10 Things Your Law Firm Boss Wants You To Know, but Isn’t Going to Tell You

WorkWhen you show up for work at a law firm, you realize pretty quickly that there’s a lot to learn. Some things people will tell you, but there’s a lot of stuff no one’s going to tell you.

Having been on both sides of the equation (as the one screwing things up, and the one getting annoyed with more junior people making my life difficult), here are a few things I learned along the way.

10 Rules of Thumb for Law Firm Success
  1. Don’t bring cases from the wrong jurisdiction. You remember Erie, right? If not, it’s time to review. There is very little that’s more annoying than giving a junior lawyer an assignment to find some case law, and having them come back with a state case, when you need a federal case, or vice versa. It’s one of those situations where you, as the assigning attorney, feel really confused. Did they not understand the assignment? Did they sleep through Civ Pro? Or do they just not care? None of these thoughts make me like you, or want to work with you again. Be sure you understand what you’re looking for, and resist the temptation to bring an irrelevant case, because you can’t find a relevant one.
  2. On that note, no one cares how much effort you exerted. If you can’t find a case on point, just say that! If I ask what steps you took to search, feel free to tell me — in detail — so I won’t replicate your work. But do not go on about how many hours you spent, or how hard you looked. I don’t care. It’s nothing personal, I’m sure you’re doing the best you can. But, if you can’t find what I need, I’ll have to find it myself, so it’s best just to give me the bad news, and get out of the way.
  3. Make sure you know how much time you can spend on something, and how much Westlaw or Lexis money you can burn. Partners and senior associates are terrible about communicating their expectations, in general. (If not, thank your lucky stars.) But you’re still going to be the one who gets yelled at when the client balks at the $30,000 research bill you ran up on a fairly minor point of law. If you’re not sure how much time something should take, ask. If you don’t know how much time you can spend on Westlaw or Lexis, ask. Even, “Hey, do you have a ballpark idea of how long this should take?” can save you from a very unpleasant situation down the road. (Oh, and make sure you know how to research cost-effectively. When in doubt, ask.)
  4. Don’t screw up the copying. A partner once told me that my job was to make him look good. I found this sort of obnoxious, but it’s basically true. It doesn’t matter how smart you are, or how hard working. If your team shows up in Court with the wrong number of copies, it looks bad. Who’s going to take the blame? The most junior person on the team. If that’s you, double-check the copies, and make sure you know how many you need. Sounds silly, but it’s your job.
  5. Know how to get the grunt work done, even if you don’t personally do it. Figure out in advance how to transport the boxes/transfer a call/order lunch, etc. Be competent with the little things and you can be a hero. Attorneys rapidly fall into a state of learned helplessness, but someone has to know how to operate the fax machine on the weekend. Be that person.
  6. Double check the spelling of peoples’ names. You know what every person alive notices immediately? When their own name is misspelled. Any time you send a letter, or an email, or whatever, to a client, or a partner, or the Court, or anyone who’s supervising you, make sure all the names are correct! No, it’s not the end of the world if there’s a typo, but it makes everyone wonder about how careful you are in other aspects of your work. That’s not the impression you want to leave. Get the names right.
  7. If you screw something up, take responsibility and fix it. Everyone makes mistakes, and you will, too. Greenhorn Legal had a great piece about this recently. The gist: If you screw up, apologize once, and offer to fix it. Don’t go on about your mistake all day, or waste time explaining what happened 15 times. Just make it right.
  8. If you’re traveling with other people, don’t be the only one who has to wait for a bag. A partner I knew loved to tell a story about leaving a first-year associate at the airport waiting for a checked bag, while everyone else went to the hotel for dinner. Again, totally obnoxious, but the point is a valid one. If you’re the low person on the totem pole, don’t expect other people to wait around for you. They’re not going to.
  9. At least pretend to be interested in/curious about the work. If you’re at a large law firm, you’re getting paid a lot to be there. At least try to feign interest in the work you’re asked to do. Sure, it might be boring, which is probably why I gave it to you instead of doing it myself, but it has to be done. If I sense a spark of curiosity, I’ll probably eventually give you more interesting stuff to do, because it’ll be clear that you can handle more complicated tasks. If you’re too put upon to do the grunt work, well, that’s probably what you’ll end up with. To get to anything more interesting, you’ve got to pay your dues, so just suck it up and get it over with.
  10. Finally, and perhaps most important: Befriend a good corporate travel agent and get their personal cell number. I learned this one the hard way. We’re all used to booking our travel online and never talking to a real person. But, when you suddenly need to rebook a flight at midnight on a Saturday, that online website your secretary used to book your ticket isn’t going to do you a lot of good. You need the direct number for your corporate travel agent. They can pull a lot of strings for you, so put the number in your phone ASAP. Next time you get an upgrade on a long flight, you can thank me.

And, for good measure, one more: Be polite to everyone. Or as polite as you can be at the end of your second all-nighter in a week. Everyone in a firm has a pretty tough job, and it won’t kill you to say “Hello” and “Thank You” routinely. And you never know when a bit of built-up good will with the copy room is going to get you out of a jam!

What law firm tips do you have for young associates? Share your insights!

Read On:

Some other career advice (from people who might be more tactful, on average, than I am):

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  1. It sounds like being a lawyer sucks. Not at all like TV. *sigh*

    • Well, there’s definitely a lot more copying and waiting around than on TV! It’s not all bad, but I think people often underestimate the extent to which they’re going to be the low man on the totem pole for a while. After being a rock star law student, it can be quite a shock to the system!

  2. Yes..great advice. One more – double and triple check the work of others (paralegal, assistant, junior lawyer, whoever). I found even the simplest tasks (like making a binder or an index) had to be checked and there was at least one time when I handed off a binder to a senior person (that someone else had put together) and it was not put together in accordance with my instructions. Only happened once but I felt like an idiot.

    • Yeah, this is one of those situations that rapidly turns you into a cynical senior associate type. When you find yourself thinking “Argh, can’t these people even get the binders right?!?” you know you’ve crossed the line…for better or worse.

  3. Respect and be nice to the assistants, paralegals, secretaries. At this point in your career, they know a whole hell of a lot more than you do, and will likely teach you significant parts of your job. They can also be really helpful . . . or not so much. And that depends almost entirely on how you treat them. Treat them like real people — colleagues — and you’ll get much further than if you treat them like they’re beneath you.

    P.S. – This goes for court clerks and other usually ignored or stepped-upon people. Don’t be a jerk to them. Be polite. Engage. Chat, ask about their kids, etc. Guaranteed your case file will be found more quickly and your motion hearing scheduled at a more opportune time than if you don’t.

    • Absolutely. It’s amazing how many lawyers think they can get away with being mean to a secretary or court clerk. When I clerked, if a lawyer called and was a jerk to anyone in chambers, there’d be hell to pay.

      Even if you don’t think you should be polite to people on principle, you have to do it to be successful!

      • Yes, I worked as a paralegal and I can vouch for this first hand. If you were nice, we would do your assignments first and go out of our way to help you. If you weren’t…

        And you should never, ever, under any circumstances, EVER be rude to a clerk. I don’t care if they are mean and surly. You’ll seriously regret not being overly polite with them–they have a lot more power than people realize! We had one clerk who was always in a bad mood and hated her job. She would do “extra” things for me, like check more than one spot for a file, because (1) she knew me, (2) I was always nice, (3) I never expected any favors, and (4) I always had the files back on time. I could get a file or important information sometimes faster than the attorney on the case!

        • Definitely! One tactic I found worked well (say 90% of the time) with surly clerks was just to admit up front you didn’t know what you were doing, and ask for their help. If it was clear you’d done your homework and tried to do things correctly, and you were extremely polite and humble, I found people were surprisingly sympathetic to your situation as a new, rather clueless attorney and would often go out of their way to help you out. Not always, but a good portion of the time!

  4. One of the best posts so far says

    Thanks for this really great post! I just started in biglaw and found this post invaluable.

  5. Be nice, friendly and polite to everyone because that is the right way to be. As a bonus you will find that it comes back to you in a million unexpected ways as people go out of their way for you. Your runners will call you on their own initative to assure you that your motion was filed timely or that they are at the court and there is a problem with the filing and they want you to have time to fix it. On her own initiative the receptionist will forward quality cold calls to you because she likes you and how you handle people, and other support staff will tell you that you’re not like most lawyers – – sometimes a much needed compliment!

    • You make an excellent point, that we should all be polite to each other because it’s the right thing to do. Amazing how many people need a reminder of that every now and again!

  6. I think one of the most important things, if not most important thing, an associate can do for his employer has been left out; one that I didn’t learn until I opened my own practice. That is, BRING SOMETHING TO THE TABLE!

    Do this by having your own website built, and most importantly, have it optimized. Network, especially by joining different social organizations and attending networking events. Blog, and Blog Often about relevant areas of law that your firm practices in (probably the most important). Start your own Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and other social media outlets, and create a following with interesting posts related to your firm’s areas of practice.

    The more you bring to the table, the more clients or income you bring to your firm, the more valuable you become, and the harder it is for them to dispose of you, and the easier it is for them to advance you at a more rapid pace.

    • That’s an interesting point, and a useful one. I wonder if it’s more applicable to smaller firms, at least in the beginning? I guess maybe it depends on the BigLaw firm, too, since some are more “entrepreneurial” than others, and would probably be more receptive to young associates really putting themselves out there with blogs, etc. Some are still skittish about that kind of stuff, in my experience!

      (Not to say they should be, of course.)

      • I agree with Terry’s post and I definitely think it is more applicable to small law firms. I have been working at a small law firm for almost six years now and you NEED to bring something to the table!! The big boss’s main complaint about one associate (who ended up getting fired) was that she did not pull her own weight! She didn’t bring in any clients of her own, she didn’t network, and they always had to double and triple check her work.

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