Emile Ashe ()
I write this article having officially completed, or as I might call it, survived, my first year as an associate at a law firm. Needless to say, it has been a tough year, full of change, hard work, and most of all, learning. Though the demands of law school can be challenging, nothing can prepare you for the “real world” as a practicing attorney. For example, meeting the demands of your law school professors is not the same as meeting the demands of paying clients, who, in my case, have been through life-changing hardships, or your boss.
With that said, the following is a list of the things they do not teach you in law school and my takeaways from my first year in practice.
• It’s OK to make mistakes.
No matter how many times it happens, I cannot deny that my heart drops into my stomach every time I realize or am notified that I made a mistake. Truthfully, I don’t think that will ever change. As bad as it feels, I have come to learn and understand that making a mistake is OK, and that it contributes to the overall learning process. I know what you’re thinking; there are some instances where it is not OK to make mistakes, where an error is irreparable. But the truth is, there is really no more permanent way to learn—once you make a mistake the first time, you will never make it again (hopefully). It also helps to remember that it happens to everyone. The senior associate or partner who found your mistake was once in your shoes. It is more than likely that they made a similar mistake at one time or another. Just remember, it is not the end of the world to be constructively criticized or to make an error. Learn from your mistakes and try your best to avoid making them again.
• Ask (the right) questions.
Some people think asking questions shows weakness, like you are doubting the directions you were given or do not comprehend the initial way something was explained to you. However, as a first-year law associate, asking questions can be one of the most important things you do. If you want to get the job done right the first time, you likely need more information than is initially provided. Even though the instructions might make sense to the person giving them, it does not always translate the same way to the person on the receiving end. If you ask the right questions from the get-go, you will not waste time trying to figure out an assignment you did not understand from the start. Also, asking questions shows that you care about the work that is given to you, which is important if you are trying to impress your boss or colleagues.
• Organization, organization, organization.
I often tell people that organization in life is extraordinarily important, but those same people might consider me a bit obsessive. Regardless of my personal beliefs, organization in law practice is key. A statute of limitations is not an artificial deadline—if you miss the statute, that’s it, end of story. Although some people might argue that organization is only absolutely necessary in the law firm setting, the rules apply similarly when it comes to clerking for a judge, working for a corporate legal department or at a nonprofit legal organization. Partners and judges alike expect their support staff, including you as a first-year associate/clerk, to be on top of the little things. This means organizing your work into a clear and easy-to-follow format. To stay organized, I work closely with my support staff. I have also really come to love and appreciate the Outlook calendar; I use it for everything. Whether it reminds me to follow up with a colleague and/or client, or just reminds me to eat lunch, the Outlook calendar is like a new friend—always there for you and always reliable.
• Make friends.
I went to law school straight from getting my undergraduate degree, so this is my first “real job.” This lesson can be applicable to any first-year employee, whether you are an associate, clerk or work in a completely different industry. You need to establish friendly relationships with your fellow colleagues. Working in a successful group is all about collaborating and working together so that the operation works seamlessly. This is made significantly easier when you have friendly relationships with those on your team. This should not be taken as free advice to go and get drinks together after work. In order to work well together, the interpersonal work relationships should be friendly and professional. This is most applicable to support staff. Newly barred lawyers are often excited and enthralled with their new “esquire” status (understandably so after successfully passing the bar, right?). However, do not let this get in the way of your relationships with your support staff. Having solid relationships with co-workers can help you out with everyday office functions. Remember that statute of limitations I mentioned earlier? Your support staff will be there to help ensure that you don’t miss it. The relationships you foster with your co-workers can make your life a little easier in the sense that you have their backs, and they have yours.
Few of many lessons
This list is just a few of the many things I have learned over the past year. There are definitely more, but as a first-almost-second-year associate, I only have so much time. I hope the foregoing helps some of you as you prepare to start your first lawyer jobs and reminds others, i.e., more senior attorneys, what is going through the minds of your first-year associates. •
Emily Ashe is an associate in Anapol Schwartz’s mass tort department. She concentrates her practice on defective medical devices and pharmaceutical drug cases.