Most new attorneys are looking for magic tips to help them become a great junior lawyer. Over the years, I’ve noticed that the really great new attorneys—the ones the senior attorneys in the offer clamor to work with—have a few things in common. I’m sharing some of those qualities below. Do these things and you should be well on your way to building a strong reputation as a great junior lawyer. Even if you don’t see yourself staying in your first legal job for a long time, demonstrating these skills will help you wherever you go next. Here’s how to excel as a new attorney –
They work hard.
Right off the bat, you need to establish yourself as someone who works hard. That means working until the assignment is done and done well. It means being a team player. If you finish a project at 6pm and the rest of your team is in for a late night, ask what you can do to help. Here’s an example: A partner is working with two junior attorneys on two different cases. She sends them both an email on Monday afternoon, asking them each to perform a discrete research task for their case. One junior attorney replies within an hour, promising an answer to the question by Tuesday afternoon. The second junior attorney does not reply until Tuesday afternoon, having made no effort to answer the question yet. Guess which attorney the partner wants to work with in the future?
They anticipate the needs of their clients – internal and external.
As a lawyer, even a very junior one, you are paid to follow instructions but also to be of value to your supervisors and the client. This has two components. First, even if your task is laser-focused, think about how it fits into the bigger picture and how your project can support the bigger issues at play. So, if you hit on a new issue while researching, share it with your supervisor. Second, think about the ways in which the actual work product you turn in can make your supervisor’s life easier. For example, when you turn in a research memo, attach a zip file of the cases to the submission email (anticipating that your supervisor will want to read one or all of them). At its core, the law is a service profession. You must always service your clients and their cases.
They are thorough.
You want to be known as an associate who turns in final work product, meaning you answer all the questions asked, you anticipate new questions where it makes sense to do so, and your work product is clearly organized and free of typos. In short, you don’t leave out any important details and you make the reader’s job easy.
They are resourceful.
It is fine and expected for you to have questions. It is annoying if you constantly ask questions you could have answered for yourself if you had just taken a few moments to try to figure out the answer. A resourceful associate will take that extra time to try to figure it out. Resourceful associates will also think creatively about how to figure out a problem. For example, if you have a question about an upcoming filing, make sure you check local court rules and the rules of your judge. You can also look at samples of other filings. If you are still stuck, go ahead and ask the senior attorney for help and demonstrate your resourcefulness by noting the sources you already checked.
They are curious and engaged.
You may not always like your cases or care about the subject matter of a project. To put it bluntly, no one cares. Put that aside and show interest in your cases anyway. Focus on the general experience you’ll gain, even if your client’s particular business does not thrill you. It’s simple really: more senior attorneys want to work with someone who acts like they want to work on the case.
They are pleasant and keep a cool head.
This should be a no-brainer. Who would you rather work with – someone who is pleasant to be around? Or someone who complains or acts like the work is beneath them? Senior attorneys will seek you out if they like working work with you. In addition to keeping up a good attitude, this means you hold your head in a crisis. Save your freak-outs for private time. In the moment, do your best to keep a clear head and calm demeanor.
They take ownership.
If you are assigned a project, you are accountable for its success or failure. Act like it. This means you should do the best job you can in the time you have. Don’t assume someone else will fix an issue. Here’s an example: you are tasked with implementing edits to a draft agreement. Some of the comments conflict with the law you researched. Point that out. Do it politely, but do it. It’s possible that the attorney who made the edit has taken a different interpretation of the law than you did, but it is equally possible that they do not know or have forgotten that the law conflicts with their edit.
They are adaptable.
Urgent deadlines will crop up. A partner will decide that the key argument for the brief you are filing tonight is X and not Y, requiring you to reorganize the filing. Roll with it. Sure, go ahead and complain about it to your friends or family after the fact, but keep your game face on at work and figure out how to make the changes and get the job done.
If you enjoyed these tips on how to be a great junior lawyer, check out our other career advice here.
Looking for more advice on starting your career as a law firm lawyer? Check out my book Law Firm Life.