At the end of my 1L summer, I took a job at the ACLU of Maryland. I loved my work, but felt fairly useless for most of the summer—I just didn’t know how to add value. Desperate to feel helpful, I was delighted when someone would apologetically ask if I could make copies or help put together a mailing.  Finally!  Tasks at which I could excel and add some real value (I am a wiz at putting together mailings faster than a speeding bullet).  I earned some real points for enthusiasm, but I don’t think I impressed anyone with my legal prowess. My 2L summer, I worked at a large D.C. law firm. With another year of law school under my belt, I found myself able to contribute substantively in the legal arena for the first time.  I praised the gods and didn’t over-analyze my growth at the time, but, in the interest of sharing, here’s what Dorothy learned.

1. Show up to meetings with stuff. 

As a newer attorney, it’s so easy to think “I don’t know anything about this case yet, I don’t need to bring anything to the meeting.” Not so! Before every meeting, I now try to predict what documents may be needed (court schedule? copy of the complaint? client’s phone number? directions to the deposition?) If you are the person who can say, “Oh, I brought a copy of that,” you can begin to establish credibility. Granted, it’s not the same as identifying the case dispositive choice of law issue, but the legal profession values good judgment. And, having the good judgment to predict which documents may be helpful adds value. (In five years time, of course, your Google phone may be doing this job for you, but for now, we have to predict our own needs.)

 2. Read key case documents before the meeting.

Just gearing up for a new case? Read all the emails summarizing the dispute beforehand. Meeting to discuss a settlement agreement? Read the agreement in detail.  Even if you’re brand new to the case, you may spot an issue or even a typo. My first case meeting involved a pro bono criminal defense matter.  At the meeting, the issue as to whether the defendant was left or right handed became an issue—because I had re-read the case file that very morning, I remembered that our documents contained the answer. While I would have felt silly jumping in to offer case strategy on my first day, I had no problem jumping in to note that our guy was left handed. All of a sudden, I didn’t have to be the useless summer associate; I was the detailed-reader woman.   

 3. Rock Research Assignments.

Where can a new attorney add the most value?  The legal research arena. Senior attorneys are not generally going to be turning to Lexis or Westlaw to search for applicable cases or master procedural details. If you are good at legal research, you can create your very own Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer moments. Rocking the research, however, takes effort and time. You’ll want to draft a pretty memo, synthesize conflicting cases, and offer your opinion at the conclusion of the memo.  I’ve also found that the only way to get better at legal research is to do more of it.  These days, if I have a substantive legal research project to accomplish, I like to get to work early so that I have a few hours of quiet to focus and think about the question, as well as ensure that I’ve chased down all the leads. While good legal research can impress, bad legal research is a disaster.  

4. Take Notes, and Don’t Lose Them.

It’s always good to show up with a notepad and then use it. It’s so easy to forget to label the top of the pad with the date and the meeting topic, but these simple steps will let you find the notes later instead of flipping through all your note pads in a desperate attempt to find the Jones meeting notes (I’ve been there).  I have a friend in big law who swears that the secret to her (meteoric) success is bringing a notepad to every meeting. Once, a partner caught her on her way back to her desk from the restroom, and she didn’t have her notepad. After that (you guessed it) she started bringing one to the restroom.  Now that may be overkill (and kind of gross), but the general principle is sound.   

5. Follow up.

The meeting is over and everyone heads back to their desk. Was there an outstanding question? Did everyone need to know how many days there are to respond to a counterclaim in Nebraska? This is a nice moment to send a quick email answering the outstanding question, if it’s easy and won’t take too much time.

 My younger brother would definitely take this moment to yell “Nerd Alert,” and I don’t disagree. The wonderful thing about our profession, however, is that I can take it as a compliment.

(image: Girl Dressed Up as Dorothy from Oz from Shutterstock)


  1. Hey Sybil – Marcus way down here in the South Pacific in New Zealand.
    I employ a number of lawyers and sometimes struggle to articulate what my requirements are for juniors ( or at least do it a feverous pace ) .But you just did !!
    Nice – fresh – and bang on – all those sorts of approaches do add value on several different levels some of which you might not even fully appreciate yet. Oh and I will now stop taking my iPad to the restroom !

    You go girl

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