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Now that you have landed your first job as an attorney, get ready to move into your new professional life. The reputation and skills you start to develop in your first days on the job will follow you for the rest of your career. While working in the legal industry for the past 30 years as a legal personnel-development executive and assistant dean for career services, I have seen many classes of new associates as they’ve begun their ascent up the legal-career ladder. On your first day at the firm, show up on time. Yes, that’s right — show up on time. Most legal employers, including mine at Nixon Peabody, have very full orientation schedules that are designed to help you hit the ground running. If you are going to a larger law firm or government agency, it is very likely that there are many other new attorneys who are starting on the same day you are. You do not want to hold up the beginning of orientation because you’re late. Trust me — you don’t want to alienate your peers or key individuals who are best suited to help you succeed at the firm. You also don’t want to get a reputation for not being a team player and for being disrespectful of others. Orientation programs like the one at Nixon Peabody involve many key people from areas such as human resources and benefits, the library, technology, accounting, secretarial support, paralegal resources, facilities, office services, the mail room, legal personnel, and records management. Every one of these areas is critical to your success — that’s why you are meeting these people. Nixon Peabody, for example, is highly team-oriented. The people you meet on day one are part of your team. That’s important to keep in mind. During the firm’s orientation, pay close attention to administrative details that will make you a valuable associate in the eyes of partners. For instance, every one of the administrative support areas is critical to you. You might wonder, What does the mail room have to do with me? Doesn’t someone else deal with them? Well, if it’s 6:20 p.m., your secretary has left, and you’re scrambling to get something sent overnight for a partner, the mail-room staff could be your best friends. Fill out the right forms and let them know you are on your way to help them help you. Here’s another administrative tip: Learn all of the technology. This means, for example, learning how to make a conference call (someday you’ll be in a room with a partner who looks at you to initiate a conference call and there won’t be a secretary around to bail you out). Learn how to create, profile, and retrieve documents from a secure network using the document-management system (this goes beyond knowing how to create a document in Word or Excel). Find out what technology training programs will be available on an ongoing basis, even after your formal orientation. THE NEXT STEPS In your first week, be absolutely scrupulous about your time. Use the tools that the firm provides to record your time contemporaneously. This will make your life easier. You’ll be so busy over the course of any week that you won’t remember on Friday everything that you did in six-minute or 10-minute intervals on Monday. Learn how to bill properly. Long gone are the days of simply stating “for legal services rendered.” Most firms will provide new attorneys with very specific guidelines for the amount of detail that is required for billing. There will be special requirements for certain clients, as well. Your secretary is your best ally. As part of your orientation or shortly after the orientation ends, you’ll be meeting the secretary who will be working with you. Notice that I said working with — not for. You are a team. Legal secretaries have a wealth of knowledge and expertise in how to get things done at your firm effectively and efficiently. They are an integral part of the team. Treat your secretary with respect at all times, even if you are having a bad day. Be an effective communicator: Let your secretary know your whereabouts at all times, in case a partner or a client is trying to reach you, and make sure your secretary knows the deadlines for projects. In addition, get to know the secretaries who are proximate to your secretary, because they are likely to be your secretary’s backup. YOUR FIRST MONTH After you’ve begun to settle in, if your firm has a mentor program (either a peer-mentor or a partner-mentor program), take advantage of it. Peer mentors can help you avoid embarrassing mistakes, can help you understand the cultural and social aspects of your work environment, and can coach you on how to meet key partners in your practice. Be proactive. Though your firm might, as part of orientation, provide opportunities to meet with key people, you should not sit back and expect everyone to come to you. Reach out and get to know the attorneys, paralegals, and others on your floor and in your practice group. Be sensitive to the fact that they are busy and aren’t always able to reach out to every new person at the firm. If your mentor doesn’t introduce you to attorneys and key individuals in your “neighborhood,” take the initiative to stop by offices and introduce yourself: “Hi, I’m Kim Jones. I just started at the firm last week as an associate in the tax group and just graduated from XYZ Law School last May.” Keep it simple. Chances are, they will be pleased that you made the effort to meet them. Reach out to your mentor or a key partner. Invite him for a cup of coffee, especially if your mentor isn’t taking the initiative to meet with you: “I know that you’re busy. Would you have time for a cup of coffee, either in your office and downstairs at the coffee shop, some time over the next week, so we could talk for 10 minutes or so?” This approach emphasizes that you won’t be taking a lot of time. If your mentor wants to do something longer, such as lunch, this provides an opening. If you want to get to know an attorney in a specific practice group or one who works for a certain type of client, you can ask your mentor for the best way to approach that attorney. Maybe your mentor will offer to arrange for a short meeting. There may also be some situations where you and another new associate can take the initiative to invite the partner out for coffee or a drink after work. Find out what works best for your firm’s culture. Beginning with your first assignment, never ever miss a deadline. Don’t wait until the last minute to submit a project. Things can get derailed because of competing deadlines or unforeseen circumstances. All-nighters might have worked well for college or law school, but this isn’t school anymore. If a partner says the project is due on Tuesday, don’t wait until Monday night to start it. By the same token, don’t wait until 5 p.m. on Tuesday to submit the project to the partner. You’ll score big points by finishing the project early. Don’t ever assume that the deadline the partner gave you is an arbitrary one. She may have other projects that are due at about the same time, and she may be trying to space them out in a way that makes sense given her schedule. After you submit the project, ask for feedback if it’s not forthcoming. Look first at the edits that were made or the final product. Learn as much as you can from seeing what changes were made. Then ask for more formal feedback. If you meet the partner halfway, you’ll be making it easy for the partner to spend some time with you and create dialogue about the project. Be very mindful that the partner’s time is limited, so keep the meeting short. Above all, don’t get defensive. Recognize that busy partners may not have time to figure out how to artfully or diplomatically phrase feedback. Accept the feedback in the spirit in which it is intended, as a learning experience. Learn from your mistakes and replicate the good stuff. Overall, you want to create a reputation, right from your first day, for being an indispensable part of the team. You want to be known as someone who is a pleasure to work with, who is absolutely reliable, who always delivers, and who, ultimately, is the go-to associate. The better you are at developing these traits, the higher the likelihood that more good work will come your way. Success breeds success. This will provide additional opportunities for you to enhance your skills, your knowledge base, and your expertise.
Christine White is director of professional personnel at Nixon Peabody in the firm’s Washington, D.C., office.

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