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Robert Travis started his law firm career in a coat closet. Granted, it was the coat closet of Elliot Goldstein, son of Powell Goldstein’s name partner Max Goldstein, but it was still a small, dark room where the other lawyers came to hang their coats. “When I first sat down,” Travis, 59, remembers, “I was totally insulted that they cared so little for me.” He had to “go in sideways” to fit behind the desk squeezed in among the coats. But then, Travis realized he actually had a golden opportunity. Since Goldstein let the other attorneys put their coats in his closet, the only one in the office at the time, “I got to meet everyone in the firm,” says Travis. He shook plenty of hands — and all of the more senior attorneys in the Atlanta firm were impressed with the way he handled the situation, he recalls. “Starting out in a coat closet saved me,” he says. It taught him to take advantage of opportunities, no matter how odd or unusual they seem at first glance. Although a person who can see the value of being stationed in a coat closet may be a rare sort of positive thinker, there’s still the old lemons-into-lemonade lesson here for new associates. And that’s just one of a number of lessons — complete with cringe-producing anecdotes — offered to young lawyers from those who have gone before. Because, heck, we’ve all been there. WORDS OF WISDOM • Get directions. Know how to find the courthouse — or the client’s office or the post office. Think through potential disasters as much as possible. Be prepared for others not to be. “As a very young associate, I was responsible for arranging transportation from our New York City office to Newark for myself and a couple of senior partners for an important oral argument,” says Ronald Flagg, a D.C.-based partner with Sidley Austin Brown & Wood. “That was long before the days of MapQuest,” Flagg says. “I assumed — erroneously — that the limo driver we hired would know how to get to the U.S. courthouse in Newark. When we ended up lost, in Hoboken, New Jersey, I feared an early end to my career.” After stopping at several gas stations, the group made it to the courthouse a few minutes before oral argument was supposed to begin. “That probably spared my job,” Flagg says, “but it did not spare me about 45 minutes of withering looks.” • Don’t tell a partner that his idea is bad. A young associate’s job is to figure out how to do the task assigned, not to throw his hands up in despair and pronounce it impossible. In other words, explains Robb Kestner, a Columbus, Ohio-based attorney placement specialist with Contract Counsel, “Don’t ever write the ‘We’re screwed’ memorandum.” Kestner recalls that in his first week at his first law firm job in Dayton, Ohio, he was asked to research the case law to find out how a client could avoid summary judgment. “My conclusion was that we couldn’t avoid it,” Kestner says. “I learned, though, that the associate’s job is to be the advocate for the client. The result in my case was a pointed lecture from the partner who assigned it, and then a 90-minute ‘tutoring’ session about all the things I had done wrong.” Adds Kestner, “I think the partner seized on it as a teachable moment.” • Don’t assume that the partner knows what he’s talking about. While a young associate shouldn’t second-guess a senior attorney, she also shouldn’t assume that the partner always has, or has provided, all of the relevant information. In her first days at D.C.’s Miller & Chevalier, a partner asked Lara Covington to look into what responsibilities a client had to its employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act. After doing some research, Covington discovered that the client had too few employees for the act to apply. “It taught me that I had to go beyond the assignment,” Covington says. At the same time, the partner “ended up being happy that I had figured it out for the client.” • Understand what not to wear and when not to wear it. Some outfits work only for certain cities and particular practice areas, and some fashion statements won’t fly anywhere in the legal world. Adam Darowski, a Dallas-based associate in the real estate practice group of Winstead Sechrest & Minick, says he noticed that some attorneys in other practice groups in the Dallas office wore short-sleeved dress shirts. “I thought, ‘This is the best thing ever. I can get away with it,’ ” Darowski remembers. But after he started wearing the short-sleeved shirts and leaving the tie at home, a sixth-year real estate associate pulled him over and said, “ I’d never take you to a client meeting in a short-sleeved shirt. Our practice is different.” Martin Camp, assistant dean for student affairs at Southern Methodist University’s Dedman School of Law, recalls that when he graduated from law school, in 1979, he could only afford two suits for interviews. One, he notes, was a garish, green “Johnny Carson”-style suit with white overstitching. The other suit was brown. One day, an older secretary at the Dallas school observed, “I really like your brown suit.” That’s when two things dawned on him, Camp says. First, the firms that called him back for second interviews were all firms that had met him when he was wearing the brown suit. And second, a green suit is not appropriate attire for a lawyer. • Learn to balance the workload. Work very hard, but not too hard. Kestner advises new associates, “Don’t turn down an assignment — ever.” But Camp argues: “Don’t overcommit. Too many young associates think they have to say yes to every request for assistance. This leads to missed deadlines and poor-quality work.” Yes, it’s contradictory. Sorry. Where you draw the line will depend on you and your firm. • Own your work. While you may feel new and inexperienced, you have been hired for your legal expertise. It’s unnerving at first, but you are now responsible for your advice. You can’t avoid that responsibility. And you must project confidence to the client. Kevin Mosley, a second-year associate with Miller & Chevalier, was asked to do some research on partnership law in another state. Mosley began the memo with a disclaimer: “I said, ‘I’m not barred there; I don’t know much about the law there,’ and I did all these backpedals.” When the partner saw what Mosley had written, the partner erupted. “I got a phone call, and he said, ‘What is this?’ I told him I only studied one small piece of the law of the state in law school.” But the partner responded, “Do you have half a brain? Did you look in books? Is this your viewpoint of the law as you see it?” When Mosley told him he had done the research, the partner said he should take out the disclaimers, adding, “I never want to see this crap again.” • Remember to network. It’s important to establish connections with everyone, from senior partners, who might turn into mentors, to secretaries, who might know the court’s filing rules better than you do. Dennis Kennedy, a technology lawyer in St. Louis and a legal blogger, wrote in Law Practice Today, a Web-based magazine sponsored by the American Bar Association: “The one thing that became crystal clear to me is that your success and happiness in law or any other profession depends on finding and maintaining mentor relationships. Over the long term, finding a mentor is the most important thing you can do when starting your career.” • Carry a pad and pen when getting an assignment. It’s bad form to ask a partner again about facts you should have written down in the first place. “Nothing instills confidence in your organization and preparation skills like foraging for pens and paper on the partner’s desk as they give you an assignment — or worse, writing the assignment on your hand,” says Andrew Wright, an associate in the Morgantown, W.Va., office of Jackson Kelly. • Own your mistakes. That doesn’t mean rushing into a partner’s office and blurting out every lame-brained error along the way. But it means confessing quickly when you need help. And it means figuring out how to fix the mistake. Harlan Loeb, the Chicago-based U.S. director of litigation for Financial Dynamics, recalls that when he was a 25-year-old associate at a Milwaukee firm, “We were challenging a property tax assessment, and I mailed the wrong document.” When he realized his mistake, Loeb drove to Milwaukee’s central post office and convinced workers that he needed to retrieve the package. In those pre-9/11 days, they actually agreed to search for the package and hand it back to him. “I don’t know how they were able to find it,” he says. After putting together the correct documents, Loeb hand-delivered them. In that case, “no one ever knew about it,” he admits. • Hold the gossip, and keep your mouth shut. No matter how tempting it is to dish about co-workers, clients, or bosses, most people are a whole lot less anonymous than they think. Andrew Wright’s wife, Caprice Roberts, also a lawyer, told him the following story: Two new associates at a major Atlanta firm were attending an Atlanta Braves game. “During the game,” Wright says, “the associates — after a few macro-brews — began discussing the firm and ridiculing one very senior partner. After the conversation continued to escalate, one associate felt a tap on his shoulder. “Behind them, a distinguished-looking man said, in his languid Southern drawl, ‘Ah, you young Atlanta lawyers. You shouldn’t be deceived by all these tall buildings and bustling commerce. This is still a small town.’ “ Then he dropped the clincher: “I practice across the street from y’all. Partner X and I went to law school together. In fact, I do look forward to catching up with him this very evening at church. My name is Y. What are yours?” Wright notes that, to this day, whenever he discusses a sensitive subject within potential earshot of others, his wife whispers to him, “Young Atlanta lawyer, young Atlanta lawyer.” It’s worked for Wright — and maybe it will work for other associates, too. This list and the stories certainly don’t provide a foolproof guarantee against making stupid mistakes. But we’re hoping they’ll help a bit. Remember: young Atlanta lawyer.
Debra Bruno can be reached at [email protected].

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