When you show up for work at a law firm, you realize pretty quickly that there's a lot to learn. Some things people will tell you, but there's a lot of stuff no one's going to tell you.
Having been on both sides of the equation (as the one screwing things up, and the one getting annoyed with more junior people making my life difficult), here are a few things I learned along the way.
10 Rules of Thumb for Law Firm Success
1) Don't bring cases from the wrong jurisdiction. You remember Erie, right? If not, it's time to review. There is very little that's more annoying than giving a junior lawyer an assignment to find some case law, and having them come back with a state case, when you need a federal case, or vice versa. It's one of those situations where you, as the assigning attorney, feel really confused. Did they not understand the assignment? Did they sleep through Civ Pro? Or do they just not care? None of these thoughts make me like you, or want to work with you again. Be sure you understand what you're looking for, and resist the temptation to bring an irrelevant case, because you can't find a relevant one.
2) On that note, no one cares how much effort you exerted. If you can't find a case on point, just say that! If I ask what steps you took to search, feel free to tell me - in detail - so I won't replicate your work. But do not go on about how many hours you spent, or how hard you looked. I don't care. It's nothing personal, I'm sure you're doing the best you can. But, if you can't find what I need, I'll have to find it myself, so it's best just to give me the bad news, and get out of the way.
3) Make sure you know how much time you can spend on something, and how much Westlaw or Lexis money you can burn. Partners and senior associates are terrible about communicating their expectations, in general. (If not, thank your lucky stars.) But you're still going to be the one who gets yelled at when the client balks at the $30,000 research bill you ran up on a fairly minor point of law. If you're not sure how much time something should take, ask. If you don't know how much time you can spend on Westlaw or Lexis, ask. Even, "Hey, do you have a ballpark idea of how long this should take?" can save you from a very unpleasant situation down the road. (Oh, and make sure you know how to research cost-effectively. When in doubt, ask.)
4) Don't screw up the copying. A partner once told me that my job was to make him look good. I found this sort of obnoxious, but it's basically true. It doesn't matter how smart you are, or how hard working. If your team shows up in Court with the wrong number of copies, it looks bad. Who's going to take the blame? The most junior person on the team. If that's you, double-check the copies, and make sure you know how many you need. Sounds silly, but it's your job.
5) Know how to get the grunt work done, even if you don't personally do it. Figure out in advance how to transport the boxes/transfer a call/order lunch, etc. Be competent with the little things and you can be a hero. Attorneys rapidly fall into a state of learned helplessness, but someone has to know how to operate the fax machine on the weekend. Be that person.
6) Double check the spelling of peoples' names. You know what every person alive notices immediately? When their own name is misspelled. Any time you send a letter, or an email, or whatever, to a client, or a partner, or the Court, or anyone who's supervising you, make sure all the names are correct! No, it's not the end of the world if there's a typo, but it makes everyone wonder about how careful you are in other aspects of your work. That's not the impression you want to leave. Get the names right.
7) If you screw something up, take responsibility and fix it. Everyone makes mistakes, and you will, too. Greenhorn Legal had a great piece about this recently. The gist: If you screw up, apologize once, and offer to fix it. Don't go on about your mistake all day, or waste time explaining what happened 15 times. Just make it right.
8) If you're traveling with other people, don't be the only one who has to wait for a bag. A partner I knew loved to tell a story about leaving a first-year associate at the airport waiting for a checked bag, while everyone else went to the hotel for dinner. Again, totally obnoxious, but the point is a valid one. If you're the low person on the totem pole, don't expect other people to wait around for you. They're not going to.
9) At least pretend to be interested in/curious about the work. If you're at a large law firm, you're getting paid a lot to be there. At least try to feign interest in the work you're asked to do. Sure, it might be boring, which is probably why I gave it to you instead of doing it myself, but it has to be done. If I sense a spark of curiosity, I'll probably eventually give you more interesting stuff to do, because it'll be clear that you can handle more complicated tasks. If you're too put upon to do the grunt work, well, that's probably what you'll end up with. To get to anything more interesting, you've got to pay your dues, so just suck it up and get it over with.
10) Finally, and perhaps most important: Befriend a good corporate travel agent and get their personal cell number. I learned this one the hard way. We're all used to booking our travel online and never talking to a real person. But, when you suddenly need to rebook a flight at midnight on a Saturday, that online website your secretary used to book your ticket isn't going to do you a lot of good. You need the direct number for your corporate travel agent. They can pull a lot of strings for you, so put the number in your phone ASAP. Next time you get an upgrade on a long flight, you can thank me.
And, for good measure, one more: Be polite to everyone. Or as polite as you can be at the end of your second all-nighter in a week. Everyone in a firm has a pretty tough job, and it won't kill you to say "Hello" and "Thank You" routinely. And you never know when a bit of built-up good will with the copy room is going to get you out of a jam!
Alison Monahan is the founder of The Girl's Guide to Law School and a co-founder of the Law School Toolbox. A 2006 graduate of Columbia Law School, she was a member of the Columbia Law Review, a Civ Pro Teaching Assistant, a Kent Scholar, and a Stone Scholar. After law school, she clerked in the District of Massachusetts and was a BigLaw patent litigator for two years. Now she helps other aspiring lawyers get into law school, get through, and stay true to themselves in the process.
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