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5 Rules Every New Associate Must Know (But No One Will Tell You)

The Careerist

September 14, 2013

Secrets © vladimirfloyd - Fotolia.comToday's guest blogger is Helen Wan, author of The Partner Track, a new novel about a young Asian American woman up for partner at a prestigious law firm (St. Martin’s Press). Wan is an associate general counsel at Time Inc. 

It's fall, and that means that law firms everywhere are busily ushering in a new crop of first-year associates. If you're at a big firm, you're probably going through orientation—learning about firm policies, CLE requirements, and the best drafting and billing practices. All good and necessary stuff. 

But as a former Big Law associate, I can tell you that you need to know the unwritten rules of the road. So here's what's never openly discussed, but should be: 

1. Don't do/say anything that will get you designated the "class jerk." In every entering class, there's a new associate who gets branded as the one within the first five minutes of arrival, usually on the basis of a single careless or thoughtless comment. One associate told his officemate during their first week at the firm: “Buying my own lunch has become anathema to me.” You guessed it. The phrase quickly became attached to Mr. Anathema, and I’d venture to say the lunch invitations may have flowed a bit fewer and farther between. Moral of the story: think before you speak, and make sure you know (and trust) your audience.

2.  But don’t be so unobtrusive that you blend into the furniture. Remember Erich Segal's Love Story? It featured a privileged, brainy jock named Oliver Barrett who offers his (spot-on) philosophy about life: Spending an hour in Dillon Field House is worth two in Widener Library. That same principle applies in Big Law. An hour at the firm's Friday cocktail party is worth two holed up in your office.

But use that time wisely. Don't park yourself in the corner with a cocktail wiener and your officemate. Introduce yourself to at least one senior attorney at every firm social function, preferably someone who is a potential mentor or the partner who's in charge of a matter you want to work on. 

3. Don’t ask people to be your mentor out of the blue. Many colleagues have told me, in bemused tones, about junior lawyers who just show up at their door and say, “Hi! Will you be my mentor?”

Meaningful relationships with mentors and sponsors need to be cultivated carefully over time. (The basic difference between the two: a mentor takes you to lunch; a sponsor talks about you at their lunches.) I know of one young lawyer who remembered a research interest that a particular senior partner mentioned in passing at a CLE presentation. A week later, he sent the senior lawyer a journal article directly related to that topic, with a note, “Thought this might be of interest. Thanks for a timely CLE last Thursday.” With that one simple and smart gesture, he got himself a powerful sponsor who stuck with him his whole career.

4.  Don't be afraid to take credit. Anyone who’s ever been an in Big Law knows how rare it is to get public credit or praise from a partner. So be sure not to squander the compliment if it happens. If you are singled out at a department meeting for a job well done (hell, yeah, you did spend your entire weekend perfecting that research memo), own it. Don’t waste your two and a half seconds in the firm spotlight aw-shucks-ing. Don't say: "It was really a team effort; I didn't do all that much."

Remember: If a senior partner is praising you in front of the firm, the only correct answer is a strong "thank you."

5. Don't forget to be nice—to everyone. As a young associate, I was amazed at the number of junior associates who barged into the place and promptly started screaming at assistants and paralegals. Um, hello, McFly: assistants know more about the firm than you do. They know where the bodies are buried, whose message you should return first, and who to call when your printer isn’t working and the Helpdesk is closed.

Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? Email chief blogger Vivia Chen at [email protected]

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Magic Johnson has cultivated and still cultivates relationships with the "little people." When he played for the Lakers, he knew the names of those workers who handed out the programs and cleaned the arena after the games. Since his net worth is estimated to be over $500m, his formula is guidance to all, law firm associates included.

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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