From The Partner's Desk: Tips For Recent Law Grads via Law360

Posted on 07-06-2016 by
Tags: Industry Insights & Trends , LIT , lawschool , law students

The article below has been republished in full courtesy of Law360, written by Gary M. Gansle, Squire Patton Boggs LLP.

Law360, New York (June 23, 2016, 11:43 AM ET) -- One of the most prevalent complaints by associates and recent law school graduates is the lack of meaningful mentoring by more seasoned attorneys. Despite long-standing and well-meaning programs at most firms and in most law departments, the sad truth is that mentoring is highly individualized and personality-driven, varying substantially from one partner to another. Some partners and senior attorneys have a well-developed sense of obligation to train and mentor the next generation of attorneys, and others do not. Accordingly, I would like to offer some advice from the “40,000 foot level” to attorneys entering the profession.


Ultimately, your career is yours to create. It is not the firm’s, not the practice group leader’s, not the general counsel’s, but yours. There is no one way to succeed as a lawyer, and my advice below is not infallible. It is simply intended to be a general guide that, in the absence of more individualized mentoring, can serve as a light that helps junior attorneys start down the right path in their career development.

Knowledge Acquisition/Skills Building

As the industry has made clear, learning and practicing are two different things. Law school, while essential, does not and cannot adequately prepare attorneys for the actual practice of law. It is a necessary predicate, but for freshly minted lawyers, there is no substitute for practical, hands-on learning. That is why knowledge acquisition and skills building need to be top priorities for any junior lawyer. If you already have a practice area of interest in which you want to focus, then read up on it: read relentlessly, voraciously, whenever you have time. This will not only build your skills and knowledge, but your confidence.

Then, find someone with a similar practice-focus to talk with, so that you are sharpening each other’s critical thinking about your chosen practice area. If you are not lucky enough to be working in your preferred practice area, this is even more important; as it will increase the odds that you will be prepared to make the pivot when an opportunity arises to shift over to your preferred practice area. If there is someone more senior at your firm or law department that you think might present a good “unofficial” mentoring opportunity, ask to speak with them briefly about what resource materials might help you gain a deeper and more meaningful understanding of their practice. In most instances this more senior lawyer will be flattered by your interest in the practice that they have chosen. Just come prepared and be cautious not to over-burden them.

If you do not yet know what your preferred practice area may be, seek as many varied projects and perspectives as possible and at least rule things out that you experience and confirm are NOT areas where you would like to focus. In relatively short order, you should be able to narrow your search and bring more focus to the development of your career path.

Finally, to the extent that you have PLI (Practicing Law Institute) or other such developmental programs available to you at no charge, take advantage of them whenever your workload permits (and even when it is a stretch).

The truth is, as a recent law graduate, there will be a general understanding that you still have a lot to learn.. But, the clock is ticking. It won’t be long before you move into the mid-level ranks and the expectations around your knowledge and skills will be higher. Take advantage of being junior while you are junior!

Assignments

Being tasked with assignments can be fraught with anxiety. Let’s face it, you likely don’t know what you are about to be asked to accomplish. It may be in your comfort zone, but likely will not be if you are still just setting out on your career. Making matters more anxiety-provoking, not every person giving out assignments is great at defining the task clearly. Sometimes, they don’t even know for sure exactly what it is they want, because they have not taken the time to formulate it in their own heads before they put it on your plate. That is why every assignment you receive should be treated as a mini “client intake.” Now, there is a tension between asking too many questions and not asking enough questions when receiving an assignment, so don’t assume that “there are no dumb questions.” Unlike school, there ARE dumb questions in the workplace. Save them for a peer, rather than uttering them to the assigning attorney. But, at the same time, take heart: You got through law school largely due to your analytical skills. They are still there. Use them.

While it may sound simplistic, when receiving any work assignment, always have a pad and writing implement with you. The taking of notes is a comfort to the assigning attorney. If you have to come back with clarifying questions, the assigning attorney will be less likely to think that you just missed the detail in the initial assignment if they saw you taking notes. Also, make eye contact and engage with the assigning attorney as the assignment is being communicated. That gives them even more confidence that you are actively listening and not just robotically transcribing the assignment. Ask clarifying questions during the conversation about the assignment. Once the assignment has been given and you believe you understand what the assigning attorney is seeking, make a practice of asking the following questions each and every time you receive and assignment:

1. In what format do you want my work product? Formal memo? Verbal answer? Bullet-point email? The last thing you want to do is give someone a five-page memo when they were thinking you would just pop by with an answer and a couple of highlighted cases you copied to support your response.

2. How long do you think it should take me to complete this assignment? In almost every case, assignments can lead down rabbit holes that have virtually no end. In order to ascertain the depth of the dive the assignor wants you to take, you need a sense of the range of time they think it will take you. Do not ask them how long they think it would take them to get the answer, because they are more proficient than you. Frame the question correctly, and they will have a better opportunity to consider that you are not as fast or efficient as them ... yet.

3. If you were going to complete this assignment yourself, where would you start? In my experience, most recent law school graduates that receive a research project will be inclined to start with an online research tool. And while those are wonderful resources, your success with them will often depend on some luck in formulating search terms. Many times, the assignor will point you to a treatise, or secondary source that is likely far more expedient and efficient. Rather than spend time trying to guess at the best starting point, ask the person giving the assignment where they would start and you will have much more confidence that you are headed in the right direction. Then, be sure that your product is impeccable.

4. When is this assignment due? If you ask this question and get the casual “whenever” response, don’t stop. Suggest a deadline and get the assigning attorney’s buy-in. When you get a deadline, don’t just meet it, beat it. That goes double if they let YOU set your own deadline. And if the assigning attorney says “it’s due on Tuesday,” ask what time Tuesday they want it rather than assuming that the deadline is any time before midnight on Tuesday. If you hit roadblocks and are anticipating some trouble meeting the deadline, don’t wait to discuss that with the assigning attorney. No one wants to hear that you can’t meet the deadline on or after the deadline has passed. Get ahead of it and you will find out just how strict the deadline really is. Missed deadlines are one of the easiest ways for senior attorneys to disqualify you from future projects. Avoid them at all reasonable costs.


Client Service

When you are a junior attorney in a law firm or law department, virtually everyone is your “client.” Most of us get that the classic “client” is the ultimate recipient of our services and should be treated royally. However, don’t forget that you are the internal service provider to other attorneys, business people and staff at your workplace. Treat them all as well as you would an external client and you will better internalize the evolving sense of excellent client service that eludes many legal professionals.

One of the best client service skills is also one of the easiest: pick up your phone. Don’t have your assistant screen your calls. Whether it is an internal client or external client calling, they are calling you at that moment because that is when it is convenient for them. And isn’t that the essence of client service; providing your skills to people who need your skills when THEY need them (as opposed to when it is convenient for you to provide them)?

Even if you are knee deep in a deadline, you almost always have the time to take the call and communicate your delayed availability for being substantively helpful. With external clients especially, just being able to talk to you is far more reassuring and comforting than getting your voicemail. Taking the call and telling the client when you will be able to start solving their problem takes a huge weight off their shoulders.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it hopefully provides a place to plant your flag as you begin charting the path of your career development.

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