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Most new lawyers are well aware that the number of students graduating from law schools has been constantly increasing. They also know that they worked very hard to get into the best college, the best law school and, finally, the best firm. But now, memorizing textbooks and acing exams are no longer their ultimate goals. It is time for them to put their knowledge to the test. So where should they begin? First-year associates may have been told that law school does not prepare them to be practicing attorneys. That is not entirely true. The same traits and skills that propelled students to success in law school are crucial to becoming successful attorneys. For instance, as first-year law students relied upon professors and fellow students, beginning lawyers should utilize the resources available to them. Undeniably, the most valuable resources at a law firm are its attorneys. It is much easier and more practical to learn from experienced attorneys than from books. First-year associates must understand this and not hesitate to ask for assistance. Attorneys may not keep office hours like professors, but most partners and associates are willing to share their experiences and knowledge with junior associates. In fact, there is probably another attorney at the firm who has confronted the very same issue that a first-year may face. She may have either worked on a similar deal or case, or otherwise addressed a similar issue at some point during her career. However, for someone new to the firm, identifying this person may not be easy. The first step in finding her is to speak to the associate(s) on the deal or case to confirm that one is, in fact, on the right track and asking the right questions. This associate may be able to answer questions immediately, point to the relevant authority or identify another attorney who may be better able to help. First-year associates also should not be afraid to approach other associates who are not necessarily on their deal, such as those whose offices are close by. The firm and the clients do not want anyone to reinvent the wheel. Such an approach is too time-consuming, and time is money. A common myth, especially in large law firms, is that partners are too busy to help junior associates. This is generally not the case. In fact, most partners are more than willing to offer assistance and insight. They know that associates are the future of the firm and that it is in their best interests to properly guide and mentor them. They recognize that if junior associates are not properly trained, they will not be able to handle the types of assignments that are, and will be, expected of them. Obviously, if a partner is frantically preparing for a trial, or attempting to close a deal under a limited time frame, that person is probably not the best resource at that particular time. Equally so, a law student would not have approached a professor hours before an article was due or right before a lecture was about to begin. The client phone call First-year associates are required to think on their feet. They may have mastered the Socratic method and have ceased shaking every time a professor looks in their direction; however, this came only with constant preparation over time. Even though it was virtually impossible to answer every question correctly, or predict every question that a professor would expect them to be able to answer, they developed a way to handle themselves. Now they must learn to apply these same concepts to fielding the client phone call. They will soon find out that clients usually need their questions answered as soon as possible (or within a short deadline). First and foremost, associates must know exactly what the client is asking. More often than not, the facts and circumstances surrounding the client’s issue are important in determining the correct answer. Associates should get as much information as they can from the client before hanging up the phone and starting to pursue the answer. Sometimes a client will expect an answer to the question on the initial call. When this happens, first-year associates should not counsel the client unless they are positive that they know the correct answer. Instead, they should confirm that they have all of the relevant facts, and calmly explain that they need to confer with one of their colleagues or check the relevant law before providing a definite answer. Over time, handling these types of situations will, as in law school, become easier and more routine. Before long, a junior associate may find herself able to provide immediate answers to many client inquiries. However, it is important to keep in mind that even partners and senior associates may need some time to research an issue before giving a client an answer. Another goal is to focus on becoming a well-rounded lawyer. Colleges and law schools offer many different curricula and classes to broaden students’ knowledge and make them better-rounded scholars. For example, a law student may have chosen to take criminal law even though he or she may not ultimately want to be a prosecutor or criminal defense attorney. Regardless, each course helped broaden the law school experience and offered new challenges. The same approach should be applied to one’s time as an associate, especially in the more junior years when the learning curve is the steepest. Whether a first-year associate chooses corporate, litigation, real estate or tax, there are many different types of transactions and cases that are available to work on, each providing a new opportunity to grow as an attorney. A broad-based experience obtained as a junior associate will make one a better lawyer in the long run. One may ask, “How is working on a banking deal going to help me become a better mergers and acquisitions lawyer?” Well, when an attorney is doing the diligence on a mergers and acquisitions deal, he or she will need to know what to look for in a loan document. This is but one example; depending on the type of client, a specialized knowledge of different areas of law will help the attorney to understand more fully the client and the transaction. Working with a variety of lawyers in a firm is almost as important as working on a variety of transactions or cases. Different attorneys may have different work styles and work ethics, just as law school professors probably had dissimilar styles of teaching. In order to excel in the eyes of each attorney they work with, junior associates need to figure out how that person wants certain projects completed. In addition, watching how different attorneys practice law may help junior associates develop a style and determine how they ultimately want to practice law. Learning to be versatile and working with varying styles is also important when dealing with clients. Clients will usually want their work completed according to their own specifications. Associates must learn how to tailor their work to each client’s terms in a quick and seamless manner. Teamwork counts First-year associates must also learn how to work on a team. In law school, students often worked in group settings, whether to study for finals, prepare for a moot court competition or prepare the next edition of a journal. Working in a law firm requires associates to communicate effectively with others, particularly if they are assigned to a large matter where associates are often delegated specific responsibilities. For instance, a first-year litigation associate usually begins working on a case by reviewing documents. While this task may not be glamorous, it is best to approach the document review as a way to contribute to the team. During the review, the associate will gain valuable factual knowledge about the case. He will often find himself in a position to share that knowledge and develop a theory of the case. He will also be asked, based on that knowledge, to take on new responsibilities within the case, and possibly even draft a section of a brief on that specific issue. In sum, an associate’s ability to perform whatever is asked of him, with a positive and constructive attitude, is critical to his development as an attorney. Associates should take responsibility for their own careers. Dedication, devotion and drive to excel are equally as important in law firms as they were during law school. Attorneys generally will lean toward working with junior associates who share their work ethic and goals. Attorneys want to see junior attorneys enthusiastic about their assignments, whether reviewing documents, attending a client meeting or running a deal. A dedicated and devoted junior associate shows enthusiasm. Partners and senior associates do not want to work with a junior attorney who exhibits a bad attitude when getting a less exciting assignment, or a junior attorney who fails to make the most of a project. All assignments, whether large or small, ultimately go toward achieving the primary goal: servicing clients to the best of the firm’s ability. As students no doubt noticed in their law schools, there are a range of personalities in an incoming first-year associate class. Associate No. 1 has dreamed her whole life of being a partner in a large law firm. She knows everything there is to know about the firm she is joining and is ready for any task placed in front of her. She is well aware of the firm’s potential and her individual potential as a player in the firm. Associate No. 1 takes all assignments that she is given (to the extent that she has time), and does so enthusiastically. She realizes that the more assignments she completes, the more knowledge and experience she will gain. She takes initiative and gets involved in new assignments that sound interesting to her, or projects that she may not have had an opportunity to work on in the past. Associate No. 2 takes on enough assignments to keep busy. She works enough hours to get her bonus and is generally pleasant to work with. She recognizes that she is getting good experience, but does not seek out any additional work as she does not want to stay any later at the firm than necessary. Associate No. 3 is at the firm because she has law school loans to pay off. She is not dedicated or devoted enough to handle the longer hours that a junior associate may need to endure. She hides from the assigning partner or associate and takes on as little work as possible. Each associate will succeed in her own way and accomplish what she needs or wants to accomplish. The most important thing to remember is that junior associates are completely responsible for their own careers. Whether one chooses to be Associate No. 1, Associate No. 2 or Associate No. 3 (or a combination of the three), one will get out of the experience at the law firm only as much as one is willing to put in. It is always the associate’s choice. A new lawyer may not be able to go to a mid-week matinee, or wake up at 11 a.m. on a Friday, but the experience that one will have as a first-year associate is invaluable. Allison M. Harlow is an associate in the corporate finance practice group of Clifford Chance. She has been an associate with the firm since 2002, and is based in the New York office.

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