Two summers ago the editors of The 10-Q offered a variety of tips for those starting new jobs (here and here), chiefly for rising 3Ls taking summer jobs but, we believed, good for anyone embarking on a new career as a lawyer. Times have changed, though the need for sage advice has not. Thus, we present an updated version of our random advice for those who are about to be employed, in two parts. This week, we talk about the work; next week, we will talk about socializing.
- Before you start your new job, know something about the history, mission, and culture of the place. Where did they come from, where do they think they are going—and how do you think you can be part of that? In some cases, the answers will be obvious (and readily available on the firm website). Sometimes, the best sources of information will be mid-level-ish folks (e.g., junior partners, at firms) who have just made what passes for a long-term (possibly informed) commitment to the place (e.g., becoming partner at the firm).
- Arriving early is almost always better than staying late. Find out whether “face time” matters and, if so, to whom.
- Your first assignment: Understand it to the best of your ability. Listen as effectively as you possibly can. Senior lawyers (and, if you are lucky, clients) will dump complex projects on you with sometimes less-than-adequate explanations. You will probably need to take lots of notes on the fly. Never enter anyone’s office, or leave your own, without a pad of paper and a pen (and don’t type on a laptop in someone’s face).
- Review your notes immediately after getting the assignment. If you are like most of us, they will be incomplete chicken scratchings garnished with random arrows and doodles. Now is the time to make that stuff make sense. Not after lunch or later in the afternoon, when you’ve forgotten what it all means.
- If you have questions, ask. But remember: contrary to popular belief, there is such a thing as a stupid question—and you may have to ask one. That’s not necessarily a problem, if you have a good reason for asking it, because you won’t know that the question is stupid until you ask. Always have what you think is the most plausible answer (and potential alternative answers), to show that you are at least trying to understand what is going on.
- Key questions to which you should always know the answer: (i) What’s the deadline? (ii) What’s the deliverable? (iii) Who is the ultimate audience? (iv) Who should I ask if I have questions? and (v) Is this billable (and if so, to whom)(relevant mostly if you are at a firm)?
- Get to know and gain the respect of the support staff. They are often far more knowledgeable about the realities of practice—how to get things done—than junior (and sometimes senior) attorneys. They are professionals. Treat them with respect and there is a good chance they will respond in kind.
- Sometimes you may be asked to produce a “draft.” Do not be fooled. Even if it purports to be a “draft,” do not treat it as anything less than a final version. Come as close to perfection as time/resources/your judgment allow. Is it consistent with the office’s form/style? If they always use Calibri, don’t be “different” and use Copperplate Gothic Bold. Is it grammatically correct? Have you proofed it (twice) and run spell-check (remembering that even this won’t save you, if you’ve written brilliantly about a “proof of clam”)?
- For many purposes, your “client” will be the senior attorney for whom you work. That attorney will have the relationship with the real client, and that attorney does (and should) control your relationship to that client and the work you do for them. Do not get ahead of (or, worse, contradict) that attorney.
- Most important: Have you solved the problem you were asked to solve as effectively as possible under the circumstances? At the end of the day, you are in a service profession, and the service is problem-solving. You are entering a very competitive environment, and there are many other, highly qualified people who would love to show that they can solve these problems better than you—which they will, if they’ve followed these tips, and you haven’t . . . .
There is doubtless more we could say. And so we will, next week, when we offer a random list of tips on social matters.