What do law firm partners mean when they talk about whether an associate “gets it”? And how can students make sure that they do? Here’s a running list of the unspoken and often intangible attributes that drive the profession’s most successful lawyers.
The bad news is that students don’t learn these skills in law school or as a summer associate. The good news is that they can start developing all of them now — from day one.
Big law firms’ most successful rainmakers can carry on a conversation with anyone about anything, even if they are bored stiff doing it. This skill is sometimes known as “cocktail party conversation.” Reading the newspaper in the morning is a good habit for new associates to develop. Reading the front section and the business section, at a minimum, and one local paper and one national paper in addition to at least one general-interest publication helps lawyers discuss cultural issues of the moment with colleagues and clients.
No one has ever been accused of being “overdressed” in a law firm. The most successful associates recognize that, if a firm’s leadership wears suits and dresses, they should, too. The old adage, “dress for the job you want, not the job you have,” is more appropriate for the legal profession than perhaps any other.
Lawyers are in the people business, and social skills are an important part of a new attorney’s tool kit. The best place to hone these skills for a new lawyer is with colleagues. Whether associates realize it or not, they are being graded on their sociability. It means that social invitations from senior lawyers are not really optional, and treating them as work events is key. It is a good idea to avoid politics, religion and other socially controversial subjects. A senior lawyer’s offer to get a drink is not an invitation for associates to let their hair down and get sloppy. It is not a career-enhancing move to be thought of as a lush.
Every person in the work place deserves respect. Mail room staff, administrative assistants, office managers and receptionists are professionals and a critical component of every lawyer’s success. Support staffers know a great deal about their firms and about the other lawyers in the office, and they can be a valuable source of information, support, and advice. Effective senior secretaries can make or break a career.
There is no excuse for rudeness, no matter the situation. The most effective new attorneys remember the adage, “The way you treat people today and tomorrow and the day after will determine whether you become the kind of person who treats people badly.” A “small decision” does not exist in the practice of law. Every decision counts.
The legal profession is a profession of big egos. The lawyer who works hard to be the person who gives someone else credit will not only succeed professionally but will help create a culture of collegiality and respect, which will, in turn, help other lawyers and employees succeed professionally.
Effective lawyers develop coping mechanisms that help them embrace and manage spontaneity and unpredictability. Things do not always proceed according to plan in the practice of law, and one’s schedule is often at the mercy of clients, judges, colleagues, weather and other external events.
A lawyer’s reputation is his or her greatest asset, and new attorneys should start developing their reputations from the moment they walk in the door. A technically skilled lawyer can fail to flourish if he or she earns a reputation for sloppiness, tardiness, laziness, obliviousness, rudeness, arrogance, pretentiousness, dishonesty, unfairness or cattiness, even if his or her legal analysis is high quality. It can happen even if the reputation is unwarranted.
The most successful lawyers understand that they are a critical member of each client team and they treat each project that way. They are not just “helping out” or “pitching in” on someone else’s project. A new lawyer’s clients include senior lawyers in the firm as well as the company paying the bills.
Being on time in a law firm really means being early. Standard business etiquette requires lawyers to be at least five minutes early for every internal meeting and least 15 minutes early for every external meeting. The only person who is allowed to walk into the room at the exact moment for which the meeting is scheduled is the person running the meeting.
Lawyers are hired to solve problems, not create them. It is a mistake for young lawyers to say that they cannot do something because they don’t know how to use a certain computer program or aren’t familiar with the subject area. Learning how to do unfamiliar tasks and researching new subjects are part of the job. One of the wonderful things about lawyering is all the off-beat and esoteric knowledge lawyers accumulate over the course of their professional lives.
Everything takes longer than expected. For research and writing projects, a good guide is the “double it to the next power” rule. For example, if someone says a project will take two hours, it actually will take four days. Plan accordingly. Good lawyers give themselves extra time in case things go wrong. Good lawyers are prepared for messengers to get stuck in traffic, trains and planes to get delayed and computers to malfunction. Developing good time- management skills is especially important when juggling multiple assignments for multiple clients and when more than one deadline occurs on the same day. Learning how to do it early on is critical.
The most effective new lawyers turn in completed work product, not “drafts.” To senior lawyers, “draft” does not mean “work in progress,” or work completed “so far.” Proofreading is critical. Running spellcheck is not a substitute for proofreading. Proper grammar is not a matter of “style.” And no assignment in a law firm is beneath anyone. There is no magic band of elves that comes in at night and does all the little tasks that a busy lawyer would rather not do.
The best lawyers never complain about a project being difficult and never complain about being busy. Clients hire lawyers to perform difficult tasks and solve difficult problems. Being busy is how lawyers make a living. From management’s perspective, a lawyer who is meeting the firm’s target billable hours is “occupied,” not “busy.” Lawyers who turn down work when they are not on target for their hours develop a reputation for laziness at best, and unprofessionalism or incompetence at worst. It is a business, after all.
The best lawyers are those who are never too busy to have fun. Lawyering is one of the most flexible and intellectually rewarding professions going. The clients one develops, the practice one builds, and the expertise one maintains are largely up to each individual lawyer. Doing a difficult job extremely well is a wonderful feeling. Learning how to be an exceptional lawyer, not just an employed lawyer, is worth the effort.
Kimberly K. Egan is a partner in the Washington office of DLA Piper and is co-chairwoman of the firm’s U.S. health care sector.