Trial & Error: What I’ve learned from my first year as an associate

I have officially hit the one-year mark as an associate at McCarthy Tetrault LLP. If you’ve read my past columns you’ll know that the transition from student to associate was challenging and the learning curve was a steep one. But through the growing pains, I’ve learned an immense amount in a short period of time.

Reflecting on my year, here are my top five takeaways to ensure a successful first year of practice:

1. Embrace learning opportunities

Your junior years are precious because supervising lawyers appreciate that everything you do is new. A partner once told me that mistakes in my first year are easily forgiven and that rather than dwelling on the missed marks, I should use them as lessons. One of his practical tips was to err on the side of caution by having other lawyers review my work. By doing so, I was able to learn from any revisions and, in turn, become a much stronger and more confident lawyer.

2. Own up to mistakes (and offer a solution)

Part of being a junior associate is accepting that you will make mistakes. What makes a strong associate is the approach to these inevitable missteps. Owning up to your mistake and being prepared to offer an immediate solution is key. If you’re not sure what an appropriate solution is, ask a trusted junior or mid-level associate what they would do in a similar circumstance before speaking with the partner. Owning up to a mistake and offering a solution demonstrates your maturity as a professional and is a way of establishing your credibility.

3. Be a copycat

I learned the most by observing other lawyers. I paid close attention to the habits of lawyers I admire so that I could glean their practice habits. To supplement my observations, I would often ask them practical questions such as: How do you stay organized? What does your filing/bring forward system look like? What is your approach to meetings? How do you stay on top of your inbox? How do you prepare for a discovery/meeting?

4. Understand the “why”

One of my personal goals during the year was to understand the “why” behind everything. This forced me to think critically in every situation and never take a procedural step for granted. For example, before I step into court, I ask myself: “How does the court have jurisdiction to hear this matter?” I also refused to rely on precedents blindly and strived to understand why things were done a certain way. I also made sure to understand the entire context of the file and the strategy of the litigation. Deliberately seeking out the “why” hones your ability to use first principles when approaching new scenarios (which happens often!) and adds significant value to your files.

5. Look for ways to stretch yourself

It is as simple as this: always say yes. If there are opportunities presented to take on more responsibilities which will stretch you as an associate, accept the challenge. Part of succeeding in your first year is about getting yourself ready for the next level of responsibility. For example, a colleague of mine became the chief editor of a major firm blog in her first year. Taking on this leadership role allowed her to gain invaluable knowledge, interact with many lawyers in the firm and increase her level of responsibility – all while strengthening her internal and external profile in her desired area of practice. Always accept the challenge – you never know where it might lead. 

Trial & Error: How to survive a performance review

Performance reviews are one of the more nerve-wracking rituals at law firms, but they’re a crucial part of your career development. They really do help you become a better lawyer by learning from your successes and your inevitable missed marks.

As important as they are, they’re not easy. Here are a few strategies for navigating your first few performance reviews. Underlying each strategy is the idea that you should never be surprised by your results — by the time you arrive at your review, you should already have a pretty solid idea of where you stand. Seeking feedback year-round will ensure that you consistently meet expectations (and then blow them out of the water).

1. Gather your own feedback

I supplement my annual review with extra feedback that I collect through two avenues: non-lawyers and assigning lawyers.

360-degree feedback

Collecting feedback year-round from non-lawyers is essential — I rely on these colleagues to be an effective lawyer. In particular, I ask for feedback from those I delegate work to, as they may not be as forthcoming with advice. I schedule quarterly coffees breaks with my assistant to discuss how we can better work together or how I can be more effective. I also ask for feedback on my managing and delegating skills from articling students with whom I work closely.  


At the conclusion of a major project, I will ask the assigning lawyer for an informal debrief on my performance. In my experience, asking for this type of feedback has been well-received — it shows initiative and an eagerness to learn. The key is timeliness. Seek out feedback just after a project is finished while it’s still in the assigning partner’s memory. That way you’ll get concrete and relevant advice.

2. Critically assess your work

Self-reflection is crucial to the success of a performance review. Before my annual review, I use the SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis tactic to examine each of my files. This allows me to speak confidently in my review and present concrete examples of areas where I excelled and areas where I can improve.

3. Advocate for yourself

This can be daunting. It’s tough not to feel like you’re bragging, but it’s important for your reviewer to know about your successes. To prepare, I jot down three or four points — such as my business development activities or my contribution to Precedent — that I want to highlight for my reviewer. While my work on cases and files is usually evident, the work I do behind the scenes is just as important, but it’s less obvious. Not only is speaking to your successes empowering, but it demonstrates to your reviewer a level of professional maturity.

In your early days of lawyering, performance reviews are critical for giving you insights into your progress. The key to a successful review is being open to the feedback, learning from it and growing as a professional. 

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

Trial & Error: How to take a vacation like a boss

When I started as an associate, I’d just returned from a relaxing three-month backpacking trip across Europe and Asia. After a busy articling year, I needed to take time to travel so I could clear my mind before entering the next exciting chapter of my career.

Being an avid traveler, I couldn’t wait to plan my next adventure, but I wasn’t yet versed on vacation etiquette. So I asked lawyers across an array of practice groups and firms if there’s an ideal time or length for a vacation. Here, I’ve compiled some helpful best practices.

When to take a vacation

On this point, I heard a range of opinions. “I didn’t feel comfortable taking any vacation in my first year of practice,” one lawyer told me. Others said: “It’s taboo for juniors to take time off during March break or in August” and “you can only take one month off at time if it’s your honeymoon.”

Despite these comments, most lawyers I spoke to said life — not gossip — should dictate your vacation strategy. Be open and honest with everyone you work with. Doing so will allow you to find the best time to step away from the office for some much deserved R&R.

How to really enjoy your time off

With that reassuring tidbit, I planned my first vacation: to visit my sister in France during her spring break in April. While it’s often tough to step away from your workload, here are five tips I gleaned from my peers:

  • Announce it from the rooftop. With so much on the go, it’s difficult to track your colleagues’ schedules. I repeatedly reminded co-workers that I’d be out of the office and unavailable. The week before my vacation, I added a line to all emails I sent to say: “Please note, I will be on vacation out of the country from X date to Y date.”
  • Book buffer days. Even though I only left the country for eight days, I booked a buffer day on both ends of the trip that I could use to tie up any loose ends and deal with issues that erupted on my return. Only my assistant knew I was in the country during the buffer days, which allowed me to focus on what needed to get done before and after my trip.
  • One hour a day. While this tip is a matter of preference, I found it helpful to spend up to — and no more than — one hour a day to comb through my emails. This small step gave me peace-of-mind and made my return a lot less daunting.
  • Have a backup. During my vacation, I left a major file behind. So it helped to have another associate on the ground to assist with the file while I was away. My backup was a trusted colleague and she really allowed me to enjoy my vacation. Bonus points for a backup who scolds you for checking in while you’re away.
  • #urgent. Set up an email filter. I haven’t done this before, but I’ve seen it used by other lawyers. For instance, a litigation partner at my firm tells everyone he is working with to add “#urgent” to the subject line of any email that requires his immediate attention. Then, he uses an email filter to route those emails to his phone. This ensures he only reviews emails which are truly urgent.

Having returned from my vacation, I am convinced more than ever that they are vital to finding success in your career. Indeed, in her book, Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg points out that people who quit their jobs because they’re exhausted often have a significant number of unused vacation days. I know it might seem difficult in the short term, but going on vacation is necessary for long-term success. 

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

Photo: Moyan Brenn

Trial & Error: How young lawyers can find new clients

Atrish LewisAll firms emphasize the importance of “business development.” It’s clear that part of my job is to bring in new clients for the firm. What is unclear, however, is just how a junior associate is supposed to go about doing this. Quite frankly, I don’t know anyone who’s in a position to give me any business yet. And if you’re like me, the idea of “selling” and “pitching” to relative strangers with a cold call is terrifying.

In an effort to make headway in this brave new world, I find these two approaches really work. They even make business development kind of fun.

Take a long-term view.
Considering I was called to the Ontario bar less than a year ago, I probably won’t be getting work from the general counsel of a large Canadian multinational company. But I can get work from the general counsel in five to 10 years by doing little things now to foster future important relationships.

I make the effort to keep in touch with everyone — by sending a holiday card, forwarding articles of interests to people I know and by setting contacts up on “friendship dates” with each other when I know there may be a mutually beneficial connection. These small things help me slowly expand network. 

Treat potential clients like friends. I received this piece of advice from Godyne Sibay, a rainmaking partner at my firm who was selected as one of Canada’s Most Powerful Women in 2011 by the Women’s Executive Network. She told me that in many cases, her clients have become her friends. This simple concept resonated with me because it took the pressure off of business development.  Rather than cold-calling and pitching, I simply try to make friends with people today who could become important clients and partners in the future.

Business development isn’t some magic trick you’ll be able to perform one day when you’re a senior lawyer: it’s something you develop over time. Here are three ways to start working on it right now:

  1. Befriend your counterparts. While I may not be able to pitch the general counsel, I am able to become friends with my junior equivalent on the client-side. This is the beginning of a beautiful business relationship as we both move up the ranks.
  2. Stay connected with your friends from undergrad and law school. Future business leaders come from all programs and all schools, so it’s important to maintain the friendships you already have. Given competing time pressures, I had to develop techniques to stay in touch with as many people as possible. For example, once a week I reach out to someone I haven’t seen in a while and ask them to join me for an afternoon coffee, which I would be taking anyway. I also use the gym time as my social time. I often invite undergrad and law school friends to drop in yoga classes, or invite them on a walk or run. It keeps me motivated and connected.
  3. Attend events targeted at young lawyers. Young Women in Law and The Advocates’ Society host events that will help you connect with people your own age. I always invite a friend I haven’t seen in a while so we can catch up. Plus, it helps to have a buddy when navigating the waters of networking cocktails.

While these activities haven’t yet translated into new business, I’ve already reaped an unexpected benefit: guidance. Recently, I had to review financial statements on my own and, to keep costs down, I couldn’t retain an accountant to assist me. However, through developing my network, I knew a few chartered accountants I could talk to. They provided me with (free!) advice in how to review materials that were outside my area of expertise. And, one day, I’ll be happy to return the favour.

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

Top photo from the Toronto Archives