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The mystery of the assigning process has baffled associates since the creation of the billable hour. Why one associate is assigned a high profile matter while the other receives a “needle in a haystack” research assignment is often an unanswered question. The assigning process, however, is one of the keys to professional success. As you begin your career, whether in a specific department or rotating through various practice areas, the assignments you receive are the stepping stones to the path of success. Each assignment or string of assignments may lead to your chosen field, or to a new direction. A successful senior partner practicing in the real estate area once told me that his focus on real estate was truly happenstance. On his first day as a first-year associate, he was quite nervous and feeling queasy. On his way to his new firm, instead of arriving early for the initial orientation (which was his plan as a type A personality), he decided to continue walking around the block to dispel his nausea. On his way around the block, he ran into an old college buddy and chatted it up for a bit. By the time they said their goodbyes, although his nausea had subsided, he was late for his first day! As he tiptoed into the large mahogany conference room, the hiring partner (who was doling out their first assignments and clearly not thrilled with his tardiness) handed him the last assignment on the list with the name of a real estate partner to contact for his first assignment. That very assignment set the stage for his career as a real estate attorney. Another colleague of mine graduated from law school in the early 1990s when bankruptcy practices were booming (similar to today). She started her career in the bankruptcy department and although she enjoyed the restructuring side of the practice, she was not thrilled with the litigation aspect. After two years of practicing bankruptcy, the corporate world reignited and the corporate department began tapping associates from different departments. My friend worked on a corporate matter one day that kept her busy for the following three months. From that day on, she became part of the corporate team and realized that one corporate assignment changed her entire career. She realized that her skills overlapped with others in the corporate department and her interest in negotiating and closing a transaction was clearly her strong suit. She found her niche and was lucky enough to make the switch. Keep in mind that the assignment process is not always so arbitrary. There are numerous things you can do to direct your own career, to insure you are obtaining the experience you desire. You can request work in a particular area, with a specific attorney or client, or within a niche practice. You should also think about the following items as you make your way. 1. Assess your strengths and weaknesses and focus on what practice area uses your skills and personality. Think about what type of work you enjoy, and your personality and style. Are you a good writer or researcher? Are you detail-oriented or a big picture person? Do you like the theatrics of the courtroom or the solitude of the library? Are you comfortable stating your case and arguing your position? Are you a good negotiator? Do you like to mediate and bring people together? Are you adept at analyzing the practical application based on a set of rules or a code of law? Think about the skills and personality style you possess and try to match them with a practice area. If you are unsure about what personality style you possess, consider investing in a personality style indicator analysis such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator Test. Eva Wisnik, president of Wisnik Enterprises, has administered the Myers-Briggs test to more than 2,000 attorneys in the last 10 years, especially new attorneys who are adapting to their new environment. Wisnik advises that this testing instrument provides you with an awareness of your personality traits that allow you to adapt the way you communicate to others. The test gives you an understanding of how personality traits relate to certain work styles and can assist you in determining a practice area that matches your personality. 2. Seek out assignments of interest by taking the initiative and requesting specific assignments or client matters. Don’t be timid about requesting specific types of work or certain client matters. Assigning partners will applaud your initiative, specifically if you’ve done your homework and have some knowledge about the assignment and client at hand. Think about how you would add value to an assignment and relay that information to the assigning partner. One mid-level attorney suggests that you check the “new client” memo or e-mail that is often circulated for purposes of a conflict check to keep tabs on what assignments may be forthcoming. Make it a habit to review the new client list and follow up if you see a client or matter that interests you. More importantly, make sure you have the experience and skills to contribute to the assignment and back up your request. 3. Don’t fade into the woodwork — be visible (and I don’t mean “face time”). Even if you are one out of 90 first-year associates starting this fall, don’t try to go unnoticed. Everyone is watching you as a first-year associate and assessing your skills, so embrace the limelight and perform. You don’t want to be an “unknown” commodity in a firm that values your analytical legal skills. The unknown or mystery associates are often those who don’t survive economic cuts in times of uncertainty. Make yourself known by producing your best work product and getting to know as many people at the firm as you can. If you do good work, your reputation will travel like wild fire and your name will come to the forefront when assignments are considered. 4. First impressions are lasting. Your first impression is an important one — so make it good. Obviously, you should always do your best, but you should be particularly mindful of your work product during your first year as an associate. Although you may not know the intricacies of the law, you are expected to focus on the presentation of your written and oral work, and thoroughness and attention to detail should be your strong suit. When you are a junior associate, the assigning process is often based on your reputation, so having a good one can lead to the more interesting work. 5. Strive to be one of the associates everyone wants assigned to their matter by giving 100 percent to each assignment. Why is it that certain attorneys are always busy? There are just some attorneys who are continually assigned to the fascinating matters (OK — maybe just continually assigned to interesting matters). Isn’t it interesting that certain attorneys seem to work on all the high-profile matters. How do they do it? A corporate associate working on a deal recently told me that at the deal mid-point, she would ask certain partners about upcoming matters. Usually, there was one she was interested in working on and made it a point to keep that partner apprised of her availability. Because of her communication and interest in a matter, when her deal closed, more often than not, she was assigned to that matter. She liked to focus on a certain client or industry so as to sharpen her skills and build upon her prior experience. The clients liked that, too — for many reasons, including the money they saved by using an attorney who is familiar with their business and the comfort and familiarity in dealing with the same attorney. 6. Focus on a particular industry, client or niche. Start to focus on a particular industry and word will travel fast that you are knowledgeable in that area. Don’t be surprised when assignments in that particular industry come your way. Don’t be concerned that you are limiting yourself; just read everything you can about the industry and the law surrounding that particular industry. Focus on an area of the law that you have an interest in and you are more likely to read about it in your spare time. A midlevel attorney advised me that he enjoyed corporate work, but in his “other” life wanted to be a rock star (don’t we all). He played in a band in college and thought seriously about pursuing his rock ‘n’ roll dream, but took the conservative route to law school. In practice, he decided to focus on corporate law, specifically entertainment law, and now has several clients in the music business. Although he did not pursue his rock ‘n’ roll dream, he is involved with bands and new music and is recognized as a specialist in his field. 7. Set professional benchmarks for yourself and be diligent about achieving those goals. You need to take control of your career, because no one else will. Even if you have a mentor at the firm who is accessible and interested in your career, no one else can motivate you or monitor your development like you can. You should develop a plan measured in six-month increments and review it on an annual basis. Setting benchmarks for yourself will help gauge where you are in your professional development and will push you to gain additional experience on a schedule. Every six months you should create a list of all the skills, projects or experiences you would like to achieve during the balance of the year. For example, by the end of my first year as a corporate attorney, I was committed to understanding a stock purchase and asset purchase agreement from the buyers’ and the sellers’ perspective. My goal was to be able to dissect each section and understand what I was drafting. I wanted to identify the sections that a buyer would focus on and the sections a seller was not willing to give up. I wanted to understand each section in preparation of the schedules to the agreement, which at the time, was my primary function. In preparation of the year-end review, it is wise to look back at what you’ve accomplished the preceding year in order to assess what you would like to accomplish in the future. Setting goals within a timeline is a sensible way of charting your career and insuring your professional development. The side effect is that you will receive interesting work and will be recognized for your enhanced skills as you reach each benchmark. JeanMarie Campbell, a former corporate attorney, is in charge of legal recruitment and professional development in the New York office of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld.

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