I am senior enough to have worked with several classes of junior attorneys. Over time, several patterns emerged, some positive and some not so positive. There are a number of common mistakes young lawyers make which in turn make the transition to lawyering difficult for them and for the offices where they work.
In no particular order, here are some common mistakes young lawyers make in their first years on the job:
As a junior attorney, you are not expected to be a subject-matter expert in the substantive area of law in which you are practicing. Nor are you expected to deliver the winning case strategy on day one. That will develop over time. In the meantime, you are expected to get everything else right on the discrete projects to which you are assigned and to be a reliable team member. The fastest way to ruin your reputation before you even establish it is to blow work deadlines. Bottom line: you need to do whatever you can to make sure you hit your deadline. If other work, a personal emergency, or something else crops up that makes it difficult to meet a deadline, you need to tell your supervisor immediately and before you blow past the due date. That way, they can either extend your deadline (and adjust their own schedule accordingly) or loop someone else in to help you finish. This is one of the most common mistakes young lawyers make but it is easily fixable.
Failing to Follow Instructions
As the most junior member of the team, you will often be tasked with discrete projects, like reviewing documents to identify specific issues or researching and reporting on a particular area of law. You need to do what is asked of you, and you need to do it well. So before you dive into an assignment, make sure you understand it. Create a plan to finish the task and see it through. At the end of the day, your job is to be useful to the senior attorneys and clients with whom you work and to add value to the case. If you complete an assignment on issue X when you were actually asked to research issue Y, you have wasted time and money, and potentially damaged your reputation.
Failing to Understand that the Law is a Business
You spend a lot of time in law school learning to think like a lawyer. Those critical thinking skills are crucial to your job. Equally crucial is understanding that law is a business and that you are serving clients, many of whom may be businesses themselves. Practicing law for corporate clients is an exercise in pragmatism. They need you to digest theoretical law and spit it back in a practical application they can use. The faster you understand that, the more useful you will be to your team.
If you’re not practicing corporate law, this advice still holds true. The real-life people you represent want to understand how the law applies to their life. It is your job to turn legalese into something they can understand.
It is true that many lawyers are unhappy in their career—after all, there is an entire industry set up to help lawyers exit the profession! That said, if you spend all your time complaining at the very beginning of your career, you may quickly run out of work to do. Lawyers work long hours, and it is much more pleasant to do so with a positive, engaged coworker than with a whiny, grumpy curmudgeon. So go ahead, vent to your friends or family (within reason), but keep the negativity out of the workplace.
Failing to Ask Questions
One of the hallmarks of a great junior lawyer is an ability to think through an assignment and answer some of their own questions. In other words, senior attorneys want to see you spend some time problem solving before running to them for help. But what about those times when you cannot figure it out? Then you need to ask. Some junior attorneys struggle because they fail to ask for help when they need it—usually because they are afraid of getting “in trouble” or annoying the senior attorney, or because they don’t want to look dumb. Trust me, it is far worse to turn in a completely wrong assignment or blow a deadline because you got stuck than to simply ask a question that would allow you to finish the project and finish it well.
Handing in Sloppy Work
As a junior lawyer, you may be asked to do a draft of a document. Don’t let that word draft fool you; your “draft” should be a final copy. Not only should you ensure that the substance is correct and addresses the topics you were asked to cover, but you also need to spend the time to properly format and proofread the document. This means, for example, that if you were asked to do a draft of a letter to a Court, it should include the address information and signature block, be properly formatted on a letterhead template, and follow all of the Judge’s rules concerning page limits and formatting. While the senior attorney may revise or even rewrite your draft, at the time you hand it in, you should consider it ready to be filed.
Disappearing in Action
As a junior lawyer, one of the ways you add value to your team and your clients is by showing up and supporting the team. If you begin your career in a biglaw firm, you are practically being paid to be available—that’s one reason why the salaries are so high. So if you get an email or a call about an assignment, you need to be responsive. In law firms, that generally means responding in less than an hour to most emails, even if you just write “will do” in response to a work assignment. If you don’t respond, and you don’t pick up with phone when someone calls, and you’re never in your office when they stop by (if/when we are all working from offices again), the senior attorney may assume you are simply not working. Don’t give them reason to assume that, especially in the first couple months of your new job when you are establishing credibility and building up a reputation.
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