Dipanwita Deb Amar authors article "Survival Tips for Junior Associates"
April 04, 2007
When the American Bar Association asked me to write a book describing some tips for associates who are just beginning to practice labor and employment law, I began with explaining the ins and outs of litigating an employment case, the types of investigations that employment lawyers are routinely asked to do, and the types of issues that employment lawyers regularly counsel their clients about (see "The Labor and Employment Lawyer's Job, A Survival Guide," American Bar Association (2007)). But at some point during the writing process, I realized that there are some general lessons that apply to all associates looking to achieve success as a lawyer. Therefore, as described in the book and excerpted below, here are a number of tips that apply to more than just labor and employment lawyers:
You only get one chance to make a first impression. This means that the first time you work with someone -- whether that is a senior associate, partner, or client -- you should put as much effort into a project as you possibly can. If you do a good job the first time you work with someone, she is likely to cut you some slack in the event you ever need it.
The practice of law has become a business. This means that for each project, someone has to do a cost-benefit analysis -- i.e., Is this project worth as much as it is likely going to cost the client? That someone is not necessarily always you, but you should find out whether someone else is doing the analysis or whether you are expected to perform it. As a general rule, you should finish each project thoroughly. If you are spending too much time on something, your supervisors should tell you that and, if necessary, write off the time before it gets billed to the client. But this admonition of thoroughness does not mean you should spend excess time spinning your wheels. Unless the litigation is massive and your supervisor tells you to use the "no stone left unturned" approach, most cases typically cannot support excessive litigation. The value of a lawyer (particularly an employment lawyer) is often measured by his ability to resolve cases quickly and economically. That means that you need to strike a balance between thoroughness and getting the job done quickly.
Your job is in part as a counselor and advice-giver. That means that for each project, you should always bear in mind that your role is to be distinctively helpful to the person who has asked you to complete a project for him or her. Sometimes, this involves doing research quickly so that your client can report your conclusions to her client and make a decision based on that research. In those instances, a long written analysis will not be particularly useful to the client. Other times, a detailed written analysis is appropriate. For each project, try to get a clear handle on what your client needs you to do. Don't be afraid to ask directly what would be most helpful to the client.
It is your job to make the person(s) whom you work for look good. Nothing will be more useful in your career than to make your clients look good. Remember, when you are a junior associate, your clients include other senior attorneys at the firm. With partners and outside clients alike, giving credit to others and playing to their strengths will engender a deep sense of loyalty that is, in the long run, critical to your career. For example, if a client asks you a question to which you do not know the answer, tell the client that you will ask the partner that you work for, who is likely to know the answer. Even if this partner does not actually know, this course of action will instill some confidence in the client that you believe your supervisor is knowledgeable. It will also earn you many points with your partner.
Do not be afraid to say, "I don't know." The flip-side of recognizing and utilizing the strengths of others is knowing one's own limitations. Among the biggest mistakes you can make — and one that many junior lawyers regrettably do make — is to pretend to know something that you don't. Throughout your career, you will be asked questions that you haven't really thought about. Do not panic. Outside clients do not expect you to have all the answers. Nor do partners. If you do not know the answer to something, you should be honest and say so. What will make you successful, however, is if you follow up an "I don't know" with a "Let me look into it." You will earn far more respect by admitting your lack of knowledge with an offer to find out the answer than if you attempt to shoot from the hip without adequate basis for your musings.
Remember, no one — not your firm, your supervisors or your colleagues — is responsible for your career except you.
Learn to juggle. You will be expected to do many things at one time. Sometimes, doing them all will seem impossible. One of the first tasks you must do is to prioritize your responsibilities. Tell your clients when you expect to get to a project and ask them whether that timeline is acceptable. If not, help the client figure out how his needs can be met; perhaps another lawyer can help, or maybe you can move around some of your other commitments. But be careful about being too protective of your schedule on a consistent basis. Clients — senior lawyers at your firm and outside clients alike — will be reluctant to give work to someone who is more interested in maintaining an easy schedule than helping them with their problems. The easiest way to juggle a number of projects is to focus on one at a time, even if you can only do so for short periods. For instance, if you are working on a brief, do not continually check e-mails or take phone calls as they come in (unless they are urgent). Work on the brief for at least 20 to 30 minutes at a time before taking a break to take calls or check e-mails.
Be responsive. Because much of what a labor and employment lawyer does is time sensitive, you should return calls and e-mails as promptly as is practicable. Even if your response is that you are tied up and will not be able to talk to them until later, clients appreciate acknowledgment of their calls. If something is urgent, direct your client to a colleague who might be able to assist.
Be kind to your staff. The staff who support you — your secretary, paralegals, the folks who copy your documents — have the ability to make or break your career. This is not an exaggeration. When you are desperate to get a filing out the door or put together materials for a client, you will find that your staff is critical to getting the work done.
Find a mentor. Find someone you work with who will have a vested interest in your career. This person does not have to be just like you. But it should be someone who you work well with and ideally, who relies on you. Mentorship does not come without hard work on your part. You must find ways to make your mentor's life easier (i.e., by being proactive and doing a very good job), and demonstrate to your mentor that you are interested in developing your own career and not simply relying on him or her to do so.
It is never too early to develop business. The more senior you get in your practice, the more you will be expected to attract new clients and develop a practice. Start early. You should keep in touch with friends from law school or college or even other lawyers who leave your law firm. Each of these people may be in a position to throw business your way at some point. You should try to make a name for yourself by writing articles, giving presentations or making connections with other lawyers. Business development often results from doing favors for others — if you go out of your way to help someone, that person is more likely to help you in return. And finally, do a very good job with your existing clients. The easiest way to get work is to get more work from the people who already use you.
Your career is your own. There will be frustrating moments in your career, when you will no doubt feel overwhelmed. There will be times when you feel like you should know more. Fear about the consequences of making a mistake is normal and even a little healthy. But turn that fear into something positive and constructive. Remember, no one — not your firm, your supervisors or your colleagues — is responsible for your career except you. That means you must take time to develop your career on your own time and seize opportunities to learn and make things happen. If you do that, you are much more likely to enjoy the rewards and, most important, enjoy the process of practicing law.
Dipanwita Deb Amar is a director in the labor and employment group at Howard Rice Nemerovski Canady Falk & Rabkin in San Francisco. She is the author of the recently published "The Labor and Employment Lawyer's Job, A Survival Guide," American Bar Association" (2007).
This article is reprinted with permission from the April 4, 2007 issue of The Recorder. Copyright 2007 ALM Properties Inc. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.