How to Stand Out as a First-Year Associate

Most law school graduates become first-year associates, but few will rise through the ranks to become partners in established law firms. If this is your goal, you need to appreciate that your legal career begins the moment you accept a first-year associate position and your success requires a plan to stand out from the crowd.

Understand your role. Your job is to complete assigned tasks fully, effectively, and timely. Treat the partner or supervising attorney as if he or she is your client. Anticipate problems and suggest solutions. Become an asset and resource, not a problem.

Learn. No one expects you to know everything; part of your job is to learn how to truly practice law. Take notes regarding legal strategies and processes, and ask questions at a suitable time. This initiative will be noticed.

Say “no” when appropriate. As a first-year associate it is tempting to say yes to everything because you want to be viewed as someone who can get the job done. However, if your work quality is diminished because of your overburdened schedule, you will get a reputation as someone who can’t deliver. Stand out from the crowd by reviewing each work request, measuring it against your current workload, and accepting or passing accordingly.

Demonstrate personal integrity.  Take ownership in your projects by meeting deadlines and delivering what you promised. Take initiative and look for work during slow periods. Take responsibility for mistakes and correct them when possible. Show that you are trustworthy and responsible in all areas of your professional career.

Share credit. If another associate, paralegal, or assistant helped you complete a project that is recognized for its quality, be gracious. Even though you did the majority of the work, acknowledging that others contributed will show that you know how to lead a team to accomplish a task, which is a fundamental skill of a successful lawyer.

Understand the case. Most of your assignments will be discrete portions of a larger case. Take time to understand it so your work will seamlessly mesh with other documents and activities. Anticipate problems and present a plan to address them, which can lead to more work and a bigger role on the team. You will demonstrate your understanding of the integration of the aspects of the project and your willingness to support its goals.

Be resilient. You will have losses as well as wins; learn from them and move on. Dwelling on past mistakes will distract you from current efforts, so the sooner you let the mistake go, the sooner others will as well.

Embrace the partner’s goals. The law firm’s partners have a vision for the practice and have set priorities accordingly. Make those priorities your own and become a team player committed to the firm’s success.

Becoming a stand-out first-year associate is one of many challenges you will face as you define your legal career. The quality of your work, willingness to be a team player and understanding of the law firm’s goals are keys to rising above the rest.


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