OFF THE RECORD - Seton Hall Law

Five Keys to Success at a Law Firm

Posted by Jennifer M. Thibodaux on 10/30/19 1:32 PM


I recently presented keys to success at a law firm as part of the Women’s Leadership Committee’s programming. These tips are things I learned along the way during my career, things I saw others doing, or things that I wish I had done differently or better while in practice since hindsight is 20/20.

Expect the Unexpected

In law school, you have a class schedule and syllabus. You know when to show up to class, when your assignments are due, and when your exams are scheduled. Maybe a snow day throws a wrench in things. Law firm life is completely different, which can be a tough transition for the typical Type A planner. (Guilty as charged.)

You have to learn to roll with the punches at a firm. Adversaries get extensions. Courts set and reset deadlines. Clients make demands or need urgent relief. This means that you may come to work with six tasks to cross off your list that day, but only complete two yet add another four, two of which are urgent. Or, this means that you might plan to leave the office at 6:30 p.m. on a Thursday night, but a partner darkens your doorway at 6 p.m. to talk about an assignment you handed in last week.

Learn to relinquish some control and expect your plans to change. This way, you will focus on the unexpected as a learning opportunity rather than dreading the assignment that caused you to miss spin class on Thursday night.

Don't compromise on excellence

It is tempting to rush through an assignment because you will have a crushing workload. Trust me when I say that a partner knows when you “halfway” an assignment. And it won’t be because of a typo or spelling error. Microsoft Word can fix that. Instead, your analysis will be underdeveloped or you will fail to spot an issue. And guess what? Now the partner has to write off your time and you have to redo it – unless she decides to work with someone else.

There is no substitute for preparation and no such thing as overpreparation. When you are prepared, whether by delivering excellent written work product or meaningfully contributing during a strategy meeting because you analyzed three binders of client documents, you project confidence and professionalism.

Track your accomplishments and monitor your professional development

Ask yourself if you remember what you ate for breakfast yesterday. I can’t. Now consider how difficult, if not impossible, it will be to remember the assignments you completed, the successes you achieved, or challenges you crushed. So, write it down!

At the start of every year, create a “What I Did This Year” document. Create categories like, “Briefs I Worked On,” “Discovery I Drafted or Answered,” “Motions I Argued,” or “Research Memos I Completed.” Update the document on a regular basis, whether every Friday afternoon or every other Monday. Use this document to update your firm bio and LinkedIn page, get ready for your annual evaluation (which might include a written self-evaluation), and as a reminder of your killer self-worth.

Not to mention, this document holds you accountable. You want to be a litigator?  Well, is the category about arguing motions empty but the category about writing briefs really long? If so, you need to find opportunities to get on your feet.

Don't dismiss the non-billables

There’s typically a lot of pressure to bill hours as a junior associate. You may think the best move is to sit in your office and churn out billable work. Big mistake. Non-billables present endless opportunities that lead to professional development and billable work. Trying a pro bono case hones your skills as a litigator. Going to a firm cocktail party allows you to meet a rainmaker in another group who is looking for associates to help with her next big case. Writing a blog or article may lead to a speaking opportunity. Going to a bar association dinner might allow you to keep in touch with your law school classmate who then goes in-house and thinks of you when they need a lawyer in your field. This brings me to my next piece of advice….

Build your network

Let’s start by debunking or neutralizing the word “networking.” Networking is about building relationships and making connections, not going to some dinner and only talking to the people you know. It’s much easier than that. You network with nearly everyone you interact with during the day. That guy you chit chat with in the library after Torts? The people in your study group? Friends from your job? Students you pass in the law school? They are all in your network. They are future colleagues, adversaries, members of the bench, potential clients, or someone to help make a meaningful connection later. So network the right way: by being kind, collegial, and conducting yourself as a professional all the time.  

If you take nothing from this post, please consider this final tip. After all, this one should be easy because we are all part of the Seton Hall Law community. We are able to attend events and keep in touch with our classmates so we remain #SetonHallLawProud.

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