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Three Things to Know Before Starting Your Law Career

August 19, 2020

Students

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For many law students, the first exposure they have to work and life at a law firm is through a summer associate position. And that summer position can lead to a job offer, kicking off their legal career. However, there is much students can do to prepare even before they start as a summer associate.

Bloomberg Law held a webinar for law students in this position, bringing together practicing attorneys and other experts who have been through the experience already. Here they share three things students and summer associates need to know to succeed in a legal career.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

You’re sitting in contracts class, and you have a question, but you’re terrified to ask it because everybody in the class is going to turn around and look at you and you’re going to feel stupid.

Sound familiar? Eleanor Tyler, senior legal analyst with Bloomberg Law, shared this anecdote during the webinar. But Tyler, who earned her J.D. at Georgetown University, went on to say that the biggest mistake she saw people make during her time practicing law at a large firm was to hold on to the fear of seeming stupid or asking the wrong question when entering the workplace.

“Asking questions is absolutely crucial. Asking questions is how you avoid wasting time, which is the new thing that you’re selling – time,” Tyler said. “It helps you understand more about the way the people you’re working with think, and understand a whole lot more about the assignment you’re getting.”

“I think that we’re all taught to value people who will go and do a job without needing help from others or asking for help,” said Scott Cohen, currently a clerk for Judge Richard Wesley in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. “But we’re all in this new environment with work we’ve never done before. You can take 10 years of law school and still on your first day encounter a practical issue that you would have never dreamed of in your academic career.”

Cohen said his first instinct was to show initiative and do his assignments the way he thought was best. But what often happened was that at some point he’d make a wrong assumption that led him in the wrong direction.

“You would save a lot of time by asking important questions before you lose track of where you should be,” he said.

Kurt Mathas, a litigation partner at Winston & Strawn, agreed.

“More often than not, what people do is they don’t go and ask, and they end up spending 20 or 30 extra hours on something that the assigning lawyer didn’t really want them doing,” he said. “That time ends up going on a bill and then the client doesn’t like it. So it’s to nobody’s benefit to have that period of time where you’re spinning your wheels.”

Mathas said it shows good judgment to recognize that you might be starting down a rabbit hole and to go and talk to the person who gave you the assignment to make sure you’re on the right track.

“And at the end of the day the practice of law is iterative and collaborative,” he said.

Mathas admitted that he’s given out assignments when perhaps he didn’t clearly express what he was looking for – or maybe didn’t know himself exactly what he was looking for – and the associate goes off and tries to find something that was never clearly explained in the first instance.

“But if that associate comes back after spending [a few] hours and says, ‘here’s what I’m seeing and what I’m not seeing,’ that helps me frame the assignment better,” Mathas explained. “And we can collaboratively get to a more efficient and effective research plan.”

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Mathas encourages new associates who are given an assignment to offer to check back in with the assigning attorney after spending an hour or two. Some senior attorneys will say yes, and some may say no, but he still recommends the practice.

“That’s a way better conversation to have than the conversation when the time report comes in and I was expecting you to spend seven hours on a project and instead I see 70 hours on the project,” Mathas said.

Give different areas of law a try.

During her summer associate experience, Tyler wasn’t assigned to one section of the firm. Instead, she was given opportunities to try out various areas of law.

“I was very grateful for that. It gave me great opportunities to meet very different people and look at very different parts of the law,” Tyler said.

She explained that it’s hard to know which style of law is the right fit for you before you have a chance to get your hands dirty on an actual assignment.

“You just really don’t know until you try things whether litigation or appellate is more your style,” Tyler said. “Do you like everything to be inside of the box, which it will be in appellate, or do you like to have to go out and beat the bushes, which is more litigation?”

Cohen, who worked as a summer associate at Cravath, Swaine & Moore after earning his J.D. from Cornell Law School, agrees that seeking assignments and opportunities to work with different people throughout the firm is key. He also recommends seeking out pro bono cases, through which he was able to work on interrogatories for discovery, depositions, and a motion to dismiss, all as a summer associate.

“There are things that I wouldn’t have had such a large part in doing for a paying client that I was doing right away,” Cohen said.

Taking on pro bono work as a new or summer associate is a great way to gain experience and hone your skills early on in your career.

“And it gives you exposure to elements of the practice of law that you might not necessarily see for a substantial amount of time when doing regular client work,” Cohen said.

In general, try to avoid spending your summer with only one practice group.

“If you have any control over the flow of your assignments, try out as many different partners at the firm, as many different groups in the firm, as you can, because you can’t be terribly sure where you’ll fit in best,” Tyler said. “Summer associateship is a fabulous time to try out a bunch of different things.”

Network within the law firm.

It’s important for new lawyers to know how to get to know the other lawyers at the firm and what opportunities are available, suggests Mathas, who is also a hiring partner at Winston & Strawn’s Chicago office.

“I say don’t be afraid to bother people and knock on doors, meet people,” Mathas said. “And read. If you read in a morning report that somebody at your firm did something cool or something that you’re interested in, shoot him an email and tell him … you are interested in that kind of law and you’d like to talk about how they got to where they are.”

There is a perception among junior lawyers that partners are too busy and important to be bothered, but Mathas said that’s just not true.

“We are more than happy to talk,” he said. “We were junior lawyers once, and we remember what that was like. I love it when people stop by and just want to show an interest in what I’m doing or what I have done.”

Mathas said that internal networking can also be helpful in determining if a law firm is the right fit for you from a work culture perspective.

“What you have to do is try to meet as many people as you can and look for sort of commonality and find a place where [that] matches with how you view the world of work and life,” he said.

Cohen acknowledged that while summer associates and junior associates spend a lot of time with each other at work, law firms also encourage socializing outside of the office, either through firm-organized events or otherwise.

“Firms tend to have a specific culture that incorporates all of these different elements of socializing and interaction among the associates and partners,” he said.

But that opportunity also comes with a word of caution from Tyler: Keep it professional.

“You have to really display a lot of social awareness that you might not have really worried about too much up until now,” Tyler said. It’s important to always leave a good impression, even in more casual social interactions.

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