In-House Perspective: 10 Ways Every First Year Associate Can Shine


"Be thorough, responsive, eager, curious, timely, efficient, reliable and helpful. Remember your job is to make your internal client look good to the external client. If you do that and do it consistently and well, you will become invaluable..."

The following suggestions for young associates are based on my experience practicing labor and employment law as an associate at two large law firms and as senior in-house labor and employment counsel at a multibillion dollar international company:

1. Do good work

If someone gives you an assignment, no matter how small or quick it may appear to be, that person believes it is significant. Take it seriously. Make it a priority. Do a good job on it, and that will open the door to more work, while also helping to establish your reputation as a reliable and thorough lawyer who does good quality work. All of your assignments should be of the highest quality. Everything you submit should be in final form. Partners do not have the time for rough drafts. If you want someone to review a rough draft, make sure it is clearly marked as such.

2. Know who your clients are

Typically, partners and senior associates have the external clients. As a first year or junior associate, in most circumstances your client is the partner or the senior associate. Therefore, most of your work will come from the lawyers within the firm. These are your clients. The skills that are needed to attract and satisfy external clients are generally the same skills you should hone and demonstrate to get work from internal clients. Be thorough, responsive, eager, curious, timely, efficient, reliable and helpful. Remember your job is to make your internal client look good to the external client. If you do that and do it consistently and well, you will become invaluable.

3. Know what your clients do

As an associate, on any given day you may be working on 3-8 different assignments, all for different external clients. Successful lawyers take the time to understand the client’s business, their needs and goals, the trends in their industry and the issues they care about. They pay attention to how their clients are structured, key executives or names and special terms of art. You should make this a practice for all clients (external and internal) whose work crosses your desk. This will give context on the projects you are researching. This will also help you help the client.

4. Know what your clients want

In law school, you learned how to spot the issue, how to research and analyze the issue and how to present a conclusion. This remains important in practice. But don’t forget that your clients are running a business and they need to make a decision. They will want to know: a) what is the risk associated with a particular course of action and b) what is your recommendation with that course of action. Always be prepared to answer these two questions as thoroughly as possible.

5. Help your clients run their business

Successful lawyers do much more than know and regurgitate the law. They figure out ways to solve their client’s problem based on what the law says.  Therefore, go beyond giving your client an answer. Understand their problem and commit to helping them fix it. If your research indicates that a particular desired course of action is too risky, and you have to tell your client “no,” the next question you should be prepared for is: how else can we solve our problem?  Proactively identify, develop and research alternatives which are less risky and make recommendations accordingly.

6. Know your deadlines

Lawyers must know and meet their deadlines. Missing a deadline can mean defaulting on a case, or malpractice. Missing a “soft” internal deadline can damage your reputation. With every assignment you get – whether an internal research memorandum or a motion for summary judgment – determine your deadline. And remember there are often several layers of deadlines. The partner needs time to review your work and the client does as well. Find out all applicable deadlines for a particular assignment, calendar them and meet them. Provide updates along the way if necessary. If you believe you will not be able to meet a deadline, let the partner know as soon as possible so an interim strategy can be developed. Remember: the goal is to make your internal client look good to his or her external client. Do what you have to do to get this done. 

7. It’s never too early to start developing business

My first month as a first year associate, I was given a large non-billable project for a prospective client that I grumbled about internally because I couldn’t bill my time. Years later, as a senior associate, I made it a practice to always have at least one non-billable project on my plate at any given time. I volunteered to write articles on legal alerts, I attended networking events, I took contacts to lunch, and eventually, even though I was not a partner, I began bringing in clients of my own. If you begin developing strong relationships early, you will have the inside track on advancing throughout your firm.

8. Be responsive

There is no shortage of lawyers in this day and age. Internal and external clients often have problems that simply cannot wait. Set yourself apart by responding as quickly as possible to inquiries that are directed to you. Return phone calls the same day. Respond to emails the same day, even if just to acknowledge their receipt. When someone calls you, be happy to hear from them and interested in talking with them.

9. Own your assignments

Clients come to lawyers because they have problems that need fixing. Whether a discrete research issue or a large bet-the-company lawsuit, once something hits your desk, take ownership of it. Adopt it as your own. Think through all the issues, know and calendar all the deadlines, identify all procedural requirements. Make the partner and the client aware of all of these issues. Make it clear that you are on top of the assignment, you are owning it and you are someone upon whom your clients can rely.

10. Be convenient

Make your clients look good, and make their lives easier. Be accommodating. If a client wants a response quickly and via email, don’t insist on scheduling a conference call unless absolutely necessary. If a client wants concise advice, don’t provide a three to five page research memorandum that dances around the question. If you need a document from a client to answer a larger question or for litigation, make sure the firm does not already have that information or document before bothering the client for it again. Be responsive, be efficient, be practical and be easy to work with.

[Rebecca Signer Roche serves as senior counsel on all labor and employment matters for a multinational defense company's global operations and worldwide workforce of 25,000+ employees. Previously, Rebecca was a labor and employment associate at Littler Mendelson, P.C. and at McGuireWoods, LLP. Connect with Rebecca on Twitter and LinkedIn.]


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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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