Slow at Work? Don’t Panic. The Year is Young.

If you are one of many lawyers who bill their time, each year starts anew. One associate may have billed 2,500 hours last year and another billed only 1,500, but on January 1, they both start at zero.

So we’re now a month into the new year. If you find yourself behind target, don’t panic. [Don’t know what your target is? I walk you through how to figure it out here.]

Depending on your practice group, a slow start to the year is totally normal. Some corporate groups are very busy at the end of the year, so the first quarter is slow. Some litigation groups experience lower hours at the end of the year (judges take time off and nobody wants to set deadlines for the end of December) and then cases pick up again in January.

If you are a brand new attorney who started work in the fall of 2017, remember that you were not the only associate who started work that day. Your firm didn’t necessarily have tons of extra work sitting around waiting for newly minted lawyers to pick up the slack.  In addition, the firm’s current associates were trying to hit their hours for the end of the year, so work may have been a little slow to trickle down to you.

So what should you do?

First and obviously, ask for work. Go through your firm’s assignment process but also reach out to your mentors and attorneys you have worked with in the past. Even if they don’t have work for you immediately, you will stay on their radar.

Second, think about the kind of work you want to do. Slow periods are great times to take a step back and think critically about your career trajectory. Itching to work on an antitrust case? Approach partners in that group and ask for work. Or take some time to read up on current antitrust news and get in touch with your business development team and offer to write an article or a client alert.

Third, get on a pro bono case. Do some good and get some great skills on a case.

Photo:  Daria Shevtsova on Unsplash

Dragging at Work? How to Stay Motivated

We’ve talked before about giving yourself a plan for the week to stay productive.  But sometimes, you just don’t feel like doing anything.

I find myself lagging when I have work to do but no pressing deadlines. It’s hard to get motivated to get stuff done without a sense of urgency, but it’s also not that fun having projects hanging over my head.

My solution is twofold:

  1. I block out time in my calendar for each task I need to get done.
  2. I make up smaller, internal deadlines.

Let’s say I have to research and draft an argument in a brief.

First, I take a look at my calendar for the day and block out the time I think I need to research and write it. For this project, I will assign myself 4 hours in total.

Second, I break out the project into smaller steps. I give myself 2 hours to research, 30 minutes to outline the argument, 1.25 hours to write it, and 15 minutes to proof it.

As the afternoon ticks by, my calendar notifications remind me where I should be in the process. As I complete each step, I also like to cross that item off my to do list, giving me an additional (if minor) sense of accomplishment which in turn motivates me to continue.

What do you do if following these steps isn’t enough – if you’re still struggling to get anything done?

As a last ditch effort, I set a timer on my phone for fifteen minutes and just start writing the argument. No research, no plan, just pure stream of consciousness. At the end of the fifteen minutes, what I’ve written is probably not great, in fact, it’s often pretty bad! But at least I’ve gotten something on the page, and after fifteen minutes of constant work, I usually find that I can drum up enough motivation to keep at it for a while longer.

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A Case Study: Attention to Detail

One of the key qualities strong associates demonstrate is attention to detail. Your job is to sweat the small stuff. But it’s not always clear what this means in practice. Let’s take a look at an example.

The task: Junior attorney is asked to turn comments on a draft brief. Senior attorney has already entered comments into the brief using tracked changes.

Junior attorney does the following:

  • Reviews the changes one by one, accepting them and making necessary edits as she reviews: deletes an extra space here, fixes a typo there, etc.
  • After accepting all comments, junior attorney double checks her work by looking back at the edited draft from senior attorney to make sure she addressed all the tracked changes.
  • Junior attorney sends the revised draft back to senior attorney.

The grade: How would you grade junior attorney’s attention to detail here?

Continue reading “A Case Study: Attention to Detail”

The Big Picture: Preparing For Your New Job

The bar exam is over, summer is winding down, and junior lawyers all over the country are gearing up to head to work. This is an exciting time, and I encourage you to enjoy your last bit of freedom before entering the workforce full-time.  Here are a few tips to smooth your transition from law student to lawyer.

1. Get your home in order

Are you moving to start your new job? If so, make sure you unpack completely before you start work.  You do not want to come home to rooms full of empty boxes after a long day at the office.  Even if you worked full-time prior to entering law school, you may find it hard to get back into the 9-to-5 groove after three years of a flexible schedule, especially if your new groove is actually closer to 9-to-whenever the work is done.

2. Automate everything

This may seem extreme, but you should simplify your everyday life as much as possible before you start your job. You can set up automatic bill payment, housecleaning, laundry pick-up, DVR recording, and on – whatever makes sense for your life, schedule, and budget. Prepare for the worst case scenario: lots of work, all the time.  Even if you are not super busy from the start, you may find yourself exhausted at the end of the work day from the stress of learning a new job. Save your brainpower for work.

3. Shop within reason

Dress codes vary widely by office, so I suggest you hold off on any major clothes shopping until after you’ve been at work for a couple of weeks to get a sense for your office norms.  But at a minimum (and obviously), you need to make sure you are neat and presentable starting on day one.  A good rule of thumb is to wear a suit your first day.  Over time, you will probably dress more casually, as very few offices actually require formal business dress these days.  And don’t be afraid to show your personality through your clothing if it makes you happy! But do keep a blazer in your office in case you get called into a formal meeting.

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Summer Fridays: Summer Associates & Interns Have Questions. I Have Answers.

Welcome to Summer Fridays, where I’m answering questions from summer associates and interns. Have a question for me to answer? Email it to thislawyerlife@gmail.com.

Today I respond to a summer associate wondering how to improve his attention to detail.

Question: I just had my mid-summer review. My feedback was generally good, but I was instructed to work on my attention to detail. Any suggestions?

Answer:

Attention to detail is extremely important as a junior associate.  At the same time, it’s an area where a lot of people struggle.  When you are instructed to improve your attention to detail, you’re really being told to stop making little mistakes. This applies to both the substance and formatting of your work product.  Some tips:

1) Proofread everything: memos, document mark-ups, emails, etc. Figure out a foolproof way to catch errors. For me, that means printing out the document and reviewing in hard copy. You could also send it to your secretary to review. Or read it from the bottom up, starting with the last sentence. Reading out of context sometimes makes it easier to catch errors.

2) Pay attention to formatting: Your memo may include a killer legal argument, but if you use multiple fonts or font sizes, inconsistent spacing, weird margins, or present a multi-page wall of text without headers, the reader’s eye is going to be drawn to that stuff, not the substance. Ask for sample work product from your assigning attorney to get a sense for their preferred style and mimic it.

3) Use the Bluebook: Even if you are asked to send your research in an email vs. a formal memo, you should still use proper bluebook format for the cases cited.

4) Review markups without tracked changes: If you are asked to turn edits on a document and to make your edits in tracked changes, look at the document without tracked changes showing before sending it to your supervisor.  This will help you catch any typos, formatting problems, or substantive issues, which are easy to miss in a mark-up.

5) Before handing in an assignment: The last thing you should do before turning in an assignment is to look back at your notes from the initial request to make sure you answered the question asked.

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Summer Fridays: Summer Associates & Interns Have Questions. I Have Answers.

Welcome to Summer Fridays, where I’m answering questions from summer associates and interns. Have a question for me to answer? Email it to thislawyerlife@gmail.com.

Today I respond to a summer associate wondering if she should expand her work to other practice areas.

Question: I am summering at a big firm. I am sure I want to do M&A work. Do I have to take on assignments from other groups?

Answer: If your firm requires summers to work on a variety of assignments, then yes, you do need to take on more than just M&A work during your summer.

Remember, this is essentially a 12-week job interview. You need to demonstrate that you can follow the rules.

However, even if diversifying your workload is merely encouraged but not required, you should do it for your short-term and long-term career growth.

Here’s why:

1) Practice group assignments are not up to you.

Even if you are sure that you want to join the M&A practice group, the hard truth is that the decision is not up to you. Some firms recruit for specific practice areas. More commonly, practice group assignments are made at the time the next batch of first-year associates is ready to join the firm, based on the firm’s business needs at that time.

Shortly before you join as a full-time associate, the firm will likely reach out to ask you to rank your top few practice groups. If you only worked on M&A deals during your summer, how are you going to pick a second or third choice? Maybe you went to lunch with a partner in the real estate group and had a good time. That’s great. But do you know what that person is like to work for? Or, perhaps more importantly, what the senior associates in that group are like to work for? How busy are they? What kind of work do the first years actually do all day?

Look, maybe you’ll win the practice group lottery, but maybe you won’t. If M&A doesn’t need any first years at the moment, or there are three associates vying for two spots, you’re putting yourself at a major disadvantage if you have literally zero experience with any other group.

2) Broader exposure is helpful for your end-of-summer evaluation.

Most firms conduct a formal evaluation of you during the summer, both to provide feedback to you and to build a file to support the ultimate decision to give you a job offer. Working across groups and with multiple attorneys gives you a chance to build more relationships and impress more lawyers.

3) Your true interests might surprise you.

I can think of several associates from my own summer class who went into the summer determined to end up in practice group A and then loved the lawyers and work in practice group B or C or D so much that they changed course. You will not have this opportunity to so easily float among practice groups again. Take advantage! At the least, you’ll confirm your desire for M&A above other practice groups.

4) Making connections across groups is helpful for your long-term growth at the firm.

One of the ways big firms attract, retain, and expand their business is by promoting themselves as “one stop shops.” In practice, this might mean that the M&A group will reach out to the white-collar group for assistance on the due diligence piece of a deal, advising the client on potential foreign corruption risks involved in an acquisition. In doing so, attorneys in the M&A group will reach out to the attorneys they know in the white-collar group. This goes both ways – a litigation attorney might get a call from a client wanting to acquire another company. The litigator is going to need to loop in someone from M&A to work the deal.

It’s never too early to start building those relationships. I can tell you from experience that it pays off – you would be surprised at the number of attorneys who remember working with you as a summer associate and will reach out to you if they need to consult a lawyer in your practice group, even years later.

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Summer Fridays: Summer Associates & Interns Have Questions. I Have Answers.

Welcome to Summer Fridays, where I’m answering questions from summer associates and interns. Have a question for me to answer? Email it to thislawyerlife@gmail.com.

Today I respond to a summer associate wondering how busy is busy enough.

Question: I just finished my first week as a summer associate, and it’s kind of slow so far.  How busy should I be?

Answer:

This is definitely a firm-specific topic, so I suggest you talk to your summer coordinator or mentor.  Here’s my two cents.

First, let’s start with the basics: most firms expect you to account for a minimum number of hours per day, usually 7 or 8. Even if you take a leisurely lunch and also attend a training or other meeting every day, that only takes up 10-15 hours of the 35-40 you need to account for every week. This means you have 20-30 hours of time to fill.

Now, not all of that time necessarily needs to be billable.  Your firm probably has some non-billable numbers you can use like “professional reading” or “waiting for an assignment” when you have downtime.  But you should try to spend the bulk of those extra hours working.  During my summer, I made it a goal to pick up one new assignment per week. With ten weeks to the summer, this would give me exposure to 10+ attorneys and several practice groups. It didn’t actually work out that way – I often had more than one assignment to juggle at a time, and some assignments took less than a week while others lasted longer.  However, keeping that goal in mind encouraged me to be proactive about taking on new work.

That said, it doesn’t hurt to go above and beyond every once in a while.  One of my favorite projects as a summer was helping out with a last-minute brief. I stayed in the office until the wee hours of the morning helping the partner get it out the door, but it was exciting because I was doing research and drafting language that was actually getting incorporated into a pleading filed in court.

Bottom line: At a minimum, meet whatever requirements are set out for you. Take advantage of opportunities to work a bit harder and longer – not only will you earn a reputation as a hard worker and team player, but you’ll get some great experience too.

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