Top 5 Mistakes Young Associates Should Avoid
By Stephanie Russell-Kraft
Law360, New York (April 30, 2014, 3:20 PM ET) — When young attorneys join a new firm fresh out of law school, they’re eager to start putting their hard-earned legal knowledge to use, but the realities of legal work can make them prone to early mistakes that could put their careers in jeopardy, attorneys say.
A new associate may have graduated with honors, but that doesn’t mean he or she will succeed as a lawyer, especially in an industry that works at a much faster pace and with different demands from law school, according to Caren Ulrich Stacey, a specialist in lawyer recruitment, development and diversity.
“In law school, they’ve got weeks or months to put a document together, and the professor is not necessarily looking for a particular format,” she said. “But when you get in to a law firm situation, you may have hours to research and write something, and they’re looking not only for the substance and content, but everything you need to make it look great.”
According to Ulrich, many young associates come into a firm mistakenly thinking that their technical and legal skills will get them to the top, when, in reality, “that’s only one part of the success equation.” A good attorney, after all, is more than just a strong analytical mind, she said.
Here, attorneys and legal experts share the most common mistakes associates make — and how they can learn to avoid them:
Ignoring the Business
One of the most common but forgivable mistakes young associates make is forgetting to see the big picture: the firm’s business.
Since young associates usually aren’t up on the strategy of the cases they’re working on, it’s easy for them to forget to incorporate business development into their practice early on, according to Seth Horowitz, president of business development firm Horowitz Agency.
“Faux pas number one is failure to understand how legal Darwinism works,” he said. “Business generation trumps all, and laying the foundation to become a rainmaker is a top priority.”
In order to make sure they don’t fall into a lower-paid nonequity partner track, Horowitz recommends that young associates seek out mentors within their firm to learn the business of legal work from the get-go.
Along the same line, many second and third-year associates forget to look at the big picture — the firm’s relationship with its clients — when they start moving up the legal hierarchy, experts say.
“A lot of mid-level associates — myself included — kept doing work that with just a little extra time and effort could have been taught to junior associates,” a former attorney at a large New York-based law firm said about her time as an associate. That kind of work included diligence, document drafting and initial editing, she said.
Many young associates too easily get bogged down in details and narrowly targeted tasks without stopping to think about how they could do those tasks more efficiently or with a better eye to client satisfaction, according to Holland & Knight LLP partner Min K. Cho.
“If you can put aside your billable hour goal requirement and focus on doing an efficient job and a great job for the client, you’re going to meet your goal because you’ll get more work and more sophisticated work from your partners,” Cho said.
Not Showing Enthusiasm
Another critical mistake many young associates make is failing to realize that the core qualities they need to get on a partner track go beyond their legal skills, according to Ulrich, who has hired thousands of lawyers over the course of her career. The most important qualities a young attorney can have are enthusiasm and professionalism, she said.
“A lot of partners say, ‘I can teach them the legal skills but if they don’t have the intellectual curiosity to do this job, then the rest of that doesn’t matter,’” Ulrich said.
This type of behavior needs to be cultivated early on, she said, noting that associates who master enthusiasm are preparing the same types of skills they’ll need when they’re working with clients later on in their careers. Just as partners value enthusiasm in their associates, clients value enthusiasm in their partners, she said.
“A partner recently had a first-year associate email her in the middle of the night with an idea about the case, and the partner said I don’t love that the associate was up in the middle of the night working, but at the same time I do love that the associate was up and that they cared about the case,” Ulrich said, adding, “The enthusiasm mattered more to the partner than the idea.”
For Cho, showing enthusiasm can be as simple as initiating conversations about casework with partners or expressing appreciation for being asked to work on a project. Sometimes that even means sharing in the stress that can come with a difficult workload, he said.
Forgetting to Spell-Check
Many partners and legal industry experts say that they are still amazed at the number of associates who forget the importance of detail and great writing skills when they begin working for a firm.
“Developing a reputation as sloppy or mediocre writer can doom a newly minted lawyer,” said Horowitz, who encourages associates to take extra time to make sure the work they are producing is “top of the line.”
This means that when a partner asks for a draft of a motion, that draft needs to be picture- perfect, according to Ulrich. She said she often reminds associates that “proofing and pretty” really do matter for their careers.
“You can do the best legal research and write the best brief that any partner has ever seen, but if it’s not proofed and put in a format the partner can use, then the partner will question a lot of things, including your reliability and your consistency,” she said. “Associates seem to think that this is extra.”
For partners like Marc Lazo, chairman of Wilson Harvey Browndorf LLP’s litigation practice, correcting an associate’s spelling, grammar or citation is simply a waste of time. Lazo said that he is annoyed “beyond words” any time a younger attorney submits to him a brief with inconsistent citations, formatting errors or garbled syntax.
“The way it comes to me should be the way it’s going to be filed with the court,” he said
Not Asking for Feedback
Since partners tend to point out when young attorneys make glaring errors, many associates at large law firms make the mistake of assuming that no feedback is good feedback, according to Ulrich, who advises fresh recruits to proactively approach partners to find how what they could be doing better.
“Everybody is interested in feedback, but they’re worried that it’s going to be bad,” she said. “[You need to realize] that feedback might be bad but that it’s the only way you will get better.”
If a firm’s partners begin to offer an associate less and less work, the associate should take it as a sign to find out what exactly he or she is doing wrong, she added.
Being able to ask for feedback goes hand in hand with being able to take criticism, according to Lazo, who said he has seen too many associates shy away from engaging with partners because they are afraid of getting in trouble.
“I appreciate when they do ask for feedback,” he said. “It shows that they’re trying to learn and it shows that they have the initiative to learn.”
By learning to ask for feedback on a regular basis, attorneys will also develop skills that will allow them to succeed later on in the legal field, which is rooted in collaboration, according to Cho, who said he still relies on feedback to grow professionally.
While many of the above-mentioned mistakes can be forgiven, the mistake of not owning up to shortcomings is the worst of all, legal experts say. Once an associate has lost the respect and trust of a firm’s partners, it can be nearly impossible to regain.
Lazo says he may be hard on his associates in order to elicit top quality work, but he doesn’t expect them to be perfect. Everybody makes mistakes, he said, but the important thing to remember is that they can be overcome.
“If you try and cover it up, you’re not going to be someone I can trust, and when I lose trust in you, the relationship is really going to crumble,” he said.
What is more, he added, associates shouldn’t get discouraged, dejected or disinterested in the work they’re doing after they’ve fessed up to their mistake. While they may face increased scrutiny for a short time thereafter, they need to be able to take that criticism in stride, he said.
“If you f— something up, it’s not the end of the world,” he said. “Just come back and do it better.”
–Editing by John Quinn and Richard McVay.
All Content © 2003-2014, Portfolio Media, Inc.