October 23, 2012

Getting Off to a Good Start

Law Practice Magazine Logo

 Table of Contents | Features | Frontlines | Technology | Business

July/August 2010 Issue | Volume 36 Number 4 | Page 60

Career Steps

Getting Off to a Good Start

When you accept a new job, you also have to accept the fact that you’ll have much to learn during your first months in your new position. At the same time, your new employer will be learning a lot about you and how you fit in the organization, so prepare yourself for the experience.

Both you and your employer should be prepared for some adjustments in expectations as you move forward in the course of your first weeks and months together. Despite everything you may have learned about each other during the application and interview processes, you really don’t have all the information that determines if you’re a good “fit” for each other until you move further in the organization for a while.

But remember, as the employee, you have control over only half of this equation (at most). So what can you do to foster the best relationship possible with your new employer, and how can you prepare for the many new situations that will be coming your way during the beginning phases? Taking responsibility for your part of the relationship will be one of the keys to success at your new job. Here are important things to consider.

The Orientation Process

When they hear the term “employee orientation,” many people think it is primarily about completing forms, choosing insurance providers, learning the office pass codes, and getting information about the firm’s filing systems and computer operations. But the amount of data dropped into the hands of a new lawyer combined with learning who everyone in the organization is while additionally getting a feel for the firm culture can be overwhelming. Simultaneously, every new employee is also trying to build on the positive impression he or she created in the interview process. It’s no wonder that the first six months at any new job are exhausting.

Most new employees completely underestimate the time it will take for them to be comfortable in a new position and organization, and they often mistake the start-up exhaustion and anxiety as a sign that they don’t like their job. If you are prepared for a longer period of adjustment, you are more likely to find that you are ultimately satisfied with your choice. When you remember that orientation is not a single event but, rather a process, it will help you better gauge where things should stand at the three-month, six-month and one-year marks. The same holds true from the employer’s perspective.

Skills Development Advice

Pinpointing what skills junior lawyers need to develop can be difficult, both for the junior lawyer and for the more seasoned practitioners who supervise them. You may have a general idea of where you should focus your development efforts in the first months, but it is often hard to know what you don’t already know. As you receive various assignments, you can expect that there will be much you won’t understand. Take the time to listen carefully to what is being asked of you, and don’t hesitate to ask questions before starting on a project.

But there are potential pitfalls here. While assigning attorneys are usually happy to provide some direction, they may balk at spelling out what you need to do on a step-by-step basis. Part of the reason that you’ve been hired, after all, is because of your intellect and capability. So after getting a general idea of where you should be headed, do some research on your own to get informed about the steps required to complete the task at hand. If you come up short, or think you could be heading in the wrong direction, don’t hesitate to go back to report and get further clarification. There is, however, one critical question that you should always ask regarding any matter: “How much time do you anticipate this project should take?” You always want to let your supervisors know that you are conscious of firm economics.

Overcommunicating: The Key to Learning More

Whether you are a new law school graduate, or a partner joining a new group, you will go a long way toward avoiding missteps if you ask your new employer for clarification or details concerning policies, procedures or just simply “how things are done around here.” While you may think you know what your new employer wants from you as a member of the organization, within the first year you will encounter myriad circumstances when you aren’t sure. Rather than guess, ask.

This is a concept that is sometimes difficult for lawyers to grasp. Lawyers often share information on a “need-to-know basis” and may generally be predisposed to functioning as if it could be imprudent to talk about anything related to client matters. At the same time, junior lawyers may be hesitant to let a more senior person know that they are lost on a project and may turn to peers instead to get an idea about how to proceed. While this strategy can often provide the information needed, it also has potential downsides, since it means you may be checking with someone else who may be equally lacking in knowledge.

In addition, in the press of learning about the workings of their new employer, junior lawyers may forget that everything they do early on at their new job contributes to the reputation they are developing. Leaving voice mails and sending e-mails regarding progress on a project, and meeting partial deadlines, can be helpful in sending the signal that you take your work seriously. More senior attorneys are typically juggling a wide variety of projects and will be relying on you to keep them informed. Updates are critical, but you may not be asked for them. Take the initiative and deliver.

The Importance of Visibility

Even if you have both the capability and the permission to do some of your work remotely, you want to be as physically visible as you can be at the beginning of your tenure with a new employer. Part of how you’ll learn the culture and mores of the new organization is by literally watching how things are done. In addition, your future success is likely to depend in no small part on the relationships that you develop with your colleagues. And remember that you never get a second chance to make a first impression.

This is where “wandering around” the organization can be to your benefit. If you get to the office early to work when things are quiet with your door shut, the partners may not even know you are there. Take a loop around the office after you’ve put in some time. Also, if you stay late to work after the phone has stopped ringing, take another walk around the office to see who else is still there. While this kind of behavior may seem counterintuitive for the networked generation, relationships are still developed face to face.

A Reminder about Real-World Ethics

All lawyers make mistakes at the beginning of their career. But the biggest concern that any junior lawyer should have is making errors in ethical judgment. If you have the slightest concern about what side of the line your behavior or decision-making may fall on, seek input from more seasoned colleagues. These situations offer the opportunity to continue the education that you had in law school, but this time from a real-life perspective. Remember that the stakes are no longer hypothetical. Probably the most critical aspect of any lawyer’s standing in the profession is her or her reputation. Make sure that yours is impeccable.

About the Author

Wendy L. Werner is a career and executive coach and law practice management consultant. She is a member of the ABA LPM Section’s Law Practice Today Webzine Board.