How to Find Success in Your First Law Firm Job

This month, some 39,000 students will graduate from law school. Most will start their careers at law firms. Virtually all of these highly trained, highly intelligent, highly motivated young professionals will, about a week or so before they begin working, have a thought that goes something like this: "Oh, %@#$!"

And with good reason. Law-firm life is demanding. New associates morph overnight from know-it-all third-year law students into don't-know-jack first-year lawyers.

JD Jungle Magazine recently held round-table panels at two of the country's top law firms—Vinson & Elkins, in Dallas, and Weil, Gotshal & Manges, in New York. V&E, of course, made headlines recently as the one-time home of newly appointed White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, and Weil is a perennial Top 20 firm.

The participants ranged from managing partners to associate-relations pros. Collectively, they have seen hundreds of first-year associates pass through their offices. Follow this advice and we humbly predict you'll rise quickly to the top. Ignore it, and "Oh, %@#$!"

Wait and Switch
"There's always a way to get out of an assignment," says Weil's David Lender. "But I think a smarter approach is to grin and bear it. Once you're done, speak up and say 'Look, I just spent two months sifting through documents in a warehouse in Tallahassee. You know me: If that's what you need, I'll do it again. But is it possible for me to do something else next?' People generally respect that."

Blast the Past
"Leave your credentials at the door," says Vinson & Elkins' Rob Walters. "As a lawyer, you're no better than what you did yesterday or this morning. What you did in law school no longer matters."

Steel Yourself
"Expect to encounter real challenges," says V&E's Jeffrey Chapman. "It may sound obvious, but law-firm work is difficult. Just accepting that can make things easier."

Listen Good
At your first meeting with a partner, it's not necessary to say or do anything brilliant. It is necessary to understand your instructions. "A mistake a lot of people make is walking out of my office without knowing what I want," says Weil's Mark Hoenig. "As eager as you are to look smart, and as busy as I might be, don't walk away without knowing what I said." Take notes and ask questions, Hoenig advises. "When you leave, say things like: 'I hear what you're saying. I know what you want. I'll get right on it.' It gives me confidence that you understand."

Think Positive
"New associates often get assignments they consider boring," says Weil's Vickie Germain Kobak. It's easy to complain, but associates who get ahead approach such work with a positive attitude, she says. Recognize that so-called scut work often proves useful later. "If you do due diligence, for example, you learn how a company works. That might help in the future when you do an acquisition or a divestiture." And ask your supervisor how your task relates to the case or transaction as a whole: "You'll feel connected to the larger cause," says Germain Kobak. And don't forget: "A law firm is a team. The work has to get done. Everyone has to take his turn."

Make Your Move
Keep your eyes open for quality work and grab it when you can, says Lender. "When I was a first-year, I was assigned to work on a brief that had to be argued in court. I went to the partner and said 'Look, you know, it's not the most important motion. Why don't you let me argue it?' And he did. Less than a year on the job, I was arguing in federal court. I keep the decision on my wall."

Get Lucky
"Luck counts," says Lender. "But it's not the same kind of luck involved when you throw dice at the craps table. It's the kind you can influence so that your odds improve. I've always noticed that the people who show initiative and work hard somehow get connected to the best people and cases."

Pace Yourself
"Most young lawyers take on too much work, not too little," says V&E's Walters. "It's like going to the grocery store when you're hungry. They hear about these problems and they say 'Man, that's fascinating. I can get into this car-distribution issue or this tax problem.' What they don't realize is that once they take on a project, they have to work hard to produce something of value for the client. It's easy to underestimate what it takes. Don't let your eyes overwhelm your stomach."

Just Say No
"If people ask you to do more and you're too busy, just tell them you'd be happy to do it, but you have a lot on your plate," says Walters. Don't worry about speaking up. "It's the partner's job to set your priorities."

Feel the Love
"Having multiple partners wanting to work with you," says V&E's Jim Meyer, "is a good sign."

Smell the Coffee
"When your telephone stops ringing," says Meyer, "that's a bad sign."

Do the Time
"There's a classic line," says V&E's Chapman: "'It doesn't matter how long you're here, we just want you to do great work.' That's just not true. Hours matter."

Plan Escapes
"It's critical to maintain a personal life or you'll burn out," says Weil's Lender. The trick is to build something into your life that's going to force you to get out of the office, he says. "I'm a Duke basketball fan. People know that's important to me. If someone asks to have a meeting at 6:30, I'll say, 'Look, there's a big game at 7. Is it okay if we reschedule?' Nine times out of ten, people will. You can't have twenty hobbies or fifteen teams, but you must have one thing." Think of yourself as a corporate athlete, adds Weil's Brad Scott. "Recharge your energy, so it's there to draw on when you need it."

Don't Be Perfect
A lot of young lawyers are perfectionists, says Jurgensmeyer. "They will work and work on, say, researching a memo and not want to let it go until it's perfect." Instead of searching for perfection, aim to develop a sense of cost versus benefit. "Will more work yield a meaningful improvement? If so, keep working. If not, stop." Follow the old saw "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good."

Do Be Perfect
"Young lawyers often are not trained to be thorough and precise," says Chapman. "Their law school exams involved throwing as much intellectual stuff on the wall as they could." But in the real world, says Chapman, "sweat the details. The details matter enormously."

Bill Smart
Associates tend to underestimate their billable hours, says Walters. They work in the library for three hours but they don't find their case, so they put down only an hour and a half. "Part of the reason for that is guilt. You come out of school, look at your billable hours and say 'Gosh, I just charged this client $1,000 for what I did before lunch.' That can be hard to swallow. Ultimately, though, the decision is usually not the associate's. It's the billing attorney's."

Hit the Deadline
"It's a fundamental law of firm life," says Chapman. "If somebody you're working for needs something at a certain time, get it to him. It's rare that an associate who misses deadlines in the first three months of practicing law ends up being successful."

Sound Alarms Early
If you must miss a deadline, "give me the heads-up early," says Jurgensmeyer. "Nobody likes surprises. Say 'I've got a real problem and this just isn't going to work out.' As long as you don't do it often, and as long as you give me enough time to find a solution, it shouldn't be a big deal."

Cross the T's
"Something I find extremely annoying," says Walters, "is when somebody gives me a document and says 'It's not really finished, but I know you're going to revise it, so I'm giving it to you anyway.' That's just like missing a deadline."

Finish, Finish, Finish
It's crucial to see projects through to the end, says Walters. "Let's say you've written this beautiful brief -- Oliver Wendell Holmes would be proud of it. You give it to your secretary and ask her to fax it to the other side because you agreed to get it there by 5. She sends it, and you raise your arms in victory and march on out the door." Bad move. "Make sure that fax comes back with a file stamp on it," says Walters. "Wait for a callback from whomever you've faxed it to. Bird-dog everything to a conclusion. Nobody has a compelling interest in making sure it's done right like you do."

Never, Ever Bluff
"It's okay not to know the answer," says Jeffrey Chapman. "But don't bluff. If you don't know, say you don't know. Tell them you'll find out and get back to them. Bluffing only leads to bigger problems." Remember, you're dealing with sophisticated clients, adds Rob Walters. "The idea that bluffing is not transparent is ridiculous."

Fess Up If You Foul Up
"Don't try to hide mistakes -- with partners or with clients," says Jurgensmeyer. "Tell us now what they are. If you hide them, you'll get into trouble down the road. The most important thing you have is your reputation. If you lose that, you're in trouble."

Find a Way
"Clients have a right to push to get great results," says Jurgensmeyer. "It's up to you to find a way to make things work." On the other hand, says Walters, "if a client becomes abusive or says or does something grossly inappropriate, let a partner know."

Avoid Sneak Attacks
Older opposing lawyers will sometimes try to trick younger lawyers or intimidate them, says Jim Meyer. "They'll say things like 'Well, this is the standard in the industry' or 'This is standard language. We always do it this way.' If you don't know what they say to be 100 percent true, simply say 'I hear you, but I'm going to have to reflect on that.' "

Get Yourself a Guru
"The important thing about a mentor relationship is the chemistry," says Weil's Brad Scott. "Even if your firm has a formal mentoring program, seek your own advisers within the firm. Informal relationships often work best."

Dress Like a Pro
Whether you're talking about formal dress or casual dress, says Germain Kobak, the question to ask is "Do I look professional? Am I the kind of person clients or partners want representing them—as opposed to the person they want to sit and watch TV with or the person they want to ask on a date?"

Stay Off TV
When composing e-mail, "use the Mike Wallace Test," says V&E's Walters. "If you could stand getting grilled by Wallace about the message, go ahead and write it. If not, don't."

Mind Your Manners
"The high person on the totem pole usually pays for dinner, drinks or other outings with clients," says Lender. "But be prepared to pay anyway." "The low person on the totem pole pays for cabs," says Meyer. "Be on time, always," says Germain Kobak. "Don't offer to carry a partner's bag," says Chapman. "It's a sure sign you're a suck-up."

Don't Worry
"First-years spend too much time worrying about how they're doing," says Walters. "They've been living up to someone else's expectations for a long time. They're used to being graded. They bring all that baggage with them, and it's very difficult to jettison those things and just try to get it right."

Worry
"I would venture to say that very few of us have totally jettisoned that desire to please," says Chapman. "It stays with you for a long time. The truth is, we take comfort in our young lawyers' fretting. The best lawyers never shed that -- they just learn to manage it better."

Be Yourself, Stupid
"When you get to a law firm, you're working with a lot of smart people and a lot of resources, and you're no longer allowed to send out a letter without showing it to somebody. There's a tendency to look at all that and to forget what you're made of," says Hoenig. "If you're not careful, you can lose your sense of who you are and what you're capable of. Once you stop feeling that, you stop thinking and you start reacting. And once you go down that slide, you're lost."

Dial 911
What if you do go down that slide? "First-years can lose perspective," says Brad Scott. "They often think things are worse than they actually are. So first, we can help figure out if there's a real problem. If there is, we can find solutions more often than you might think. Don't assume there aren't solutions. There are. Talk to someone. We can help."

Solve the Problem
"In the end, don't measure your success in the number of trials you win or awards you get," says Walters. "Measure it in terms of solving clients' problems. That ought to be your guide."

Be Like This Guy
"I'll paint you a picture of the type of first-year I like," says Hoenig. "He works long hours, he tries, he takes the initiative, he always comes back to me with ideas, he never says he has researched something that he hasn't. He makes my life easy, and I can trust him. Think about that."

Follow Up
After the first meeting, says Hoenig, put as much energy as you can, as quickly as you can, into addressing whatever matter you were asked to address. Then go back to the partner quickly -- so quickly that he knows you can't possibly have the full answer yet—and tell him you want to bounce a few ideas off of him. "He'll see you've been busting your butt," says Hoenig. "He'll know you heard what he was saying. He'll see that you're thinking and exploring. And you'll get the benefit of having him tell you where to go next."

Watch Your Neighbors
"Look around and see how busy your peers are," says V&E's Randy Jurgensmeyer. "If you're working a lot harder, take that into account. If you're not working as much as they are, get yourself more work."

Call the Client—Now
"The biggest mistake you can make with a client is to be unresponsive," says V&E's Meyer. "Return clients' phone calls quickly and take on their problems as if they're your own. Clients, more than anything, want to hear back from you, even if it's just to say 'Hey, I don't have an answer yet, but here's when I will.'"

Forget About the Rain
Should you try to bring in new clients? No, says Chapman. "A young lawyer has enough pressures. The pressure to be a rainmaker shouldn't be one of them. The best opportunities for a flourishing career are right on your desk. Exploit those."

Go Easy, Romeo
"As long as it's a legal relationship," says Weil's Hoenig, "dating in the office is a case-by-case decision. But I would say this: Given that this is the place in which you've chosen to practice your career, remember that there are additional risks. In general, I'd think twice as hard as I would with an ordinary relationship."

Finally, Think About All This . . .

• "The most important characteristics you need are perseverance and an eye for detail," says Jurgensmeyer.

• "A law-firm job is what you make of it," says Scott.

• "If you don't understand, ask," says Germain Kobak.

• "Serve the client," says Meyer.

• "When I was a first-year, my attitude was basically:

'You want me to wash the windows? I'll wash the windows,'" says Lender.

• "Be the person that others want to turn to," says Walters.

• "If you compromise your integrity, it's like ripping open a pillow and trying to gather the feathers—you will never get it back," says Chapman.

• "New associates tend to think of a law firm as an institution. It's not. It's just people. Make your personal relationships work," says Hoenig. "That's the code to crack."

Courtesy of JD Jungle Magazine