The law does not come wrapped in a tidy, clearly labeled package. Discerning what the law is requires gathering bits and pieces from a variety of sources, sorting them according to their relative weights and relevance... and combining them into as cohesive an analysis as possible.”Christina Kunz, popular legal writer
Fourth, I paid attention to every detail I could while working on my cases. I found that one of the most ironic facets of the law is that the correct answer to a problem often rests on small legal nuances and factual details. The presence or absence of a particular fact can frequently make or break the case. The senior attorney I worked for, Brad, was extremely adept at assimilating large amounts of information quickly, paying close attention to details, and using his mastery of them to weave brilliant defenses. His ability to identify the most critical of details while constructing solid defenses always impressed me, and I tried to emulate that particular skill.Fifth, I was conscientious about creating good first impressions. As I later learned, lawyers who work with new summer and permanent associates virtually always form quick conclusions about them, and give “hallway evaluations” to other lawyers in the firm. I often heard about or participated in these hallway evaluations, and know that even one negative impression can have a devastating impact. In general, young attorneys who get a reputation for sloppy work – earned or unearned – have a very steep climb up the law firm ladder.Sixth, I was vigilant about meeting deadlines, every time. This meant I had to carefully plan ahead, since partners, colleagues, clients, courts, and other parties often rely on assignments and legal services to be performed by a certain time. With the workload I had, and the interruptions I faced, of course this wasn’t always possible, and in those situations I found the best route wasn’t just to tough it out, but rather let the supervising attorney know as early as possible if I couldn’t meet a deadline.I learned this lesson the hard way. My first assignment as a summer associate was to research whether we could squeeze one of our clients into an exception to a well-settled legal doctrine. The senior attorney who gave me the assignment asked me to research the issue and then get back to him by Friday afternoon. I just didn’t feel comfortable with my research when Friday afternoon came around, and decided to buy some additional time by letting him contact me. He didn’t try to reach me Friday afternoon, so I took advantage of that and submitted the assignment on Monday. The incident later came back to haunt me, though, because in his evaluation of my work for my midsummer review, he mentioned that I didn’t report to him by the established deadline.
I also quickly came to appreciate the importance of watching what’s said around clients. When clients make unexpected requests for legal advice – as they often do – I learned that it was better to tell them I’d get back to them with an answer, and go away, research the question, and consult with a supervising attorney, rather than firing back an answer off-the-cuff.A friend of mine at another firm told me a story that illustrates the risks of saying too much. It seems an insurance company had engaged my friend’s California-based firm to help in defending against an environmental claim. This claim entailed reviewing huge volumes of documents in Arizona. So my friend’s firm sent teams of associates to Arizona, all expenses paid, on a weekly basis. Because the insurance company also sent its own lawyers and paralegals, as did other insurance companies who were also defendants in the lawsuit, the document review facility was often staffed with numerous attorneys and paralegals from different firms. Associates were instructed not to discuss the case with anyone unless they knew with whom they were speaking.After several months of document review, one associate from my friend’s firm abandoned his professionalism and discretion when he began describing to a young woman who had recently arrived at the facility what boondoggles the weekly trips were. He talked at length about the free airfare, expensive meals, the easy work, and the evening partying the trips involved. As fate would have it, the young woman was a paralegal working for the insurance company – the client who was paying for all of his “perks” – and she promptly informed her superiors about his comments. Not surprisingly, the associate was fired before the end of the month.My life as an associate would have been a lot easier if I had delegated work more freely. I’ve mentioned the stress associated with delegating work, but the flip side of that was appreciating the importance of asking others for help rather than doing everything myself. I found that by delegating to paralegals and other staff members some of my more tedious assignments, I was free to do more interesting work.I also wish I’d given myself greater latitude to make mistakes. As high achievers, law students often put enormous stress on themselves to be perfect, and I was no different. But as a new lawyer, I, of course, made mistakes; that’s the inevitable result of inexperience. Rather than expect perfection and be inevitably disappointed, I’d have been better off to let myself be tripped up by inexperience – and focus, instead, on reducing mistakes caused by carelessness.Finally, I tried to rely more on other associates within the firm for advice on assignments and office politics. When I learned to do this, I found that these insights gave me either the assurance that I was using the right approach, or guidance as to what the right approach might be. It didn’t take me long to realize that getting the “inside scoop” on firm politics was crucial to my own political survival. Once I figured this out, I made sure I not only exchanged information with other junior associates, but I also went out of my way to gather key insights from mid-level and senior associates, who typically knew more about the latest political maneuverings and happenings. Such information enabled me to better understand the various personal agendas directing work flow and office decisions and, in turn, to better position myself with respect to issues and cases circulating in the office.
If your firm gives you a choice of departments, think carefully about which practice area will best suit your personality. Keep in mind that your specialty will affect not only the type of legal services you’ll perform, but also the skills and knowledge you’ll develop. And it’s important to remember that at a large firm, you’ll likely only get one choice. There are very few attorneys at large firms who have more than one specialty, or change specialties down the road. As a result, the first choice you make is likely to affect the work you do for years to come.If, for some reason, you get stuck with a specialty you don’t like, make a change as soon as possible. The longer you wait, the harder it is to jump to another specialty. For one thing, as lawyers gain seniority, their firms may resist the change for fear of a loss of expertise that took the firm years to nurture and develop. Even if your firm does let you change specialties down the road, it may reduce your seniority or salary to reflect your newly acquired inexperience in your new practice area.Changing specialties further on in your career can also impair your marketability in the legal community. After all, if you make a change when your salary has reached a high level, other firms who culd hire you might choose not to, feeling they can get attorneys more experienced in the specialty for less money. Because your future potential in your new specialty is less valuable to a new employer than your past experience in your old specialty, it’s very easy to get “pigeon-holed” in a particular practice area after just a few years in practice.