How to make the jump from articling student to associate // Trial & Error

make the jump from articling student to associate by Atricia Lewis
Precedent's new advice column for the novice associate. Plus: when to ask a partner for help

By Atrisha Lewis

On Friday March 14th, 2014


Atrisha Lewis, Trial and ErrorThe transition from student to associate is tricky. I’m six months into my career as a litigator and the learning curve has been steep. After summering and articling at McCarthy Tétrault LLP in Toronto, I thought I had it all figured out. I had observed associates in practice for more than 10 months and I’d become a confident articling student. Surely being an associate couldn’t be much different?

Well, it was. I started in the litigation group at McCarthys this past September, suddenly responsible for moving files forward. Gone are the days when other people would define my deliverables and give me a due date. I had to figure out what to do, how to do it and when to ask for help. It felt like I had jumped from being a crew member to the captain of the ship — a small ship in the larger fleet, but captain nonetheless! 

One of my first tasks: a transfer file from an associate who recently left the firm. I had help from a transfer memo, but I still had to sort out what to do next. It took me a week to figure out that if discoveries are complete, I should follow-up on undertakings. In hindsight, this seems obvious. But at the time, I felt overwhelmed as I sat at my desk identifying the next steps in the file.

Needless to say, a first-year associate needs to recognize when to ask for help and, more importantly, how to do so while respecting everyone’s time and commitments.

As a rule of thumb, I only ask a partner for help if the following three strategies fail:

1. Ruminate on a file

My rumination strategy involves sitting in silence with a file for at least 15 minutes and reading every document (within reason). I write down every question or thought that comes to mind on a pad of paper. This allows me to determine where my challenges come from and it helps me craft the right questions.

2. Use Google

Never underestimate the power of a quick Google search. I frequently rely on the source to define unfamiliar keywords and locate helpful tips. If you’re struggling with a file or action, this might be a good place to start.

3. Ask a mid-level associate

Mid-level associates are some of my most trusted advisors. I’m fortunate to work at a firm that fosters collaboration and where I feel comfortable asking colleagues for guidance. Approaching another associate for the first time can be daunting, but I usually wait for a moment when the associate doesn’t look too busy and I open with, “If you could spare five minutes, I have a first-year question.”

The key to being comfortable in asking others for help is to continuously pay it forward. I always make time to help students. I figure, the more I put up with their silly questions, the more I can expect senior lawyers to put up with mine!

If you’re a young associate with stories, strategies or tips to share, drop me a note at


Atrisha Lewis is a first-year associate in McCarthy Tétrault’s litigation group.  Follow her on Twitter: @atrishalewis

 Top photo by Rachel T. Ribas