Lessons for Success from a Former BigLaw Associate

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Ed. note: This is the latest installment in a series of posts on lateral associate and partner moves from Lateral Link’s team of expert contributors. Abby Gordon is a Senior Director with Lateral Link’s New York office. Abby works with attorney candidates on law firm and in-house searches, primarily in New York, Boston, and Europe. Prior to joining Lateral Link, Abby spent seven years as a corporate associate with Cleary Gottlieb, focusing on capital markets transactions for Latin American clients in New York and for the last five years for European clients in Paris. A native of Boston, Abby holds a J.D., cum laude, from Georgetown University Law Center and a B.A. in government and romance languages, magna cum laude, from Dartmouth College. Abby also worked with the International Rescue Committee as a Fulbright Scholar in Madrid, Spain. She is a member of the New York, Massachusetts and Maine Bars and is fluent in French and Spanish (and dabbles in Portuguese and Italian).

In my 7+ years in BigLaw and now 6+ years as a legal recruiter, assisting others with career planning, I have learned certain lessons I wish we’d all internalize early in our careers:

Ask questions at the start. Ask questions to clarify the substance of your assignments and questions relating to logistical and practical matters. One question that is always appropriate is, “When do you need this by?” Trust me, you’ll wish you’d asked.

Notwithstanding Lesson #1, ask yourself every question first. An essential quality of a great associate is developing the judgment to know when this is something you can figure out on your own and when this requires input from someone more senior. Be respectful of senior lawyers’ time (which is also clients’ money). Learning to problem-solve and to be resourceful is a crucial skill as a lawyer. Even the most mundane tasks are learning experiences in disguise.

Be responsive and efficient but pause before you respond. Take an extra minute to breath, think, polish and proofread your response.

Appreciate that no job is too menial. Do you feel that many of your assignments are beneath you? That a well-trained monkey could complete them? Well, there’s a method to the madness. You need to live in the weeds—often for a long time—before you can design the perfect garden.

Ask yourself what is the bigger picture. Your day-to-day tasks might be tedious and you may be overworked and exhausted but you must always make time to ask how your task relates to the big picture. This is how you develop as a lawyer: by doing the grunt work carefully and meticulously while studying and conceptualizing the work of your whole team.

Pay attention to detail. Re-read, re-read, re-read backwards. You are being paid the big bucks to complete menial tasks because the partners and the clients trust that you will do them right. You must catch the typos, even at 2:00am. The simpler the task, the more important it is to avoid cutting corners and avoid mistakes.

Recognize that organization, meeting deadlines, and a positive attitude count for at least 50%. Even if you’re not the best lawyer out there, attention to detail plus meeting deadlines—all with a smile on your face—will go a long, long way to keeping you employed.

Treat junior lawyers and administrative staff—and everyone else for that matter—with just as much respect as you treat the partners. The positive attitude in Lesson #7 should not be reserved solely for your superiors. Be kind to everyone, as it will smooth the road for you going forward. And moreover, because it’s the right thing to do.

Don’t trust blindly and assume the firm will “do the right thing”. You may feel as though you’re a valued member of a big, happy family, but ultimately law firms are businesses. Be smart and protect yourself. It’s not appropriate to e-mail me (a recruiter) via work e-mail regarding your job search. And a lesson I learned the hard way: do not give notice of your departure before your year-end bonus hits your account.

Appreciate constructive feedback. Don’t get defensive. Your seniors get annoyed, and worse, they will stop giving you feedback. Then how will you grow? How can you properly assess your prospects for advancement?

Develop authentic relationships with partners. Seek out mentors. You need someone who’ll go to bat for you. Failure to seek out and nurture a relationship with an influential partner sponsor is one of the most common mistakes that stop otherwise qualified associates from making partner.

Develop a business plan. See my 2017 article on why lawyers need business plans, whether you’re looking to move firms or not. And maintain an always-ready, updated resume and representative matters sheet.

Accept that you and only you are in charge of your professional development. Don’t assume law schools or law firm partners are looking out for your career development. Your interests may not always be aligned with the firm’s interests. Partners are busy. Be proactive and ask for specific guidance. Write down your career goals and how you plan to achieve them. This career plan is for your eyes only; it should be the result of honest and thoughtful introspection and self-assessment. Schedule weekly check-ins with yourself to take stock of your professional development needs and goals.

Keep your options open. Work towards your goals but be open to changing them or the path to reaching them. Be open to considering new opportunities. Constantly assess and reassess your options. If you never change jobs, make it an affirmative decision to stay put. If your career goals stay constant, affirmatively choose them again and again.

Practice authentic networking. Keep your LinkedIn profile up-to-date and connect systematically and in a timely manner with people you meet. Network to learn from others and to open your horizons. Don’t save building a network for when you’re desperate for a new job.

Recognize that career planning is a continuous and thoughtful process and not a one-and-done crisis management tool. Don’t be complacent. Be proactive. Maintain an ongoing dialogue with a recruiter you trust. Remember that Career Services is for alums and not just current students. Calendar regular appointments with yourself to check in and ask if you’re doing everything you can do to 1) be the best lawyer you can be, and 2) be the happiest lawyer you can be.

Believe in yourself. Develop and continuously re-evaluate your own definition of success and metrics for measuring it, in line with your personal goals and values. Appreciate constructive feedback but do not let how others view your legal skills define your worth as a human being.

I’d love to hear about your career turning points and insights from your years of practice. Please e-mail me at agordon@lateralink.com and share with me what would be on your list of lessons learned!

You can read my other career planning posts for Above the Law here.

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