Everyone needs a mentor: Dante had Virgil, Edmund Hillary had a Nepalese Sherpa named Tenzing Norgay, and I had Don, two years my senior in the Justice Department’s Civil Division. Three thousand miles from home, in my first job following a clerkship, Don took me under his wing and gave me a primer on the people I’d be working with. He also gave me a formula he said would help me find my place in any organization: 1. In your first year, learn how to do your job; 2. in your second year, do the best job you can do; and 3. in your third year, do the job that only you can do.
A good mentor can help with that first step and help you learn how to do the job. Our firm assigns associates to act as mentors, people who, like my friend Don, have a few years’ experience, but remember what it feels like to be a fresh face in a crowd of strangers.
A good mentor, be it an associate or a partner, can acclimate a new attorney to the personalities of the firm: the guy in the corner office who seems to growl at everyone, but is really a pussy cat; the partner who gives you back drafts covered with so many edits it looks like it was put through a shredder, but applies the same heavy hand to the most senior attorney’s work; the trick for getting feedback from quiet partners and finding out what they really think about your draft.
A good mentor also can shed light on the firm’s personality: Does the firm reward entrepreneurs or team players, or does it want people to be both? How important are taking on administrative tasks? What’s the “secret” billable hour requirement?
If your mentor isn’t providing answers to these questions, find someone who will. Staying in your office racking up billable hours could help you succeed, but it could just as easily get you labeled antisocial. It depends on the firm’s culture. It never hurts to find out what makes the organization tick.
Step No. 2—doing the best job you can—should come easily to most lawyers. It’s what got most of us into law school in the first place, and helped us to graduate.
So, use the same skills that got you through law school. Whatever the assignment, get samples of how others have done similar work. If your firm has a brief bank, use it, but don’t simply copy from it. Read the extra case or two to make sure you’re on solid ground and have the latest word on a subject, edit your work, proofread your own work, proofread your emails, develop a reputation for being reliable and accurate. If you have an opportunity to pitch in when another associate needs help, take it. Team players are appreciated; lone wolves can be overlooked.
We come out of law school ready for step No. 2. But is there a trick to step No. 3—doing the job that only you can do, developing the skills that will make you valuable to the firm, that will set you apart from others, that will make the job more interesting to you?
I don’t think it’s a matter of tricks as much as it is of seeing opportunities and grabbing them. And opportunities can often take the form of the next case that lands on your desk.
Most attorneys are asked to deal with unresolved questions on a regular basis. The more unresolved the question, the more likely a partner is to ask an associate to look into it. And every unresolved question becomes an opportunity for an associate to develop a unique expertise.
A case in point from our own practice: In 1992, California enacted Code of Civil Procedure §425.16, the anti-SLAPP statute. It gives a party who is sued for activities arising from exercising the rights of petition and free speech the right to file a special motion to strike the complaint. At an early stage in his career with our firm, not long after the statute was enacted, one of our young associates was asked to handle an appeal arising from the denial of an anti-SLAPP motion.
The statute was new when the associate got the assignment, and by attending seminars on the subject and reading all the new cases that were issued, he was able to quickly master the law on the subject. Our firm doesn’t have departments, but this young associate let it be known that he liked working on anti-SLAPP appeals, and more assignments came his way.
It then became a relatively simple matter to publish articles on the subject, which led to invitations to be a panelist on seminars, which helped generate more cases. In short order, the associate became the firm’s point person on anti-SLAPP law and a new specialty in the firm was born.
Examples of this same phenomenon abound. The rules governing bonding money judgments to stay enforcement during appeal are arcane. Years ago, one of our attorneys got involved in litigation over the issue and was asked to learn everything he could about bond and undertaking law. The associate ended up publishing an article untangling the messy subject.
Ever since, he’s been the go-to person in the firm on any question that arises about bonding judgments. Another attorney handled a number of cases that involved punitive damages issues and grew sufficiently interested in the subject to begin publishing a blog on developments in punitive damages law. The blog is now featured on our website. Yet another attorney reads literally every California opinion that raises class action issues and now has a hand in most of the firm’s cases that involve that subject.
In each case, what started out as an assignment grew into a personal interest and developed into a skill in a developing area of law that became of value to the firm. And even if things don’t turn out the way you expect, you’ll still get points for trying: Just ask the attorney who spent several months at the end of 1999 becoming an expert in the insurance issues that likely were going to arise when the much anticipated Y2K debacle felled all the nation’s computers. Fortunately, that expertise was easily transferred to other matters.
If your interests run toward bar activities, they too can be a springboard towards acquiring a higher profile in the firm. Your mentor can point you toward bar activities that will be of interest to your firm.
Joining a committee in which a partner plays a role has the double advantage of giving you the opportunity to spend more time with her, and provides you with a natural ally on the committee who can introduce you to others and show you the ropes. Limit yourself to a few committees, those on which you can become be an active participant.
If you have an interest in pro bono work, there are numerous organizations that will welcome your participation and give you the opportunity to play a leadership role at an early stage in your career.
Will it take three years to make your mark and develop a unique role at your firm? That was my mentor’s guess, but it’s more of a guideline than a rule. The real point is to find satisfaction in your work and be recognized for what you do best.