8 Simple Things You Can Do To "Succeed" As A First-Year Associate

Published: Sep 23, 2022

 Career Readiness       Law       Workplace Issues       

We’re under no illusions that this post is the first to address the question of what makes a “good” junior associate (given that a quick Google search will reveal numerous identical-sounding pieces). What makes this post different is the simplicity of our suggestions that can help you from Day One. We hope you’ll agree that these eight pieces of advice are some of the easiest to take—with the most immediate payoff.

Big picture advice isn’t helpful for first-year associates

There’s a lot of great advice out there about how junior associates can be successful, and at first glance a lot of it might sound simple. In reality, however, much of this advice revolves around bigger, abstract, and/or long-term concepts that might be impossible to execute when you first walk in the door. Here are a few examples:

  • “Make yourself indispensable.” Meaning, do so many useful things that the senior associates and partners can’t do without you. That sounds great…when you finally figure out what all those useful things are. Once you’ve been at the firm for a while and been staffed on a number of cases or deals, you’ll start to see the types of things that junior associates do that are essential to those matters. At that point, you can make yourself indispensable—but don’t be surprised if you’re a second-year associate before you figure it all out.
  • “Be a value add.” Pretty similar to making yourself indispensable, except that we’ve also seen “value add” used to mean anticipating needs and proposing actions. Both are fantastic ways to add value, but they’ll take even longer to learn.
  • “Understand client needs.” See above.
  • “Find mentors.” See above.

You get the idea. Again, all of these suggestions are  important and accurate, but none of them are helpful when you’re just starting out.

A first impression does matter, but early impressions matter more

We hear all the time that the first impression you make is the most important—and if there’s one thing that first-year associates (should) worry about, it’s making good impressions. But in our view, good early impressions, PLURAL, are even more important than a single first impression, and you have a lot more power over creating them.

Numerous psychological studies offer scientific reasons supporting the premise that first impressions are powerful, revolving primarily around how rapidly our brains perceive and process information. Precise numbers vary, but there seems to be general agreement that we form impressions within seconds by making superficial observations (about appearance, mannerisms, etc.), drawing inferences based on those observations, and then creating a sort of first-impression filter that (in theory) will always affect how you perceive someone.

Obviously, this means that on your very first day of work, you should take care to present yourself well. This could mean dressing appropriately, engaging in proper hygiene (again, we wouldn’t say it if we didn’t have to), smiling, standing up straight, speaking in a confident voice—in other words, all those things you “should” do to ensure that your overall vibe is “professional.”

At the same time, we don’t recommend getting TOO bogged down in the first impression you’re likely to make, for a very important reason: Biases, whether social or cognitive, heavily influence the conclusions that people draw from initial perceptions, and in many instances we have little to no control over what those perceptions are.

For example, one popular piece of advice is that good posture is an important part of making a good first impression. For many people, however, good posture isn’t an option for a variety of physical reasons; think of someone suffering from severe scoliosis who is physically incapable of fully straightening their spine. Another example is an emphasis on speaking “confidently” , which could be quite challenging for someone with a speech impediment.

So while a first impression is important, we believe it’s far more important to focus on making impressions that ARE within your control.

Making good early impressions actually means avoiding early bad impressions

That subheader might sound kind of…wrong. Making a good impression suggests taking active steps to impress, while avoiding a bad impression sounds more like striving to be baseline. Bear with us.

Of COURSE actively making a good impression as a first-year associate is ideal, if what we mean by that is doing impressive things that make you stand out. And it’s not impossible; maybe you worked as a patent agent for years before going to law school, so you already know how to do a lot of what a first-year patent associate should know. Great! You can knock the socks right off the partner’s feet with your surprisingly advanced work product!

But what most first-year associates don’t fully appreciate is that partner expectations are HIGH.  A lot of the things that might seem above and beyond—actively seeking out assignments instead of waiting to get them, staying late to finish something even though the partner said you could leave—are actually…well, a given. The reality of law firms is that baseline expectations are pretty intense, and if you’ve never worked in that kind of environment before, it can be a big adjustment.

In fact, the ways in which associates can affirmatively make good impressions are likely beyond first-year associates, simply because first-year associates don’t know them. Adding value, anticipating needs…forget it, most first-year associates are just trying to remember how to enter their time.

And THAT’S OK. Partners might be demanding, but most of them are also human, and they know all this. They expect a learning curve—but they also have standards. Meeting those standards, therefore, should be your goal. Which is precisely what we mean when we say, avoid making bad impressions. If you can meet first-year expectations, you’re winning.

Simple things you can do (or not do) to succeed as a first-year associate

  1. Bring a notepad and pen wherever you go. It is ALWAYS your job as a first-year to take notes. Always. Even if you have absolutely no reason to believe you’re walking into a scenario in which notes are necessary, still bring the notepad and pen. If you don’t take notes, partners will not be pleased.
  2. Confirm that you understand your notes. Whether a partner is giving you an assignment or you’re sitting in on a client call, always make sure that you know what your notes mean and why you took them. If it’s an assignment, regurgitate it back to the partner to make sure you know what you’re doing (succinctly). If you took notes on a client call, take two minutes after to ask about context or meaning and find out if the partner needs you to do anything with those notes. It’s hard to be too thorough as a first-year.
  3. Follow up, no matter what. It is ALWAYS your job as a first-year to follow up with the more senior associates or partners, and to follow up as many times as you have to to make sure the work proceeds. That might mean physically walking to a partner’s office after three emails with no replies. Sure, you might worry that you’re being annoying, and we can’t promise the partner won’t be annoyed. But we can promise the partner will be MORE annoyed if a deadline slips because you didn’t follow up enough.
  4. Put everything on your calendar. We mean everything, not just meetings and important deadlines. If a partner tells you to follow up with them at the end of the week on an assignment, put “follow up with partner on x assignment” on your calendar for Friday. Why? See #3 above.
  5. Acknowledge receipt of emails. Even if you just reply to an email with “Got it, thanks,” at least the other person knows you received and read the email. It means they can cross that item off their list knowing they passed it off to you, rather than having to wonder.
  6. There is no such thing as a rough draft. Well, arguably every draft is a rough draft until the partner signs off, but what we mean is that every draft you submit should be the best possible draft you’re capable of. Partners expect your best work.
  7. Be nice to support staff. This should go without saying, because we should treat everyone with kindness and respect, but…just because you are an associate does not mean you are above a copy center employee. You cannot function in your job without support staff. Literally. The copy center can mean making or missing a court deadline. Those people keep the firm running.
  8. Own your mistakes. This will not make you look bad, unless they’re dumb mistakes. Partners expect first-years to make a ton of mistakes, and as long as you’ve done your best, they won’t judge those mistakes. They will, however, judge how you handle them. Covering up, deflecting blame, and making excuses will all make you look far worse than a reasonable mistake ever could.

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Doing every single thing on this list might not make you stand out as a superstar, but we can promise that NOT doing them will make you stand out in all the wrong ways. Worry about superstardom in your second year.

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