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Seems like yesterday that a new associate would show up at his firm, complete a few forms, be escorted to his office, and that was pretty much it. No “how to” sessions, no bonding, no war stories, not much of an introduction to the ways of the firm. Fortunately, the process of transitioning from law school to law firm has improved tremendously. Today, most firms offer detailed orientation programs that provide associates with some of the tools necessary to succeed in their new job. New associates may learn, for example, about the implications of Sarbanes-Oxley, how to bill their time, how to work with support staff, and even proper phone etiquette. Many well-intentioned firms also distribute news and magazine articles that offer tips for success for new associates. Some of the commonly found tips include: Give 100 percent to every assignment; focus on the presentation as well as the substance of your finished product; attitude is critical; no work is unimportant; law is a service profession; don’t disappear — let people know how to reach you; treat the support staff, particularly your secretary, with respect; relax and have fun; and the all-time favorite, communicate, communicate, communicate. But these do’s and don’ts of success may be more useful to the experienced attorney looking back than to the newcomer just joining the profession. Law firms want you to succeed — indeed, they have a vested interest in your success. But firms often fail to tell you the whole story about how to succeed. Here’s what most new associates hear from their firms — and what they may not be saying. What they tell you: The firm has developed a strategy for your professional development, including in-house training, a mentoring program, and a system for assigning projects and monitoring the type of work you are given. What you may not hear: Take responsibility for your career, for your professional development, for your job satisfaction. Your law firm may have scheduled a seemingly infinite number of training sessions on a myriad of topics designed to further your professional development. But that doesn’t mean that’s where your obligations should stop. If you identify a skill you need to develop, or a subject matter you need to learn, it is your responsibility to find the time and means to get training. If the work you are assigned is not as diverse and challenging as you would like, be proactive. Figure out why your task is important and where it fits in the big picture; transform what appears to be a routine task into a learning experience; get everything you can out of every assignment. There is no assignment that doesn’t contain an opportunity for growth. If your mentor hasn’t found time to meet with you, don’t gripe to your colleagues. Drop by your mentor’s office and ask him out to lunch. Or find another attorney to serve in that role. A corollary of the take-responsibility rule is this: Don’t complain to someone who can’t do something about it. You cannot assume that your “don’t tell anyone” conversations with colleagues and friends are not shared. News travels through law firms faster than the speed of light, and a negative reputation is hard to overcome. What they tell you: Bill all the time that you spend working on a matter; it is the billing partner’s responsibility to write off any time. Even though you may feel — in fact, almost certainly will feel — that the assignment took you longer than it would have taken anyone else, you shortchange yourself if you do not account for all of your time worked. What you may not hear: There is more to the billing rule that you should be aware of. Partners review all time entries related to their clients for accuracy and appropriateness. Partners (and their clients) want to be assured that clients are receiving value for their money. If a partner notices that too much time has been charged to a matter, he may elect to write off some time, but it won’t easily be forgotten — particularly if it is a substantial amount of time or if it happens frequently. One solution: Keep in touch. Find out how much time you should spend on an assignment, and keep your supervising attorneys informed of how much time you are dedicating to a task. In certain circumstances, you may decide it’s a good idea not to bill the client for all of the time you have worked. For example, you may have spent far too many hours on a project because you researched the wrong statute or regulation, or because you failed to check in with the assignment attorney along the way as requested. Instead of billing your actual hours, consider that time as professional development. Don’t do it lightly. Don’t make a habit of it. But sometimes, it may be a good idea. What they tell you: You shouldn’t worry about how many hours you’re billing, particularly during your first year with the firm. Just give 100 percent to every job you do. What you may not hear: Law firms are for-profit entities. They survive and flourish by generating revenue, which is directly related to the number of hours worked and billed to the client. Partners and shareholders review and scrutinize numbers and hours quite carefully. It is their livelihood — and yours. So be cautious about turning down work or saying that you are too busy. Doing so too often may result in a bad reputation. But don’t be so afraid to say no that you take on too many assignments and miss deadlines or do less than first-class work. Find the right balance and make good choices. What they tell you: This is a casual, informal, and relaxed environment. We don’t have a lot of rules. Exercise good judgment and work hard, and you’ll do fine. What you may not hear: Don’t let the independence associated with being a professional cause you to disregard common sense. Everything you do, everything you say, how you dress, the way you walk down the hall, the way you answer the phone, your comportment, your tone of voice, your work hours — all of these things and more communicate something about you. The impressions you create are subtle but powerful and can be difficult to ignore or forget. You may think that the firm is so large that no one really takes notice or focuses on what you do during the day. It’s a reasonable conclusion. You may have latitude to set your own hours, to arrive at the office as you see fit and leave when you decide it’s time to pack up. No one is checking the length of your lunch breaks. Your office may be on the back corridor and seemingly miles away from any partner. But even in the largest of firms, people notice almost everything: When you are there and when you are not around, your attitude, your willingness to help out, your thoroughness, and how quickly you turn a project around. What they tell you: When you have no particular deadlines or specific assignment, feel free to leave the office. When the workload is heavy, you will be expected to work long and hard, spending too many nights and weekends at the office. So enjoy your free time now, while you can. What you may not hear: It is true that when the office is busy, you will be expected to work long and late. But you are being paid a significant salary for a reason. Having no particular or urgent client assignments on your desk should not lead you to decide it’s time to hit the tennis court. One aspect of a service-oriented profession is being available to your clients — who include partners — whenever they need you. It is frustrating to partners if they call you to discuss a matter, give you an assignment, or ask you to lunch, and they can’t find you. Your first year in a firm is not the time to set your own hours or work style. As a junior associate, a good policy is to adopt the style and the hours of the partners with whom you work. There is plenty of time for flexibility and expressing your individual style down the road. What’s the bottom line for success during your first year? There is a wealth of information right outside your door. Observe the partners and senior attorneys in your firm and take your lead from them. They learned the whole story about how to be successful, and so will you. Terry Miller is director, and Madeleine Kershek is senior coordinator, of associate development at Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson. They have just welcomed 11 associates. Send suggestions and comments on this article to [email protected].

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