Required Practical Skills for Young Associates


When I first started working at a law firm, I had a misplaced desire to own 100% of my projects. Instead of delegating letterhead printing and exhibit pdfing to a legal administrative assistant, I would muddle through these tasks on my own. This hoarding was silly, and I have since learned the benefits of delegating.

That said, sometimes you may find yourself at the office on a weekend undertaking an emergency TRO or filing something at 11:00 PM. At these moments, it’s important that SOMEONE know how to pdf a document or even file electronically. (I know, I know, some of you at super large firms have access to a 2:00 AM person who can undertake these tasks such that you will never need to lift a finger—this conversation is for the rest of us.) So what are the tasks that every newer attorney should strive to master in case of emergency?

Federal Court Filing

Since you can file until midnight, one never knows when a last minute filing could be necessary. For this reason, it is nice to know the basics of an ECF filing. Now I’m not saying that every new associate needs to learn advanced filing techniques (these would include filing items under seal and submitting huge filings with massive exhibits and attachments). For most of these filings, you will have advanced notice and can make sure the right paralegals and legal administrative assistants are on board, ready to work their magic.

That said, you might need to file an emergency letter to the court or a late-received affidavit after everyone else has gone home. If you have already received a primer on ECF filing, you will be ready to go. If you have a checklist showing items you may need for a complete filing, you’re in even better shape (did you add a word count certificate? did you need a notice of service? a proposed order?) In addition, make sure that you have your password ready to go. Nothing is worse than being ready to file and then finding that the keeper of the passwords has disappeared.  

State Court Filing

Since our state court filing system closes before people leave for the day, it is less likely that a newer attorney in my state would be called upon after hours to handle a state court filing. That said, it is still a good idea to know how the system works. All you need to do is ask permission to hover behind an administrative assistant, watch a state court filing, and take notes. Again, make sure that you have access to your password.

PDFing, Faxing, etc.

One weekend at the office, I needed to scan and send documents across the country. I could not for the life of me figure out how to use the scanner, and I felt fairly lame (I do know how to use my scanner at home, so all was not lost).  The next Monday, I trotted into our copy center and humbly asked for a quick lesson in case I ever needed to scan documents on the weekend again.

Our office fax (luckily) has beautiful step-by-step instructions displayed above the machine. I have used these instructions in the past, and I am sure I will use them again.

There are other skills that have invariably come in handy when someone needs something on a moment’s notice and I am the only person around:

  1. The ability to copy something;
  2. The ability to PDF something;
  3. The ability to add Bates numbers to a document;
  4. The ability to redact information from a document;
  5. The ability to create a letter on your firm letterhead;
  6. The ability to set up and run a conference call and add individuals to a call; and
  7. The ability to conference someone into a call on your cell phone.

Again, this isn’t to say that I’m the most effective person to undertake any of these tasks. Usually, I am seven times as slow as someone who performs these tasks on daily basis. But I keep a running list detailing how to complete these jobs, just in case (one key part of my emergency list? My legal administrative assistant’s cell phone number). Because there may be times when you’re the only one around and being able to say “not a problem; I’ve totally got this,” feels pretty darn good.

(image: Young Businessman is Doing Documents from Shutterstock)


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  • Deborah Savadra

    One tip: the customs for ECF filing in federal court seem to differ by district (so much for that unified system), so if you anticipate you’ll be filing something after hours, be sure you know what categories/subcategories of filing your particular pleading goes in. Few things in life are more humiliating than having the Clerk file a Notice of Correction because what logically (to you) should go under Civil | Motions | Responses and Replies actually goes to Civil | Other Filings | Notices (or something like that). A quick call to the Clerk’s office beforehand can prevent a misfiling.

    Not that that’s ever happened to me, mind you …

    • Sybil Dunlop

      Deborah – totally agree. If you miss the boat, however, the Notice of Correction is not the end of the world – at least your document made it in on deadline.

  • Mark

    This article reminded me that I need to learn how to set up my voice mail. Thanks.

  • Todd Hendrickson

    I’m amazed at the number of attorneys who have no idea how to use Adobe Acrobat or a similar program to do basic functions like bates numbering, redaction, watermarking, etc.

  • Lukasz Gos

    I know you’re not expressly touching on the joys of what the Scots cheerfully refer to as “devilling”, the subject really is unseparably connected. Or at least so I think. Back when I was a young lawmeat, and I never really progressed beyond that level, at least in official terms, I really hated that part of the job, and the disconnection between it and my then-perceived education level along the Ph.D. dissertation waiting until I come back home in a client-paid cab, too tired to give it a single paragraph more than it had yesterday, was a permanent sore point, which I addressed by violating the dress code to be unique. Think creamy suits, tartan socks and more. Nowadays I’m a legal translator and my practice has “no DTP” written all over it, forget any job that values your tech operation skills above your wordsmithy or involves footwork. This has a higher concentration of substantive law work than typical law firm work, actually.

    But the truth is that unless you’re going to have round-the-clock staff to do everything for you, you should learn how to do the basics on your own. Even taking three times the time the xerox boy needs for the same task, but still do it, when the difference between having done it and not having done it is something you don’t want to think about (guess who’s going to be held responsible by the powers that be, by the way, hint: certainly not the blind coincidence which brought it about).

    This is perhaps especially true for litigators, who just can’t afford to be deadblocked by any single thing and some stuff they know is amazing (some of them know more than the average IT consultant). Same goes for document review, going to the court files with a photo camera for some 500 pictures, and other such footwork that makes you think the summer interns protected by a law school get more ambitious tasks than you do. As years fly by, it gets harder and harder to learn such things, both subjectively, as in your motivation to learn, unless you’ve gained humility in the meantime, and objectively, i.e. your physiological learning abilities, and more is lost when you need to spend time brushing up on them, especially when you’re married and have children. Your tech gap also broadens when you take a 10 year vacation from being more or less up to date.

    So, unless he’s determined to give those things a consistent, unwavering bras d’honneur, and prepared to live with the results for good or bad, (which very well might work for you but it’s gonna be tricky,) I guess an associate is better off sucking it up and somehow surviving the period, even when it’s longer than it should be, (unless, of course a different firm has a credible offer of something better but not just vague promises). If it stings, or just outright stinks, then that’s something to think about for when a couple of years later you as the same associate are now a partner in charge of that day’s associates (and some other day’s partners etc.). In Polish, we say, “forgot the bull how he was a calf,” which holds distinctly true for people who were ploughed like a field of corn when they were newbies to whatever it is they’ve known reached the top of.

    So then, at that point you can use your experience, as long as you still remember it, to emancipate your slaves, alleviate their fates, sweeten their deals, if only by actually talking to them about this and sharing stories of his own previous serfdom, make them like that receptionist you don’t want to underpay. While normally unmotivated associates create similar problems to underpaid receptionists and secretaries, except more damaging, and the typically pursued solution of having a low retention rate is not a smart answer when each firm takes the other’s dropouts to replace its own in an unending cycle of suck, you could smarten out of the cycle and cash in on your friendly workplace firm idea. Something to look forward to on the gloomy days, as unlikely as it is to come true when you actually make partner. But I’ve got a buddy who runs a communist law firm, in his own words. You’ve got no idea what kind of footwork that guy’s been through, for quite a bunch of years.

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