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Most newly hired associates have the qualities that all law firms crave — they are smart, hardworking team players with pleasant enough personalities and a high pain threshold. Why, then, do a significant number of the associates in many great law firms become discouraged and quit each year? One reason is rookie mistakes. Many firms do not tell new associates enough about what is expected of them, in effect favoring the sink-or-swim method, which requires difficult tasks without significant (or any) guidance. Most partners in large law firms were trained under this method, and secretly believe — because of their own success — that it still produces the best lawyers. Under the sink-or-swim method, most associates never have a chance. They make a poor first impression, violating various unwritten rules of office behavior and gaining a reputation for unreliability or superficiality they can never shake. There is no need to sink. Here are some ways to avoid making a poor first impression. HANDLING ASSIGNMENTS When receiving an assignment — if you are aware of its general nature — briefly review secondary sources before receiving the assignment, if possible. This will help you understand which facts are important. Listen carefully. Take copious notes. Feel free to ask questions, but only at the appropriate point in the discussion (let the assigning partner say his or her piece) and only after you’ve given the problem a little thought. Be sure you understand the problem before you leave the person’s office. Ask what form your answer should take (memo, letter, agreement, chat), when your answer is expected, and what the client billing number is. Find out whether there are any restrictions on computerized research time, such as Lexis or Westlaw (some clients won’t pay for it). Try to get a feel for how much time you are expected to spend. When preparing your answer, keep a record of your research — where you looked and what you found. This practice will help you recall how you reached your conclusions later on, if necessary. Don’t reinvent the wheel — use journal articles, other secondary sources, or internal resources as a shortcut to organize your thinking rather than starting with the statutes or reported cases, which will take too long and cost too much. If your office has a database of office memorandums or other internal work product, check this database as a required part of your research. Read the appropriate statutes and reported cases after you have some grasp of the legal area and the question you were asked. THOROUGH THINKING Think the question through before giving your answer. Quiz yourself; discuss the project — with someone at the firm only. If your review indicates you don’t know all relevant facts, go back and explain why you need the additional information. Faking it will waste your time and the client’s money, or will lead you to erroneous conclusions. If the work is written, there is no such thing as a “draft.” Your written work should be immaculate. When someone tells you he only needs a draft, he really means that he needs your work in a hurry and not that he will be pleased with sloppy or half-baked work. You can’t know where your draft will wind up or who will see it. After a week, no one will remember that you were asked for “just a draft.” When should you call people outside your firm to discuss a matter or to ask for their opinions or advice? Never! Your clients are paying for your work, not the work of an acquaintance or government official. If you discuss a client matter with someone outside the firm, you may inadvertently disclose a client confidence (which is unethical) even if your call is anonymous and even if you don’t disclose the client’s name. Advice from acquaintances and government officials is not the law, can change without notice, rarely binds the person or government agency who gave it, frequently can’t even be attributed to the person who gave it, and is dangerous in the hands of the inexperienced. Associates have been fired for making unauthorized calls about client matters. If your supervisor asks you to make such a call, make sure you know what you are and are not permitted to say. If you have a mentor or firm ombudsman, discuss this assignment with him or her before you make the call. Everything is urgent. Deadlines can accelerate unexpectedly; you will get extra credit if you provide your answer sooner than the stated deadline; and you can’t anticipate what other urgent assignments may come in before the deadline. REPORTING ON RESEARCH When reporting your answer (the “sweaty session”), take copies of significant cases and statutes you can show to the person who gave you the assignment and retain copies for yourself for subsequent discussion. Report contrary authority, and explain why you believe it is not determinative. When you are through, solicit feedback (without being a pest). After you have reported your answer, critique yourself. Develop your own standards. Be professional in your work and manner. Act as if the client had only one lawyer — you — and ask yourself if you would be comfortable if the client acted based on your work product. Send your work product to the firm’s records department. If you let pieces of paper accumulate in your office, you will suffocate. I once worked with someone who had a three-foot-tall pile of papers in his office that injured his secretary when it fell on her — she went out on disability leave, and he became a legend as a messy and disorganized person. True story! BEING EFFICIENT Do your time sheets daily. No exceptions. If you try to reconstruct your time later on, you are likely to forget things you did, and the time you record will be an unreliable estimate. Handle each piece of paper only once, if possible. Keep a list of objectives for the next time period — a month, a calendar quarter, etc. You are responsible for your career progress, and you should not assume that your firm will automatically manage your career for you. Review your progress in achieving your objectives on a regular basis. Keep a daily “to do” list. All else being equal, do first the task on your list that you enjoy least. Otherwise, you may never get to it. Delay usually only makes the problem worse. Review all the papers on your desk every night before you leave (or at some other regular time). Otherwise, if you are busy, you may forget an assignment or deadline that is sitting in a pile of papers on the corner of your desk. Organize your work so you can focus without distraction on each task or part of a task. Do not jump from one thing to another without completing anything. Learn from everyone you work with how they approach problems and what they do to operate efficiently. Everyone has something to teach you; the worst people you meet can teach you by their negative example. The “send” key is a dangerous enemy. Careers have been ruined by personal e-mail that got passed around. If you don’t want to become a “funny” story in The Wall Street Journal or your local paper, keep your amazing personal exploits and critical reflections about your firm to yourself. HOW TO ACT Be pleasant to everyone — make eye contact and say hello to people in the halls, etc. Be especially pleasant to the administrative staff. They deserve to be treated with respect, and most of them will give you back what you give to them. Remember that they can hurt you or they can help you. Be helpful to each other and to junior attorneys. Cutthroat behavior will quickly become common knowledge, and many firms don’t like it. It will not help you get ahead. This is a service business we’re in. Take as many assignments as you can, consistent with doing a first-rate job, on an urgent basis, on each assignment. It is normal to handle many assignments simultaneously. The best lawyers have always taken on a great deal of work. Learn to prioritize your assignments; remember that everyone who gives you an assignment is important. Be positive about the firm. (Enthusiastic is even better.) Your attitude will show in your work. If you have a problem, or think your firm can improve in some way, discuss it with an appropriate person. Be on time! Many people consider a tardy person to be lazy, arrogant, disorganized, or unmotivated. THE NAME GAME What to call people: This is tricky. Associates should always be addressed by their first names. In my world, partners younger than your parents also should be addressed by their first names. Partners older than your parents (and younger partners who have grown self-important and stuffy before their time) may have strong feelings about being called “Mr.” or “Ms.,” and you should subtly try to determine what they prefer. If you have any doubt, more formal and respectful is probably preferable. Do not rearrange other people’s office furniture. This is irritating. Do not read papers on others’ desks. This is infuriating, and can get you in trouble. LEAVING MESSAGES If you call on someone who is not in or not available, leave a message. Do not camp out in the hall. If your message is truly urgent, ask the secretary how he or she can be reached. If you call on someone unannounced, knock on the door and check that the person is not on the telephone or otherwise occupied before you begin a conversation. Work carefully and very hard. You are doing something important — clients’ money or physical safety depend on you. H. Thomas Davis Jr. is head of the intellectual property practice at New York’s Carter Ledyard & Milburn and a member of that firm’s executive committee. He was formerly managing partner at another large firm, where he gave the above remarks to all new associates on their first day. This article first appeared in the National Law Journal, an American Lawyer Media newspaper.

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