One of my first assignments as a new associate was to draft a statement of defence for a minor lawsuit. At that time in my career, I had never written such a document. And, to make matters worse, I hardly understood the subject matter or the nuances involved.
But I assumed I was smart enough to figure it out alone. I was also eager to make a strong first impression, so I decided to charge ahead at a breakneck pace. Though the lawyer who assigned me the work had asked me to submit a draft within a few days, I did so within a few hours. My brilliance, I thought, would be on full display.
A little later, the assigning lawyer came to my office and dished out some harsh chastising. Not only did my statement of defence fail to make a coherent argument, but it also contained embarrassing typos and basic errors. Once the lawyer finished berating me at length, my office neighbors came by to make sure I was holding up okay. Now, I don’t think a senior lawyer should be quite so brutal to a junior. But it’s clear, looking back on that episode, that I made just about every mistake possible.
First and foremost, I tried to overcome my own ignorance through hard work. By submitting the assignment so quickly, I also prioritized speed over quality. On top of that, I handed in a draft with sloppy mistakes that I should have caught in advance.
Year after year, I see junior associates stumble into the same practice pitfalls. All of these lawyers are smart and hard-working. But they struggle to transition out of a student mindset. What follows is a simple guide on how rookie associates can start thinking like veteran lawyers.
Stop selling yourself short. New associates tend to think of themselves as subordinates whose sole task is to support more senior lawyers. In one sense, that’s correct. At a large firm, the most junior lawyers depend on their experienced colleagues for work, guidance and mentorship. Too often, however, juniors forget that they are an integral part of the team. When a senior lawyer passes along an assignment, that person is relying on you to do a good job — and so is the client.
Ask questions. Quite often, senior lawyers forget how much they have learned over the years and, at the same time, assume that juniors know far more than they possibly could. This causes them to provide vague and unclear instructions. Before you start any work, make sure the assigning lawyer has explained, in precise terms, the purpose of the task at hand.
While the work is underway, problems might arise. If that happens, approach the person who assigned the work and get the clarification that you need. But phrase your questions with context and propose solutions. Some senior lawyers might get impatient at how many questions junior associates need to ask, but they will be even more annoyed by shoddy work.
Faster is not always better. If a lawyer asks for an assignment by Thursday afternoon, that is the actual deadline. Most senior lawyers are so busy that they set deadlines based on when they’ll have time in their schedule to review the work. So there’s no point in rushing to submit an assignment early. Instead, use that time to do a thorough job.
Work to help, not to impress. Let’s say that a senior lawyer has asked you to research a specific legal question. If the answer turns out to be simple and concise, turn in something simple and concise. There is no need to produce anything overly elaborate.
On some assignments, you might discover an ancillary issue that could have a bearing on the matter. This is a difficult scenario. On the one hand, you have a responsibility to flag important issues. But you shouldn’t rack up billable hours investigating a topic that turns out to be irrelevant to the file. Here’s my advice: go back to the person who assigned you the work and ask whether it is worth the time and money to explore the issue further. (Later in your career, you’ll seek these instructions directly from the client.) You should chase down useful information, but don’t complete hours of additional research unless you’re certain that it’s worth the trouble.
Don’t settle for less than your best work. When you turn your work in, make sure that it’s pristine. That means no typos, no formatting issues and no obvious mistakes. If you are up late working on something, don’t turn it in by email in the middle of the night. Wake up the next morning and proofread it with fresh eyes before you submit it.
On the substantive side, there should be no doubt in your mind about the quality or sufficiency of your work. If you need clarification on an issue or a little more time to tie off a loose end, ask for it. But don’t submit something that you know could be better.
Your work should also be the same level of quality regardless of who you are working for. Whether it is for the managing partner or a mid-level associate, make sure your assignments are up to the same standard. Sure, a senior partner has more sway than an associate, but when it comes time for performance evaluations, everyone will have their say.
Don’t bite off more than you can chew. In law, as in life, you can’t please everyone. There are only so many hours in the day, and we are people, not robots, who are only capable of so much. When starting out, you will not like the idea of turning down work. But if you take on too much, you will start to miss deadlines and the quality of your work will suffer. And so, if you are at capacity, there is nothing wrong with saying no or explaining that you will need more time to complete an assignment while you clear other things off your plate.
Don’t despair. This is a high-stakes profession, and a single mistake can have serious consequences. If your work comes up short, you might find yourself on the wrong end of some harsh criticism. When this happens, it’s okay to wallow a little and give yourself some time to recover. But after you collect yourself, think about what you did wrong, take it in stride and don’t let it happen again.
Inevitably, you will learn some lessons the hard way. (Just like I did.) But you made it through law school, so you know that you have the smarts and the work ethic to succeed. If you keep your eye on what’s important, you’ll have what it takes to thrive.
Daniel Waldman is a commercial litigator at Dickinson Wright LLP. He writes about career satisfaction and business development for Precedent.