So, you’ve made it through your first whirlwind week full of orientation programming including trainings, talks, meet-and-greets, and group meals, and you’re eager to jump right into the “real” lawyering in your second week.
Most new associates will receive the first assignment toward the end of their first week or at the beginning of the second. Hopefully, you’ve gotten settled into your office, filled out all your paperwork, and figured out how to handle the administrative parts of working at the firm, because your first assignment will become your number one work priority. It’ll be a challenge unlike anything you’ve done before, but you’re ready for it, especially if you follow our guidance below.
Ask Questions and Be Clear About Expectations
When you receive your assignment, you’ll likely have a lot of questions for your supervising team member (likely a more senior associate). Ask them. Be specific. Understanding exactly what’s expected of you when it comes to timing and deliverables will avoid your having to constantly check in every step of the way. Of course, you’ll have questions throughout an assignment, but getting all the basic information upfront will make your job much easier, as well as your supervising attorney’s (which they’ll absolutely appreciate). You’re entitled to know what is expected of you, when it’s due, and how they’d like it delivered, as well as how they’d like you to check in with them with questions. The main thing to avoid is having a quick meeting where the supervising attorney dumps a lot of information and documents on you, races through the details, and sends you off to stare at your computer screen wondering just what you’re supposed to do. Your job is not to leave their office (or let them off the phone, though you should really try to meet in person) until you understand exactly what work product they expect from you and when, how and when they’d like to do any check-ins, and receive at least some guidance on where to go to get started (e.g., models or templates).
Yes, it may seem like a small thing and can get lost in the shuffle, but when you catch up with your supervising attorney, make sure you get a client-matter number. That’s the key to nearly all the firm’s resources so you can get your work done. That should serve as a reminder that a firm is a business and your time is the product, which means you need to develop good time-keeping skills to be a good lawyer. You know all the talk about billable hours? This is it! Make sure you develop good diary entry practices and capture all your time accurately. You can do the greatest legal work in the world, but if the firm can’t bill it properly and collect payment from the client for your work, that’s all the partner on your matter will care about.
Learn the Lingo
The experienced lawyers you’ll be working with are so used to throwing around terms they’ve been using every day that they might not realize you don’t know what they’re talking about. If your supervising attorney uses a term or crazy acronym that you’ve never heard of, pipe up right in the moment and ask them what they’re referring to. It’ll save you lots of time and show that you’re able to step up and clarify issues you’re unsure about, which will instill confidence that you’ll do a thorough job. You have a short window of time when no one expects you to know much—take advantage of it. Soak up as much as you can and ask about the things you don’t know.
Take Ownership of Your Work
Taking ownership of every aspect of your assignments will make you stand out and ultimately help you advance your career. Taking ownership starts from your very first interaction with your supervising attorney, when you should make sure you not only understand specifically what’s expected of you task-wise, but also how what you’re doing fits into the bigger picture. Without larger context, you simply can’t cover all those extra aspects of your transaction or case and be proactive in helping your team. Your senior associate may not always have time to explain everything to you, or may tell you that it doesn’t matter and she just needs you to get this specific thing done, but don’t be discouraged. First, you’re entitled to all this information so you can do the best job possible and help them, and they’re likely to make the time for you soon enough if you’ve shown that you’re curious and inclined on taking ownership.
None of Us Are Perfect
Get comfortable with the inevitability of turning in work you’re proud of and having it sent back to you covered in corrections. It may feel discouraging to see much of what you write be utterly destroyed, but don’t take it personally and use it as the learning experience it really is. Take the time to make sure you understand the changes being made and let your next assignment reflect that you’ve taken in the new information.
This Bears Repeating: Be Inquisitive
Asking questions and confirming you understand your assignments before you begin them is so important that we want to knock you over the head with it. Don’t worry that asking questions means you’re going to look stupid or stand out in a negative way. In fact, the first-year associate who pretends to already know everything will surely end up embarrassing himself, so go ahead and ask away.