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.

Photo: Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Bottom Photo: ThisLawyerLife

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: How to AVOID Being Really, Really Busy

As a sequel to my last post (how to deal with being really, really busy), I want to spend a little bit of time talking about what you can do to avoid getting to the point of work overload.

In truth, sometimes there is nothing you can do. To be frank, the same is often true as you become more senior. This is a service industry, after all.

That said, here are my tips at two important points in your work cycle… Continue reading “The Big Picture: How to AVOID Being Really, Really Busy”

The Big Picture: What to Do When You’re Really, Really Busy

At some point, it will happen to you. Work will be so busy that your life feels like an endless cycle of: (1) wake, (2) work, and (3) sleep (aka, dream about work).

As an attorney in a large law firm, I have much more experience in the art of being busy than I would prefer. BUT: as a senior associate, I handle it better than I did as a first or second year lawyer. A lot of that is down to experience; I learned how to juggle my caseload and manage expectations.  I plan to dive into those topics in future posts.  Today I’m going to focus on one trick I employ to stay sane during busy weeks, months, and even years:

I carve out “me” time.

I know what you’re thinking: yeah, right! It’s true, when you’re so busy that you only see the inside of your home long enough to grab a couple of hours of sleep and a shower, the thought of seeing friends, your significant other, or even a 30-minute TV show is laughable, and the idea of carving out “you” time seems like a mean joke. But if you want to retain your sanity when pulling insane hours, you need to do it.

It doesn’t have to be hard, and it should not add to your stress levels. Carving out “me” time is really just a way to keep a little bit of control over your schedule and step away from work when that feels like an impossibility.

The key to making it effective is to carve out time in a way that fits your personal needs within the confines of your work schedule. So what does that mean? Well… Continue reading “The Big Picture: What to Do When You’re Really, Really Busy”

Let’s Talk Money: It’s Bonus Season

With the end of the working year comes the bad (a mad dash to hit your hours) and the good (bonus time).

If you’re fortunate enough to work for a firm or organization that pays bonuses, you may find yourself with anywhere from a few hundred to tens of thousands of extra dollars lining your pockets.  Where you fall on that scale will probably impact what you do with your windfall, but here’s how I suggest spending that money:

1)      Treat Yo Self: There’s no harm in using a little bit of your hard-earned cash on a gift for yourself. But don’t blow it just to blow it – buy something you really want.

2)      Pay Down Debt: If you’re paying off student loan or other debt, take advantage of a windfall to pay some extra on the principal balance. (For more advice on this, see my earlier post explaining how I paid off six figures of debt in five years here.)

3)      Save: Bump up your contribution to your retirement accounts, save to a short-term savings account, or invest in the market.

4)      Spread the wealth: Earmark some of your funds for the charity of your choice.

How much you devote to each of these categories is obviously up to you, but I suggest directing at least 75% of your bonus to paying down debt and/or savings.

What you should avoid at all costs is using the money for lifestyle creep, meaning don’t assume you will always get a bonus (even if, historically, you have), and don’t treat the bonus as part of your monthly income. Your salary is your salary. Your salary is not your salary + bonus.  Live on what you get paid in your regular earnings and treat your bonus like the awesome gift it is.

Pic Credit: Fabian Blank (via Unsplash)

Getting Experience as a Young Lawyer

I keep thinking about an interesting article I recently read about a Federal Judge raising a question that has certainly been on the mind of many an associate, especially those working in big law firms:

How do you grow as a lawyer and take your career to the next level if you never get the practical experience required to develop your skills?

Working at a big law firm can provide many great experiences to junior lawyers. You spend your days (and often your nights) working on a number of large, complex matters. You deal with complicated questions of law and fact, and the sink-or-swim environment forces you to develop management and delegation skills, hone your attention to detail, and manage your time if you ever want to do anything other than work. Sure, you start at the bottom, reviewing documents or assisting with the most minor tasks relating to a filing, but even these basic tasks help you to understand how large cases come together, and help you to be a better senior associate when tasked with delegating those tasks to junior lawyers years down the road.

Of course, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. Your daily work life can be a bit of a slog. And to what end? The path to partnership is long and incredibly uncertain as firms seem to be offering fewer and fewer partnership spots these days.

How do you distinguish yourself as someone who’s ready for promotion? The reality is that as an associate, even if you find yourself moving up the food chain at a good clip, certain tasks are beyond your reach or years away. It can take several years before associates act as first chair for a deposition on a billable matter. And even longer before they argue a motion in Court.

Now, you can learn a lot watching arguments in Court (assuming you get to go – with clients cracking down on bills, associates often find themselves left in the office while the partner goes to court). But there is a huge difference between watching an argument and doing one, and between preparing for a moot court, and standing in front of a judge hammering you with questions on the record.

So back to that article I read, where the Court identified and voiced concerns about this particular conundrum. Judge Grewal acknowledged that associates who “contributed mightily” to the case deserve their chance to develop their skills:

“All of this raises a question: Who will try the technology cases of the future, when so few opportunities to develop courtroom skills appear?” he said. “It is difficult to imagine handing entire intellectual property trials to a generation that never had the chance to develop those skills in more limited settings. Senior lawyer and their clients may shoulder some of the blame, but surely courts and judges like this one must accept a large part of the responsibility.” (subscription required)

It will be interesting to see what happens in this particular trial, and in the future. Since Judge Grewal made his comments, I have heard of at least one other court asking counsel to present a plan for junior lawyers on the case to get more experience, which is a big step in the right direction. However, we all know that while many clients expect that junior associates will do a lot of the prep work to save on bills, at the end of the day, they hire the expensive partners for a reason, and they want the big guns arguing in the court room. So there’s a ways to go.

As a junior lawyer, what can you do? Well, there are a few options:

Continue reading “Getting Experience as a Young Lawyer”

Let’s Talk Money: How To Pay Off Your Student Loans

It’s no secret that many people graduate from law school with significant debt.  Tuition can run $30,000 or more per year, and many students take out extra loans to cover books, rent, and personal expenses during school. After graduation, they may take on more debt to cover living expenses while studying for the bar exam and before starting work. Some firms offer a salary advance or even a signing bonus to help students bridge the gap between school and work, but even with that extra help, you may end up owing more than six figures in debt by the time you graduate.

At least, I did.  And less than five years after graduation, I had paid it all off.

There are many ways to think about paying off your loans. How quickly you are able to do it depends in large part on your salary, but even if you’re not making biglaw bank, you can create a plan to pay down your loans quickly by setting your priorities and managing expenses.

Paying my loans off quickly was a priority for me because while I was fortunate to have a biglaw job after law school, I had no idea how long it would last. I also didn’t want to have to make all my career choices based on money while my loans were hanging over my head.

So here are the five steps I took.

Continue reading “Let’s Talk Money: How To Pay Off Your Student Loans”

What To Do When You Make a Mistake

An uncomfortable truth of life as a young lawyer is that you will make mistakes. Over time, they will lessen in significance and number.  Whether big or small, the way you address and bounce back from making a mistake will matter a lot to your career. Here’s what you need to do:

Own up to it.

  • I’m assuming here that this is a mistake that needs to be addressed – if you make and correct a mistake with no broader repercussions, there is no need to raise it.
  • When you own up, should you apologize? Some say you should never say you’re sorry at work. I disagree. If you make a big enough mistake or error of judgment, you will look bad if you don’t apologize.
  • For example, let’s say a discovery response was due yesterday and you blew the deadline. When you let your supervisor know, it is appropriate to apologize. There’s no need to make it a long, drawn out show. Keep it short and move on. This shows that you recognize that a deadline was blown and that this was an error – YOUR error. Not apologizing makes you look completely tone deaf.

Propose a solution.

  • Ideally, you will do this at the same time you own up to the mistake. Your supervisor will think better of you if you admit to the mistake and either propose a solution or advise how you already fixed it.
  • In the example above, at the time you alert your supervisor to the missed deadline, you could let them know when you plan to serve the discovery responses. Or you could serve the responses and then own up to the error.
  • If you’re not sure which option to pick, present both to your supervisor and ask how they want to proceed.
  • If you have no idea how to fix an error, tell your supervisor ASAP and offer to come up with a plan together.
  • Whether you propose a solution or not, you should also think about how you can avoid similar mistakes going forward (and tell your supervisor). It does not need to be a complex solution. In our discovery response example, it may be as simple as asking the team’s paralegal to circulate a reminder of upcoming deadlines once a week.

Move On.

  • This is usually easier said than done. Try not to dwell on your mistake. Instead, take a short amount of time to feel bad about it. Then put it out of your mind and focus on doing good work going forward.
  • If you follow the above advice, the people you work with will also get over it – probably faster than you do. Doing good work and getting your relationships back to normal will help that process along.

In sum: fess up, fix it, and explain what you’re doing to ensure it does not happen again. Then forgive yourself and move on. Don’t let one mistake impact the rest of your work.

Pic Credit: Pixabay

How to Handle the Billable Hour

Like many lawyers, I am beholden to the billable hour: a set number of hours I need to bill each year to stay in good standing at my firm and get my bonus. For many attorneys, young and experienced alike, the billable hour is a source of anxiety and one of the biggest complaints about the legal profession. It’s also a common source of the humblebrag: how many times have you heard a colleague “complain” that they’re sooo busy and on track to bill 250 or 300 hours this month, when you know they’re secretly hoping you’re impressed by their high hour count?

Every so often an article comes along promising the end of the billable hour. In my office, it seems pretty clear that it is here to stay. Since much of the stress surrounding the billable hour is tied to a fear that you will miss your yearly target, let’s talk about how to think about the billable hour in a simple way that helps you achieve your yearly goal.

To do that, we need to talk numbers… Continue reading “How to Handle the Billable Hour”