Avoid These 10 Rookie Associate Mistakes

You’ve got a new associate position at a firm. First of all, congrats! That’s a big deal in this challenging legal market. But don’t get so excited that you screw it up by making some very typical new associate blunders in the first few days, weeks, or months on the job.

Working with lawyers and law firms, I get to see the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to new associates and how they integrate themselves smoothly (or not so smoothly) into the law firm culture. Based on my observations, here are ten of the most significant mistakes I see new associates making (though seasoned associates and partners could learn a few lessons here as well.)


1 Having a bad attitude. Try to stay interested, excited and eager about your work. I know it’s tough sometimes, but if you get a sassy attitude, lack enthusiasm or energy for your work, or generally are no fun to be around, your reviews will be as bad as your attitude.

2 Not finishing what you start. If you take on a project, finish it. Even if you took it on when you were looking for projects and now you are suddenly swamped, find a way to get it done. It’s really taboo to hand a project back to a partner with a “Sorry, I just don’t have time to do this.” Figure out a way to do it, and manage your workload another way.

3 Handing off projects. Even if think you can’t get a project done because you are suddenly too busy (see above), don’t reassign the project without checking in with the assigning partner. Only request to reassign a project in an extreme emergency because it will make you look flaky and unreliable.

4 Getting wrapped up in the billable hour. Yes, yes. It’s true. The billable hour is still the be-all, end-all in many firms. But there’s something that’s even more critical, and that’s your reputation. It’s better to bill a few less hours but produce high-quality work than to bill a few more hours and produce substandard results. You’ll be remembered for the quality of work you produce, not whether you billed 2000 or 2050 hours.

5 Office romances. This is generally obvious, but (to whatever extent possible) try to keep your romantic life and your work separate. If you really do find the love of your life at work, be professional about it. Grossing out the partners with your PDA’s is not the way to score points.

6 Waiting around. Don’t expect opportunities to just come along and bite you on the rump. Be proactive. The associates who really go far quickly are those that figure out how to develop business. This makes you even more important to the firm, both immediately and in the long-run. Also, actively create relationships with your fellow firm colleagues. You may not be at this firm forever, so develop strong relationships in the legal community whenever and wherever you can.

7 Getting distracted by the internet and social media. The internet is a terrific tool of research and other projects, but it’s just too easy to get sucked into it for non-work reasons. Try to stay off the social media sites during work hours, and do your web perusing at home. It’s distracting to you and undermines the quality of your work.

8 Being satisfied being a mediocre writer. Your writing will distinguish you from other associates (in either a good way or a bad way.) Granted, some of us are better writers than others, but if this is not your strong suit, figure out a way to improve it. Also, always use proper grammar and punctuation when emailing or communicating with clients. You aren’t texting your best friend. Keep it professional.

9 Being inaccessible. If you keep your door shut all the time, it looks like you are hiding something even if you aren’t. Shut the door when you need to in order to focus, but try as much as possible to keep your door open.

10 Hiding your mistakes. One of the greatest mistakes I see new associates making is not admitting mistakes. You will make them (I hate to be the bearer of bad news.) You do not know everything coming out of law school (far from it) and you will make mistakes along the way. Admit to them, ask for help remedying them, and move on. Your honesty, integrity, and humility will take you much farther than hiding your imperfections and hoping no one finds out. Try to avoid mistakes by asking for help in the first place, but if you make a mistake, fess up to it immediately.

Any other big mistakes you see new associates making or have made yourself? Please share so we can learn from you and avoid a similar fate!

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/keithwj/4925454/)

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  • http://www.coyelaw.com Wade Coye

    As far as No. 7 is concerned, what if that’s your job? (I know that you mean personal social websites.)

    As far as No. 8, I completely agree. Good writing goes much further than some people seem to think. Communication and charisma is key in almost all jobs and careers, and writing is a big part of that. Understanding textual communication is as important as anything else (especially if that’s the crux of your job).