As a new or even semi-new associate at a law firm, you will take on many assignments with varying degrees of difficulty and sometimes conflicting deadlines. Assignment management -- time management in law firm speak -- is probably the key to success for a junior associate.
The stories of the following three associates at a fictional firm illustrate the traps of taking on too much work, blowing deadlines, failing to adequately communicate, and missing the mark on the assignment instructions.
Jen is a new associate at the firm who did a public interest fellowship for a year before starting in the fall. She received an assignment from Jane, a sixth-year associate in the litigation department, to perform research and submit a memo at the conclusion of her research. She was given a week to complete the assignment.
Jen met with Jane, took notes on their conversation, and then began her research. She utilized the library and Westlaw to guide her search and submitted the assignment on time. Jen misunderstood one sub-issue that Jane had not clearly explained, but that issue ultimately did not affect the conclusions in Jen's memo. After Jane reviewed Jen's memo, which was written clearly and concisely, she was able to provide it, with little revision, to the partner and client manager, who in turn provided it to the client.
Jim is a first-year associate who came to the firm in the fall immediately after graduating from law school and taking the bar exam. Jim was a summer associate the previous year and maintained relationships with a few associates that he had befriended during his summer, so he had a sense of what cases were active at the firm and who was working on them.
Jane also gave an assignment to Jim, similar to the one she had given to Jen. Jim discussed the assignment with Jane and left her office thinking he knew where to begin his research. After talking to another junior associate on the case, Jim had some follow-up questions for Jane, so he went back to her to get clarification on two issues. He handed in his memo a day before the deadline, told Jane how much he enjoyed working on the case, and asked if she had any follow-up assignments that he could handle.
John is a new associate who clerked after law school graduation, immediately prior to joining the firm. John enjoyed the pace of his clerkship but was excited to begin his career of practicing law at a firm. John was also placed in the litigation department, where he received a research assignment from Jane similar to those given to Jen and Jim.
John's assignment was a bit more complicated and in-depth, so he was given two weeks to complete it. John checked with Jane a few days after he began to ensure he was on the right path. A week before his assignment was due, the assignment manager in the department called him to see if he could work on a document review that the partner estimated would require a significant amount of time over the next few weeks. John, without mentioning how complex his research was for Jane, agreed to work on the document review. He began the document review and continued to work on his memo for Jane.
The following week, the deadline for the document review was moved up by a few days and John had to allot more time than he originally anticipated to it. At that point, he was working extremely long hours around the clock. John went to Jane the afternoon before his deadline and asked for an extension to finish her assignment over the weekend, rather than Friday, the original due date.
WHO DID BEST?
Jen, Jim, and John were each able to answer the questions presented to them and complete solid research memos. However, they managed their assignments in different ways. Only one associate was subsequently assigned to the case team and given follow-up assignments; not surprisingly, that associate was Jim.
Jim did exactly what senior associates and partners are looking for in new associates: He utilized other junior associates on the team to get some additional background information; he followed up with Jane throughout the process to make sure he was on the right track; he submitted the research on time; he expressed interest in the project; and he offered himself for further matters on the case.
Jim's use of colleagues is commendable. Even though there is no such thing as a "dumb question," you can still run the risk of sounding dumb if you, for instance, ask a senior partner who assigned you work for the phone number of the Westlaw hotline or other questions you could easily answer on your own.
Learn to use the firm's resources wisely. Find out who the secretaries are and get client-matter numbers from them. Find out who the other associates are on the case and go to them when you have a factual question, when you want to discuss a legal argument you are considering, or even when you just want to commiserate after a difficult day. Make friends with the librarians to help you guide your research. Talk to your neighbors near your office, as they are going to be some of your best resources to learn about which partners come in early, work late or have specific preferences when it comes to working with them. Use your assigned and unassigned mentors to navigate the ropes.
WHAT WERE THE MISTAKES?
Jen did not make any serious errors, but her failure to follow up with Jane during the entire week she was given to complete the assignment made Jane question if Jen was interested in the assignment. This lack of communication also prevented Jen from realizing that she had misunderstood a small part of the assignment -- a mistake that could have been easily rectified. In the end, Jen's work product was quite good and her error was minor, but because she did not discuss the work with Jane over the week, she ran the risk of handing in the assignment on time but having it completely wrong.
The error (although minor) also may have caused the partner to believe she (or the assigning attorney) did not pay attention to detail or engaged in sloppy analysis, while a client receiving the memo may have relied on the mistake or interpreted the mistake to mean that the firm did not understand the client's business. Further, since Jen did not express any enthusiasm for the subject of the assignment or offer to work on any follow-up assignments on the case, she potentially signaled to Jane -- whether intentionally or not -- that she was not interested in getting further work on the matter or in working further with Jane.
John, on the other hand, started out on the right foot, but when he was asked to work on another assignment, he should have told the assigning partner the due date for his memo and the amount of time he anticipated that it would take. His critical mistake, however, was waiting until the last minute to tell Jane that he needed an extension. When John's other assignment changed scope, he should have gone to both assigning attorneys and talked through the conflict. He probably could have gotten someone else on the document-review team to take a greater portion of the documents so that he could complete his memo on time, or he could have spoken to Jane earlier in the week about an extension.
For this reason, it is likely that Jane would be reluctant to work with John again. Deadlines are not arbitrary. Whether there is a deadline for the court, the client or the partner on the case, deadlines are given for a reason. As a junior associate, it is your job to make use of your resources -- Outlook, paper calendars, the firm's docketing system, task bars, to-do lists, etc. -- to ensure deadlines are met. If the assigning attorney does not give a concrete deadline, it is your job to ask when the work product is due. This is the first step, and you must follow it for absolutely every assignment that you are given. If possible, get into the habit of submitting your work product before the deadline, which will reinforce your reliability and motivation to those with whom you work.
WHAT TO TAKE AWAY
Because Jim managed his assignment better than Jen or John, he earned the currency that is key to law firm success: credibility and repeat work. Although as a junior associate you may not be working directly for clients, get in the practice of treating every senior associate and partner as if they were your clients.
The best client is always a repeat client, and your job as a new associate is to cause senior associates and partners who gave you one assignment to give you the next assignment, too. You do that by producing quality work product free of any mistakes on a timely basis. You should not submit a "rough draft"; everything you hand in should be your best possible work.
A rule of thumb is to act like your work product is going straight to the client or the court and in that respect, there is no room for errors -- especially grammatical ones that will cause the reviewing attorneys to question your analysis, reliability and attention to detail. Partners remember when they must perform an extensive re-write of an associate's work, especially when that work impacts other deadlines they have.
There is even more advice that new associates should seek out to succeed in the often-confusing game of associate life at a law firm, but assignment management is still probably the key to success. All other tactics -- like seeking out mentors, taking ownership of your career, asking questions, working hard, building trust -- are second to learning how to manage your assignments and turn in a quality work product every time. If you master managing your assignments and hitting your deadlines, you are on your way to winning. First prize? More assignments.
Colleen P. France is the director of associate recruitment and development for Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis. She is responsible for the firm's hiring of incoming associates, managing associate assignments for the business services and litigation departments, and the training and professional development of associates firmwide. France was ecently elected to serve as the NALP regional coordinator representing law firms in the Mid-Atlantic region.
Joseph J. Anclien is an associate in the firm's litigation department. His practice focuses primarily on issues and appeals. He has drafted briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court, the 3rd Circuit, and the Pennsylvania appellate courts. Anclien is also active within the firm, serving as a member of the firm's hiring and summer committees and as a mentor to junior associates.
This article originally appeared in the "New Associates" supplement to The Legal Intelligencer [paid subscription required].