Of all the years I practiced law, the first was the hardest, and I think that’s the case for most lawyers. Unfortunately, the safety net that helps new lawyers navigate the first-year tightrope — namely, immersion in a physical environment teeming with smart, experienced lawyers — has been cut away for this year’s crop of associate attorneys.
For much of this year’s newly christened class, working from home means figuring things out on their own. Layer on COVID-19, election uncertainty and other stresses that 2020 has bestowed upon us, and it’s a recipe for overwhelm.
Few Lawyers Can Forget the Angst of Those First Few Months on the Job
My first day was September 17, 2001, six days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. I was working at the Chicago office of an international law firm. I was slated to join the M&A group, but at the last minute, along with many of my first-year colleagues, I was shifted to the corporate bankruptcy group.
I know that passing the bar is supposed to mean a lawyer is competent and ready to practice law; however, I was not. I had never even picked up the bankruptcy code, and for months I was way in over my head. So, I tethered myself to my desk and didn’t sleep nearly enough to keep up with the work, which only compounded the problem.
One big reason I was able to persevere through my first year was the support from my colleagues. When faced with a problem, I could always pop into someone’s office to ask a question. I had a mentor who took the time to take me to lunch and provide reassurance.
I feel for today’s first-year associates who lack such a support network while working in isolation at home. One of the hardest adjustments for any new lawyer is realizing that their expectation of what the practice of law will be like is often far different from the actual experience. Typically, one’s colleagues are there, up close and personal, to provide a helping hand through the hard times.
That level of support is not possible this year.
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10 Survival Tips for First-Year Associate Attorneys
Recently, I posted on LinkedIn about the travails of being a first-year lawyer during these trying times. The post generated several comments from lawyers who shared their own advice for coping. Here are 10 tips, based on my own experiences and those of other lawyers who shared their perspectives on LinkedIn, to help first-year lawyers stay strong and resilient.
Don’t toil alone. Take ownership of your work and do it to your best ability, but don’t be afraid to ask questions.
Don’t lose faith if you don’t feel passionate about your work. Passion grows with competence. The better you become at something, the more you will grow to like it.
Remember, you’ve signed up for a career that deals in ambiguity. There are few clear answers to the questions that will reach your desk. You’ll work your way through the challenges — the difficult research project, negotiation or brief. Draw on those experiences when you need to build a growth mindset. Work the problem, and you’ll find the answer.
Realize that all lawyers go through the transition period you’re in. You’re not an imposter. You’re not alone.
Don’t cast aside your outside interests. Your work will become all-consuming if you’re not careful. If work is your habit, then it will be harder to break that habit as you progress in your career. Find or rediscover some outside interest you love and can’t wait to get back to, which will lead you to become more efficient and effective during your time in the office.
Recognize that the expectations you have for yourself are almost certainly greater than what others expect of you. As a new lawyer, you are not expected to know the law or how to practice. If your firm or company wanted an experienced lawyer, it would have hired one. You have exactly the amount of experience (i.e., virtually none) that you’re expected to have. (Hat tip to Laura Frederick of Frederick Law)
Say no when necessary. Set boundaries and stick to them. Otherwise, you’ll end up giving too much of yourself to your job. If you’re too busy to take on a new client matter or non-billable project, say so. The implications of taking on something you can’t follow through on (i.e., leaving a client or partner in the lurch) will be exponentially worse than any impression created by saying no. (H/T Elizabeth Orsi of Hogarth Hermiston Severs)
Find a mentor, ideally multiple ones, to help you on your path. You need someone you can be frank with and who will be frank with you. (H/T Michael Clear of Wiggins and Dana)
Always be learning. This year and beyond, your instinct will be to spend as much time as possible billing hours for clients. However, your long-term success depends on investing in yourself. Read, write, and surround yourself with others who will push you to higher levels of performance. Lifelong learners, across all domains, realize compounding returns from their efforts.
Stay confident. You’re going to make mistakes. That’s inevitable. The key is to own up to them and think through how to fix them. When you make a mistake, immediately turn to someone in your firm with more experience for assistance (one more reason why it’s so important to have a mentor). But don’t fixate on mistakes. We all tend to dwell on things that go wrong and rarely stop to acknowledge our successes. Through the bad and the good, try to maintain your confidence.
Let’s Keep This Conversation Going!
I’m going to share this post on LinkedIn and invite others to contribute to the dialogue. If you’re a first-year lawyer, share a success story or a struggle. If you’re a more experienced lawyer, share a lesson learned from your own experience that will help the class of 2020 first-year lawyers.
Please find me on LinkedIn, check out my post, and leave a comment. Based on the feedback, I will write a “part two” on Attorney at Work in the months ahead.
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