How to Succeed as a Junior Associate

February 27, 2023
How to Succeed as a Junior Associate

[Make a successful transition from law school to practice with Bloomberg Law.]

After an initial decline at the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak, the legal industry – to the surprise of many – experienced explosive growth in the months and years that followed. The current professional legal landscape is now completely transformed from what it was before, and the question now on many legal industry leaders’ minds is: What now?

With this recent jump in law school enrollment and flood of new lawyers entering the legal industry, it’s imperative that new attorneys not only set themselves up for success in their new roles as junior associates for law firms but also stand out in an increasingly competitive environment. As you move beyond your role as a law student and take on your first assignments as a law practitioner, you need the foundational tools and guidance that will help you set yourself apart and deliver more top-quality work faster.

How should a junior associate get started with a legal research assignment?

When you’re a junior associate at a law firm, it can be hard to figure out how you and your assignments fit in. But don’t sell yourself short: Even your earliest legal research can inform client advice, shape case strategy, and get cited in briefs.

During the research assignment meeting, don’t be afraid to ask questions. This will help you determine when you need to ask follow-up questions and how to best frame your findings to meet the client’s needs. It’s better to get clarification than to spend valuable time spinning your wheels on an assignment and miss the mark.

Be thoughtful about where you begin your research. As a new attorney, your best bet for many assignments may be case law research. If you’ve approached the question from multiple angles and are repeatedly finding the same cases, you’ve likely exhausted your research. If you aren’t finding anything relevant, it’s time to check back in with the assigning attorney—but make sure you come prepared to show your research trail.

Present your findings in a straightforward, user-friendly way. Attach cited authorities, highlight relevant information, include bullet-point summaries, and provide a recommendation where appropriate. Be sure to ascertain your colleagues’ communication styles and tailor your communications accordingly.

How can a junior associate quickly demonstrate their value when assigned a new matter?

Yes, you’re just starting out. But you can still become an integral part of the team very quickly. You’ll likely be placed on a matter because the lawyers on that matter need help now. You can jump in and help with assignments to make their lives easier immediately.

Did you get a research assignment? Brush up on legal research best practices so that you can hit the ground running and contribute to the next brief.

Were you placed on document review or a privilege review? These assignments allow you to become an expert on the facts of the case.

Add even more value by creating work products that will save time down the road, like a timeline, key players list, hot documents list, and other helpful work product that senior attorneys can turn to during discovery.

How should they manage their time to effectively juggle multiple assignments and competing deadlines?

Take advantage of your time as a new attorney to ask lots of questions. This not only involves finding answers to specific questions, but also learning who to go to when future questions arise. Learn more about your firm’s resources: Are there librarians? Knowledge management attorneys? Paralegals or project assistants? Internal document management systems? Familiarize yourself with them and learn what they specialize in. They’re there to help you but can only do so if you know who they are and what to ask them.

This is also a great time to learn about the technology available to you, such as which legal research platforms you have access to and what document review tools the firm tends to use. Before you’re placed on your first matter, use some of your downtime to get trained on these technologies so that you can utilize them to their full potential. You can quickly become an expert on legal technology, which will help make you indispensable in the future.

How do junior associates usually interact with clients?

If you’re a junior associate for a large law firm, you’re unlikely to interact with clients in the beginning. However, that doesn’t mean you don’t have a client. Remember that you have two kinds of clients: in-house counsel (the external client) and the partners and more senior associates who assign and review your work (the internal client).

Treat the senior associates and partners on your matters as your client. Your job is to make their jobs easier, and to make them look good in front of the firm’s clients. Keeping this in mind will help guide your questions, decisions, and work product.

Always present information in a way that makes both your internal and external clients’ lives easier. For example:

  • Send a bullet-point summary of noteworthy testimony following a deposition
  • When you forward the court’s latest order to the team, include a brief summary and call out any action items or deadlines
  • When you send your legal research to the partner, include a draft email for them to send on to the client

This not only proves to the partner that you understood the assignment, but it saves them valuable time when communicating with the client. The partner will also be more likely to come back to you when the next research assignment pops up.

What are project management best practices for planning and executing a legal operations project?

Incorporate project management principles to better manage your matters and create repeatable workflow processes.

For example, use checklists or intake questionnaires to gather background information about your projects. Use a LACI chart as a cheat sheet to identify who is:

  • Leading the matter
  • Assisting with the assignments
  • Consulted for necessary input or approval
  • Informed about the progress

Come up with a project schedule to make sure you meet deadlines. For example, when you’re preparing for a document production, build in time for first- and second-level review, privilege review, redactions, Bates stamping, privilege log creation, etc. And think about a communication plan so you know who to keep in the loop, using what communication method, and how often.

How can junior associates take advantage of mentorship and networking opportunities to help them succeed in their career?

It can be intimidating to make new professional connections, especially early on in your career. As a starting point, reach out to any formal mentors; they can facilitate introductions that will help you build other relationships organically.

Don’t forget to network outside of your office and practice group; you want people to think of you when they have a new project that requires your expertise. Network with non-lawyers too; librarians, litigation support staff, and e-discovery vendors are just a few examples of your firm’s invaluable resources. Get to know them. And remember, it’s not enough just to make the connection—you also need to sustain it.

Invest in new relationships both inside and outside of your law firm. Join the Young Lawyers Division of the ABA or join the local bar association in your city. You can also combine networking with well-being. For example, if you enjoy running, try to find a group of lawyers who run in your community so you can build relationships while doing something you enjoy.

Spend the time to maintain those relationships that you’ve already formed. Be sure to stay in touch with colleagues who leave your firm and do the same if you switch jobs one day. Keep up with your law school classmates, who, like you, are starting to do amazing things with their J.D.