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.