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The bar exam is over, summer is nearly gone, and your job as a new associate is about to begin. You are bursting with talent and determined to succeed at your new job. But how? What does it take to be a successful associate? What do partners want from new associates? I posed this question to more than a dozen highly accomplished lawyers. Paul Reinstein, co-managing partner at Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson, remembers the first time he supervised another lawyer. He was only in his second year at the firm, but he had been assigned to supervise a first-year associate. He went with the new associate to a corporate partner’s office and the new associate took copious notes as the partner explained an assignment involving a complex transaction. At the end of the meeting, Reinstein turned to the first-year and said, “Before we leave this office, do you have any questions about the assignment?” “No,” the first year said, “I understand it.” Reinstein then accompanied the first-year back to her office to discuss the nuts and bolts of getting the work done. Just to make doubly sure he was supervising her effectively, he asked again, “Are you sure you understand everything you are supposed to do? Is there anything at all that you don’t understand?” The first-year gave an answer that Reinstein remembers to this day: “I understood everything except two words — ‘debt’ and ‘equity.’” The importance of asking questions was echoed by Eric Roth, a partner at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz. “A lot gets thrown at you very quickly,” he e-mailed. “Listen carefully, take good notes, and when in doubt, ask.” David Schraver, managing partner at Nixon Peabody in Rochester, N.Y., agreed. “New associates should make sure they understand what is expected of them with respect to assignments. If they are not clear what their instructions are, they should ask.” He added that this concept applies not just to specific assignments but also to understanding what is expected of associates generally regarding the firm’s policies and requirements. Asking questions is not a sign of weakness. “Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know,” advises David Tell, a corporate partner at Wormser Kiely Galef & Jacobs. Personally, I got the same lesson from Colin Harley, a partner at Davis Polk & Wardwell, on my first day as a summer associate there in 1976. “You have to learn to say you don’t know,” he stressed. “It took me about six months to learn that there was nothing wrong with saying, ‘I don’t know — I’ll have to get back to you on that.’” DOING THE WORK Once you have the assignment, what next? The managing partner of a Midtown Manhattan firm made this key point: “New associates need to be sensitive in connection with their legal writing, whether their work product is intended for a court, client, adversary, or partner. Young lawyers sometimes lose sight of the fact that the same subject may need to be addressed differently depending upon the intended recipient.” There’s a world of difference between writing an objective, candid internal memo to a partner and writing a letter to opposing counsel zealously advocating your client’s position. Before turning in a draft, check your work carefully. “It is important to make an early commitment to excellence in the technical aspects of your work product,” says John (Sean) Coffey, a partner at Bernstein Litowitz Berger & Grossmann. “Partners can understand why a draft letter or brief may be missing the nuance or turn of phrase that comes with experience, but there is no excuse for typos or failing to exhaust the pertinent research before submitting your work for review.” And don’t forget to double-check your research, too. Steven Krane, a partner in the new ethics group at Proskauer Rose, listed “thorough legal research” on his short list of desirable qualities for new associates. While you are doing an assignment, don’t stop asking questions. “Sometimes the lack of clarity is not evident at the outset of an assignment,” Schraver cautioned, “so associates need to check back after they get into the project.” And if you don’t feel comfortable going back to the partner, he noted, sometimes you can ask a more experienced colleague instead. Finally, says Dolores Fredrich, vice president for legal affairs and general counsel at Hofstra University: “Don’t miss deadlines.” If you think you’ll be late, let the partner know well in advance. FOLLOWING UP With most assignments, even written ones, you must explain and defend your conclusions orally. This should not be an impromptu effort. “We want associates who can give high-quality oral presentations,” says Krane. High-quality oral presentations won’t just pour out of your mouth, any more than high-quality briefs will magically roll off of your keyboard. Before you report to a partner, practice and polish your remarks. When you finish an assignment, find out how you did. “Ask for lots of feedback. Push for feedback,” says Sandra O’Loughlin, a partner at Hiscock & Barclay in Buffalo, N.Y. It’s hard to judge your own work, especially when you are new. If a partner offers positive feedback, you should welcome more work from that partner. “Try not to turn down work,” Fredrich says, so you can make yourself “invaluable” to the partners who rely on you. “On the other hand,” she cautioned, “be realistic about what you can accomplish and how long each project will take.” But doing assignments well isn’t enough. You must go beyond that. “What I appreciate most from any associate is initiative in suggesting what to do next to advance our clients’ interests,” says Sanford Dumain, an executive committee member at Milberg Weiss Bershad & Schulman. “An associate who does this is more valuable than one who simply waits to be told what to do.” Coffey agrees. Associates should “be proactive as opposed to simply carrying out assignments conceived by others,” he says. Think about the big picture, not just your small assignment. MOVING TO THE NEXT LEVEL Now comes the hard part — moving to a higher level. Begin by getting a mentor. “Whether or not the firm has a formal mentor program,” says Schraver, “a good mentor is an invaluable asset.” Second, seek out more responsibility. “I encourage new associates to take ownership of their cases as soon as possible — to look for ways to wrest responsibility away from more senior members of the team, nicely,” says Coffey. Another way to get more responsibility is by doing pro bono work. “Volunteer to do pro bono work, especially assignments that will get you more responsibility and challenge,” urges Professor Bruce Green of Fordham University School of Law. Third, understand that the work performed today is the foundation for tomorrow. “We would like young associates to know that no matter how sterling their academic or personal backgrounds may be, a successful legal career involves learning and mastering an entirely new set of skills and means of communicating,” says Steven Schulman, a named partner at Milberg Weiss Bershad & Schulman. “That new set of skills can only be acquired by diligent application, over many years, of a willingness to immerse yourself in basic tasks that may seem tedious but are the building blocks of a case or a deal.” ON REPUTATION The final point is the most important: Protect your reputation. William Savino, managing partner at Rivkin Radler, puts it this way: “God gave you two ears so you can listen well, and two eyes, so you can read your law books well, and two legs, so you can get to the courthouse quickly. But God gave you only one reputation — guard it carefully.” Roy D. Simon, the Howard Lichtenstein distinguished professor of legal ethics at Hofstra University School of Law, is the author of “Simon’s New York Code of Professional Responsibility Annotated.”

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