By: Anthony M. Bottenfield
It’s that time of year: the unofficial start of fall, football season, back to school and the first day of work for many new attorneys. For some, this may be their first real job or at least their first full-time job working as an attorney in a law firm. Every year I serve as a mentor to soon-to-be attorneys as a co-chair of my firm’s summer associate program. In my role as a team leader at the firm, I work with partners and associates to manage workflow and discuss problems or issues that arise day-to-day. Over the years, I have come to the inevitable conclusion that the older I get, the less I know. However, I do have a few tips for the green attorneys entering practice. What I’ve learned might help those of you just starting out.
This seems like an obvious suggestion, but it can be intimidating for anyone to walk into a partner’s corner office, even if that partner has an open-door policy. All the same, in law it is critical that everyone starts and stays on the same page and that is all about communication. From the time that the assignment is given, make sure that you understand what is being asked and ask questions if you do not. Do not feel awkward about keeping your assigning attorney apprised of the status of your work. Let your assigning attorneys know that you are working on their projects and that you are making progress. Good communication gives senior attorneys a comfort level and trust in you that will pay dividends down the road.
Become a part of the fabric of your office—even if it means stepping outside of your comfort zone. Work to build relationships with everyone in your office, not just members of your team or practice group. Many staffers feel taken for granted by attorneys—don’t be that person. Show your appreciation for others by sharing a little bit of your time and getting to know them. You never know when you will need extra help from a different practice group, or someone else’s assistant or paralegal. Remember to be humble and know where you stand in the chain of command—for new associates with no experience, that’s somewhere near the bottom. Learning the ropes will take patience and time, but making the effort is a sign of maturity. These practice pointers are key to making your time in the office more enjoyable.
For most of you, the first year of practice will bring more writing than you have ever done before. Each writing opportunity brings with it the chance for a mistake. It is important from the outset to not only be the best writer but also to be a careful writer. The best practice is to review and re-review your work. Take a timeout, walk around the office and edit your work with fresh eyes before you submit it. Increasingly, email is the preferred method of communication; watch your tone and accuracy. Your writing may be the only way that you leave an impression—good or bad—on co-workers, clients and opposing counsel. You should strive for perfection in everything that you write because others will be expecting that from you.
Seek a Mentor
The starting place for your career will undoubtedly impact mentoring. Take an active role in finding an experienced attorney—co-worker or not—who you can use as a sounding board as well as an adviser and confidant. The stresses of the practice of law are no secret. Finding a trusted member of the bar to advise you may be your best professional development asset.
Set the Tone
The best piece of advice I got as a new attorney was that it is easier to make a good reputation than to get rid of a bad reputation. Changing a negative impression or perception is hard; worrying about it negatively impacts your work, and your work is all that matters in your formative years as an attorney. Make a positive impact immediately by jumping at the opportunity to prove yourself. You should be mentally prepared. Sometimes the opportunity to shine happens suddenly. Don’t be surprised. For example, during my first few months of practice I was unexpectedly assigned to a large case for an important longtime client. The case eventually litigated over the span of six weeks at Philadelphia City Hall and went up to the state Superior Court twice. I embraced the opportunity to show what I could offer and the experience was priceless. Starting any new job is daunting. Starting at a new law job can be more intimidating than other workplaces. Only you have control over whether you start your law practice on the right foot. Whether you are in a firm, judge’s chambers, company or government office, following these five tips will help you succeed at making a good first impression.
Anthony M. Bottenfield is an associate in Cohen Seglias Pallas Greenhall & Furman’s construction group and concentrates his practice on construction litigation. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 215-564-1700.