What better place to start than at the beginning?
As noted in our Welcome post, a new crop of junior associates is poised to descend on the Biglaw world. I remember the excitement—and the uncertainty—of walking into the firm on my first day. I’d actually done a good amount of work during my time as a summer associate (and had the benefit of a year-long clerkship), but I still felt like I was plunging into the deep end of a pool without knowing how to swim.
I was lucky. I was assigned to the front desk in an office with a good friend—a budding M&A rockstar—who good-naturedly answered all my elementary (and sometimes dumb) questions. (You’re lucky, too. Ask your elementary/dumb questions to the B&B community in The Issues List!) But even so, when I was staffed on my first deal later that day—to assist with a “closing” happening the following day—I remember thinking anxiously: “Wait—what IS a closing exactly? How does it work? Why does it happen?” And there wasn’t really time to figure it out. Just time to fill a “closing room” with folders, apply labels from a closing checklist (that may as well have been written in a foreign language), and try to fill the folders with unfamiliar documents saved somewhere on the system. I still remember shuttling back and forth between the closing room my senior associate’s office every two minutes. “Is this it?” “Or is it this one?” “I can’t find the company officer’s certificate (::whatever that is::), could it be called something else?”
…let’s talk about how you, as a brand-new junior associate, can add value to your teams on day one.
Eventually, you start to learn the concepts and to pick up the lingo. The language looks less foreign. And you stop interrupting your mid-level and senior associates with questions every five minutes. But that process takes time. And experience. We hope that B&B might help expedite that process for you in some small ways in the future; but—today—let’s talk about how you, as a brand-new junior associate, can add value to your teams on day one. (And this is going to sound overly simplistic, but stick with me.)
The best way for you to add immediate value to your teams—even before you’ve learned anything at all at a substantive level—is to figure out what it is that you can get right in connection with a task, take responsibility for it, and get it 100% right. Even if that means simply ensuring that the formatting of the document you’re working on—the spelling, the margins, the header indentations, fonts, automatic cross-references, citations, alignment of columns in the table, whatever it is—gets done perfectly. There are always things—maybe just a few little things, but always things—that you can own and get right, starting on the first day.
This sounds too obvious to be a “tip”, I know. But it’s here for a reason. In my years of practice at an incredibly good law firm, only a small minority of new junior associates actually internalized this message, acted on it consistently, and did it well. And I get it. I’ve been there. You get so caught up in trying to get yourself up to substantive speed—deciphering the often-cryptic background and operative rules, furiously researching and precedent searching, and trying to make sense of it all (which is a daunting task at the beginning of your career)—that you give short shrift to the little, simple things. Like document formatting.
But all those little things need to be right in the final work product. And—take it from me—there’s a very good chance that the busy senior associate will turn to your work late at night—after you and the assistants have gone home—or when she’s too slammed or time is too short to hand things off to someone else to fix. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had to frantically spend time at 3:00 a.m. cleaning up simple, little things in a document before I can send it out to the partner or client…wondering, the whole time, why the clearly bright and capable junior associate couldn’t or wouldn’t take the time to do the very same thing before it reached my desk.
If you want to start out on the right foot at your firm, if you want to be viewed in a positive light straight out of the gate, even if you’re not yet in a position to add value to your matters at a more substantive level, take charge of those things that you can get right and own them. Create that zone of responsibility for yourself, and knock it out of the park.
And then build on it. Look for opportunities, constantly, to expand that zone and take ownership of a little bit more, and little bit more, always getting it 100% right. Don’t let what you don’t know swamp your ability to do what you CAN do!
Don’t let what you don’t know swamp your ability to do what you CAN do!
Importantly, it’s not just for the team’s benefit, it’s for yours. Speaking as someone who began their career struggling to catch typos and avoid minor errors, effective attention to detail is patterned behavior. It’s a skill—and a critical one—that you build, like a muscle, with exercise. And down the road, when you’re juggling many more things than you are at the beginning, it will serve you well. You’ll work faster. Avoid embarrassing comments from reviewing partners. Skip over the nauseating ritual of resending huge blast emails to large groups of important clients because the distribution list wasn’t exactly right. It’ll pay you serious dividends. Make the investment from day one.