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Be strategic: How associates can create an impactful law firm experience

Junior Associate

I wish I had been more thoughtful about my legal career.  When I started my legal career, like many new law firm associates, I did not fully appreciate what it meant to be a law firm associate nor did I have a plan for being successful.  After practicing for several years, I now understand that successful associates must be strategic.

Being strategic means understanding the long-term impact of decisions and relationships you make today.   I am sharing the following advice to arm law students and junior associates with some of the tools they need to be thoughtful about how they spend their time as law firm associates.

Learn about your clients and their business

Clients want attorneys that understand their business and can keep them from making terrible decisions.  Often junior associates are responsible for the grunt work—closing checklists, document review and other mundane tasks.  These assignments are sometimes provided to associates in a vacuum and junior associates may not have a real appreciation for the importance of the work they are doing.  As a junior associate, you will have to learn about your clients and their business and you may have to learn it on your own.

Find out who your clients are and what they do.  Review their annual reports.  Set up alerts with various publications for your clients and their competitors.  By doing this, it will provide some context for some of the assignments you are given.

For example, rather than thinking that you are working on a simple closing checklist for a merger, from your research you might learn that this merger is a growing trend in the industry and by staying engaged you could be at the forefront of something new.

Hone your legal skills

It’s not enough to know the case law or regulations in a particular area, you have to stay abreast of emerging legal issues and think about how to address them. If possible, work on a presentation or write an article with a senior associate or partner on an emerging topic that you find interesting.  This will give you an opportunity to delve into a specific topic and improve your understanding of your practice area while building relationships with senior attorneys.

This is also a great opportunity to build your brand inside and outside of the law firm.  Take advantage of the wonderful resources that firms have to develop your legal skills.  After your first few years, partners will expect you to complete assignments more independently and you want to be prepared when that time comes.

Master the details before they master you

Details are very important in legal work.  Review a document as often as you need until it’s as perfect as you can get it.  As a first-year, you will get a lot of latitude in terms of hours because you’re still learning.  That will change your second and third years.  Use this time to make sure your work is as perfect as you can get it.

If your firm has a proofreading department, use it.  If you are close to another junior associate, ask him or her to review your work, especially if you are working for a demanding partner and offer to do the same for him or her.  You will have to bill a lot of that time to a non-billable matter, but you want to hand in a good work product.  Again, you have to think about branding.  Once you show that you can provide work that doesn’t have minor mistakes, your lawyering skills can shine through and you can provide excellent work for your clients.

Become friends with your clients

I remember hearing that I should stay in touch with junior in-house counsel because they may be in a position to give me business one day.  What I didn’t hear was how to actually do this.  I wasn’t often invited to client events as a first or second-year and don’t recall having very many client contacts before my third year.

Why not reach out directly to in-house attorneys through your social network?  You can cultivate relationships with clients by looking to see if anyone in your social network knows them or if you went to the same school, attend the same place of worship, walk by the same park every day, etc.  You can also attend industry events or join social or charitable organizations that your clients are also involved in.  You probably don’t have to do much, especially if your client is in your city.

After making that introduction, maybe ask them out for coffee or lunch.  You want to build a relationship outside of the firm that is based on a deeper, more personal connection than simply seeing each other’s names in emails.

Please also remember to inform the partners you work with that you know in-house counsel so that they can better guide you in your communications.

Make lots of friends

In addition to getting to know in-house counsel, grow your network.  Instead of simply having lunch in your office every day by yourself, make a pledge to have lunch with attorneys and other professionals inside and outside of the firm at least 2-3 times a week.  This is a good way to build your network for client development, but it also provides an opportunity for personal and professional development.  By working on your network from the very beginning you maximize the opportunities you have if you decide to leave the firm.

Also, get involved with your firm.  Attend as many social events as possible.  Sign up for summer associate lunch interviews.  Join the associate committee.  If you don’t like the way things are done, try to make suggestions to improve the environment.  You might not get everything you want, but you will be rewarded for taking the initiative and it will make for a better work experience for you.

Be authentic

Many associates, especially associates of color, have a difficult time finding their voice at law firms.  As a junior associate, I focused too much on how I spoke, whether I was being too loud or if I shared any interests with my colleagues.  I had a lot to offer, but doubted myself.

Remember to bring all of yourself to the firm.  Being authentically you is important to your success.  I was so focused on fitting in and going unnoticed that I missed opportunities to make real connections with my colleagues and clients.

Being a successful associate at a law firm isn’t as simple and straightforward as I thought when I started.  There needs to be some careful thinking and strategizing.  Ask yourself, what are your goals for each year, how are you going to accomplish those goals and what metrics are you going to use to determine whether you are succeeding.

Law firms provide great training for whatever path you decide to take, but it is important that you properly position yourself and are able to make thoughtful decisions each step of the way.

Ellen Yiadom Hoover Ellen Yiadom Hoover is a law firm associate in Chicago. She is a graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law and Harvard College. Ellen is interested in counseling law students and junior associates on having impactful careers and in improving diversity in the legal profession.