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After the Bar

Professional Development

The Reliable Associate

Kerry M Lavelle

The Reliable Associate

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Are you a new attorney?

Don’t we all wish that we had today’s knowledge about life and people when we were in high school? We would have navigated our way through those years in a very different manner. If you just graduated law school and are starting your new career as an associate, what are the things that would be obvious to you in two or three years that you would like to know now to become a reliable associate your first year of practicing law? Here are my top 10:

1. Respect Your Partner’s Time

Gather your thoughts and all your questions before interrupting a partner or senior associate. Do not walk into a senior associate’s office and say, “Hey, do you have a second?” 10 times in the same day, working on the same project. The better plan is to work through the project for a while, gather your 10 questions on a yellow pad, and then send the senior partner an email stating, “Do you have time for me? I have a few questions for you on the project you recently gave me.” In other words, be respectful of your senior associate and partner’s time. Use it sparingly, and use it efficiently. Also, if your research leads you to legal roadblocks, have alternative strategies ready to propose.

2. Proofread Your Work

The partner or senior associate who gave you the project is not your proofreader. With potentially catastrophic results, if the person reviewing your work sees typographical errors, misspellings, and incorrect cross-references, you will look foolish. The last thing you want to do is look foolish to a senior associate or partner. There has to be someone lower on the status totem pole in the office that you could kindly ask to proof your work before giving it to a senior partner, and it does not need to be another lawyer. Use all the proofreading tricks that you have heard about in undergrad and law school. Read the document backward, set it aside for a few hours in the day, and come back to it and reread it. Even if you are the most brilliant critical thinker in the class joining the law firm, it will all be lost if there are proofreading errors that become a distraction to the reader.

3. Deadlines Matter

Remember, honesty is being able to recall the past truthfully; integrity is being able to live up to your word about a future promise. If you tell someone that you will be in court at 10:00 a.m., you need to be there. If not, your promises and your representations become unreliable, and nobody will be able to rely on you to carry out a project. You are not important enough to be able to show up to meetings and court hearings late. Remember, “If you are not early, you are late.” If the senior people at the office giving you assignments cannot rely on you in your first year of practicing, they may never rely on you and thus, they will not give you work, and you will become irrelevant quickly.

4. Be Precise

Perfect grammar, spelling, and choice of words are your responsibility to deliver top-quality work product. Also, with respect to your legal documents, make sure captions and headings are exact; cross-references to paragraphs in the document or other documents are precise; the use of defined terms must be consistent and precise; capitalizing, bolding, underlining, and italics are all used in a consistent, appropriate fashion according to the Bluebook and in accordance with firm policies. The partner or senior associate reviewing the document should be able to digest the substance of the documents and not be interrupted by making corrections to the non-substantive matters. Finally, it is also of great benefit if you can be precise in your conclusion of the law. Not every research question will allow you to do so but make sure your conclusions of the law and the unsettled questions in your memo are clear to the reader so that the senior partner can advise you on the next stage of your research.

5. Cite Primary Authority

It is a growing concern that young associates are doing their legal research, not through Westlaw or LexisNexis, but by doing Google searches and (hopefully not) providing conclusions that are found in Wikipedia. Cite as primary authority statutes and Supreme Court cases. After that, look at other court cases and synthesize the law from those cases as it applies to your facts. Do not get into other treatises, law review articles, and Google searches until your primary authority is fully vetted.

6. Put the Cell Phone Down

Until you have direct client contact, it is very doubtful that you will need to use your cell phone practicing law. You will be doing research, working on your computer, and, when needed, going to court and attending closings. None of these assignments, using your highest and best value, require a cell phone. The appearance of you constantly being on a cell phone will convey a message of socializing on social media platforms or being involved in long text message conversations. Do not play into the stereotype.

7. Be Present

While it is doubtful that you will be punching a time clock as you come in and out of the office, you might believe that no one is watching you and that you can come and go as you please. You need to be present in the office and regularly saying hello to partners, senior associates, and decision-makers at the firm so you can get great assignments. There is no worse impression to make when a partner seeks you out and your whereabouts are unknown. There is less of a need in this day to go to law libraries because most legal research is done online. But make sure, just like any rookie trying to make a great impression in professional sports, you get into the office early and stay late.

8. Carry a Yellow Pad

Never walk into a senior associate or partner’s office empty-handed. Make sure you have a yellow pad and a pen, and be ready to take notes and to get an assignment from your senior people at the office. Although it may not be true, showing up in the senior person’s office empty-handed creates the appearance of disinterest and lack of enthusiasm. 

9. Dress for Success

Business dressing has been written about extensively since the 1970s. The old expression of “dress for the job you want, not the job you have” is probably still practical. Nonetheless, navigate the office and dress to the highest reasonable standard. Some senior partners may dress very casually and have earned the right to do so. In your first one or two years out of law school, you want to be the associate who is relied on by management to do a great job for the firm. Dress appropriately.

10. Take Copious Notes in Meetings

Your greatest value as a first- or second-year associate is taking great notes. It is important when you are invited into meetings to listen critically and, after the meeting, have a critical thinking dialogue with the senior attorney on the facts and analysis of the case. In these first few years, if you can accept the fact that you are a highly educated note taker, the better off you will be. But again, just like the armed services, you need to be great at note-taking at that point in your career so you can hold the next generation of new attorneys coming up behind you to the same standard.

Follow these rules, and you cannot help but become the reliable associate around your law office.

Want more content from Kerry Lavelle? Check out his On-Demand, Free CLE entitled "The Reliable Associate." Lavelle shares tips for becoming a reliable associate in your first year of practice, such as working with partners, senior associates, and staff; producing high-quality work product; and taking copious notes.