You’ve done it! You’ve snagged a first-year associate position and you’re about to experience your first day as a lawyer at a cushy law firm.
Now, you’re probably a bit anxious (or very anxious) about how to start off on the right foot and process all the new things that’ll be thrown at you in your early days. That’s a completely normal and understandable way to feel.
Like most new jobs, your first week will consist of plenty of paperwork, meeting the other lawyers and support staff you’ll be working with, training in how to use your firm’s document and diary systems, and learning how work is assigned and carried out at the various levels of the firm. This is the time to take copious notes and ask questions. The old saying “you never get a second chance to make a first impression” is especially apt for new lawyers. You won’t be expected to immediately know everything, but you will be expected to be professional from the start, be diligent in everything you do, take the work seriously, and present yourself as excited to be there and eager to learn all you can.
Fill out All the Forms
Review and sign or file every form you receive in the first few days. Read everything closely, including the firm manual and other documents relating to confidentiality and procedures. You can glean a lot of helpful information from these pieces of paper, and it shows you’re diligent about (and read) anything put in front of you. More practically, the sooner you get to certain forms, especially relating to your firm’s 401(k) plan or healthcare options, the better. Once your assignments ramp up, it’s easy to forget about or miss deadlines to enroll. If you invest some of your money in the markets, make sure to be aware of any trading restrictions and processes your firm has in place. You’ll likely need some pre-approval before making certain trades, based on your firm’s client list.
Make sure you have logins to get into your work email both on your computer and phone. Note: It can be difficult to get your personal phone set up with the proper restrictions to allow you to use it as your work phone. Also make sure you know how to access the tools you need to get your work done, whether it’s the firm’s document management system, legal research sites (like Lexis or Westlaw), and any repository of templates or precedents you can refer to when drafting documents.
Be Engaged and Ask Questions (of the Right People)
Remember, you should have lots of questions at this time, and it would be surprising to firm veterans if you didn’t have a few come up as you take in all this new information. Questions show that you’re engaged and thoughtful. Think of it this way: Early on you can ask pretty much anything and it’ll seem like you’re a real go-getter who’s paying attention and focused on performing well. However, if six weeks in you’re still asking questions about things you should have learned at the beginning, it will concern the more senior people you’re working with. Become a diligent note-taker, while making sure you’re able to pay attention and not miss anything. Most important is that you’re engaged with whomever is speaking to you. This is invaluable and again, will increase the likelihood that you’ll ask questions and get the most out of any information sessions. At the same time, use those issue-spotting skills you gained in law school to identify what’s most important for follow-up.
Essential to learn right away is who you should—and shouldn’t—go to with questions. There’s an unspoken hierarchy and categorization of who to go to as questions arise, and how to go about getting those questions answered. As a general rule, go to the most junior person you think can provide an answer. For most questions early on, such as how to access or find something, your assistant (if you have one), paralegals (whether assigned to you or not), or your peers (including second-years) can probably help you. Asking for help and getting advice can be a great way to form some early connections.
For matter-specific questions, use your judgment, but remember to try to get the answer as low down on the proverbial totem pole as you can. Paralegals tend to be a wealth of information given their role of helping mostly junior associates handle all that’s on their plate. If you have a mentor, make sure you connect with them, since they can also help you navigate some of these decisions. And on any given matter, the mid-level or senior associate is your go-to for substantive or procedural questions to make sure you’re carrying out the tasks assigned to you consistent with their expectations. Reaching out to the partner on your deal or case may be warranted if they directly assigned something to you, but often they won’t be the right point of contact for ongoing questions, especially because you may not hear back from them for some time. It can be tough to know where to go, but you’ll get a feel for it over time.
Orientation Trainings Are Crucial
You will sit through many hours of training in your first week, usually as part of comprehensive orientation programming that is, frankly, way too much for any human to process. This is your first exposure to much of this information, and you should pay attention and note what areas you need to revisit later to make sure the information sticks. Firms put a lot of money, creativity, and time into these orientation sessions. They’ve gotten more sophisticated over the years, with some firms working with outside consultants and those in academia to ensure you’re getting a good base of knowledge regarding finance, your professional development, diversity issues, and the business of the firm, as well as particular substantive legal concepts for your practice area. You don’t have to know it all when you walk out of the room, but everything they’ll impart will come in handy down the road, so it’s good to have that reference point in your head. The hope is you’ll retain this information and be able to efficiently go find out more when relevant instances arise.
In addition, make sure you’re seeing the forest and not just the trees. In all these sessions, pay close attention to any lectures or discussions of the firm’s culture, which is step one to fitting into your new environment. Take note of the way the firm has set up the orientation. Is it formal or casual? Do they encourage chatting with colleagues or getting right down to business? Notice the little things and you’ll get a good sense for how things at your firm are done. Firms tends to be idiosyncratic places where a lot of the rules are unwritten, so pay attention to how the experienced attorneys operate to see what behaviors are expected of you.
Stay Calm and Focused
You’ll likely encounter information overload in your first week. That’s ok. Have faith that a lot of thought has gone into everything that’s happening. All you need to do is show up, be engaged, have a positive attitude, ask questions, and get to know all the new faces at your new firm. If you do that, you’ll have a great first week and line yourself up for a successful second one!