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May 2017

27 Tips for becoming a ‘superstar’ associate

What do you hope to achieve in your professional life as a lawyer? Do you hope to someday become a partner? Knowing your end goal is the first step on the path to success, according to David J. Scriven-Young and Julie A. Lierly, presenters of an ABA webinar called “Making a Superstar: An Associate’s Path to Success and Partnership.”

By all means, develop the following traits if you want to be highly regarded by firm leaders, said Lierly, a partner at Kilpatrick Townsend in Atlanta:

  • Be reliable – “Clients and partners can count on you.”
  • Be conscientious and thorough, which means asking questions. “(Superstars) dig as deep as they feel they need to dig to get the solution and answer they need.”
  • Be hard-working, responsive and fully engaged. “The harder you work, the more you learn.”
  • Show enthusiasm and find the fun in the job. “This is important, because enthusiasm is contagious.”
  • Be detail-oriented, while also seeing the big picture.
  • Be the architect of your career.

But the presenters had some other tips for aspiring partners, including:

Think of the firm’s partners as your first clients. “Partners are not only your teachers and mentors, but also your first clients,” said Scriven-Young, senior counsel at Peckar & Abramson PC in Chicago. Mastering how to learn from and please partners is a logical platform toward becoming a master at pleasing the firm’s external clients. Make it a priority to learn your firm’s culture and expectations.

Do your best work at all times, even on first drafts. “It creates an image that you’re passionate about the project, and you gave it your best,” Lierly said.

Take ownership of the entire case, not just your assigned work. “Ask questions like, ‘what can I do next?’” And as you gain experience, take the initiative and offer your input on the next steps in a case. “Partners love that, and clients depend on it. So don’t be afraid to always take ownership,” Lierly added.

Stay positive. Nothing is more defeating than someone who points out all the reasons why something can’t be done versus someone who uses the approach, “Is there a way to do that?”

Accept constructive feedback. “It’s so important; it’s how you grow,” Lierly said, adding that partners love seeing their feedback reflected in someone’s work. It’s also vital to be open about mistakes and proactive in fixing them. “I tell associates all the time, there’s no mistake we can’t fix.”

Manage your time well, checking and responding to phone calls and emails promptly, even after hours. Let the culture of your firm be a guide, including letting colleagues know when you’re unavailable well in advance – including letting everyone know who they should contact in your absence.

Be aware of scheduling conflicts, and communicate with the partners to avoid having too many competing tasks due at once. “One thing young associates tend to forget is that there are times you’re going to be extremely busy and times you’re not going to be as busy, so things you can get done today should not be left for tomorrow because you don’t know what emergencies are going to arise,” Scriven-Young said.

Offer solutions simultaneously when discussing conflicts or obstacles. When you make a mistake, “make sure you come to the partners with solutions so you don’t look like you’re just throwing up your hands,” he said. “And you never want to hide a mistake or hide a problem. Communicating with your partners is the key.”

Know when it’s most important to be in the office, and adjust your schedule accordingly. Depending on your workload, temporary adjustments might be necessary to get everything done on time. Make sure people know where you are when working outside the office. “You never want to be in a position where a client or a partner is looking for you and no one knows where you are,” Scriven-Young said.

Ask about your role in the matter to understand scope and context. “For example, if you’re working on a research project, you want to know why it’s important to the case or how it fits into the overall strategy,” he said.

Ask questions. And if you don’t understand something, asking questions will help you be more effective.

Strive to be calm during any storm, and a shrewd adviser at all times. “A lot of that is managing your own emotions during stress. … Have a strategy that fits with your own personality and character that will allow you to be calm in the storm,” Scriven-Young said, whether it is meditation, working out or a hobby that helps keep you centered.

Understand the question and context. Follow the research trail to the end and use secondary sources appropriately.

Think beyond the assignment. “I love to see when people are thinking outside the box of the assignment and pointing out things that maybe I haven’t been aware of or thought of yet,” Lierly said.

Understand the question and context of writing assignments.  Go back to the partner and confirm that you understand what he or she wants to learn from your work. Remember, first drafts should be polished – you are writing for the client. “It really presents well to know that you have taken the time to proofread your work; make sure your organization is sound so that someone who’s reading it feels like it flows and makes sense, and is easy to follow,” Lierly said.

Your behavior and demeanor add value as much as content. When you speak, you present images of yourself, your firm and even your client. When you’re speaking, listen and observe your audience and adjust accordingly.

Be strategic and professional, and think before you react – especially on an email. “You really want to take that pause before you just start to type an email or even speak on the phone, because you don’t want to send something further south just by being glib,” Lierly said. Always speak with clarity and simplicity, then expand the scope if your audience has time and shows interest. When speaking to opposing counsel, lead with kindness. You may need a favor later.

Treat others as you want to be treated. As you begin to move up in the firm and start to delegate tasks, remember what it was like when you were the junior associate. Always make sure your instructions are clear and understood and provide time estimates for how long it should take, including time needed for your review and revisions or additional research.  

Be fully engaged in billable work and business development activities. Make sure you track your time and fill out your timesheets in a timely manner. “Don’t be one of those people who waits until the last minute or tries to recreate their timesheets for an entire month,” Scriven-Young said.

Familiarize yourself with the firm’s clients. Scriven-Young recommends setting up Google alerts to stay informed about clients, or follow them on social media. “You definitely want to know what your clients are doing,” he said. Learn from the partners, watch what they do that leads to a successful outcome.

Always continue to develop yourself personally and professionally – which is the most universal trait of a superstar associate. “Authenticity and sincerity are going to be your keys to success,” Scriven-Young said. 

“Making a Superstar: An Associate’s Path to Success and Partnership” is sponsored by the ABA Center for Professional Development, Section of Litigation and Young Lawyers Division.

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