel can be a game-changer for discovery, case management, or any other process that requires digesting and distilling large amounts of information. Every single case would benefit from an associate on staff who has a functional understanding of Excel, and yet so few do. Occasionally, a dual JD/MBA or someone with a coding background decides to practice law and dazzles everyone with her ability to answer data-based questions faster than a partner can formulate them. But the space between those rare experts and associates who have never typed out a formula is vast. Rising above the latter takes just a little effort and offers a much larger reward: the title of “indispensable.”