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Treading Water: A Back-Pocket Survival Guide for First-Year Associate Attorneys


Treading Water: A Back-Pocket Survival Guide for First-Year Associate Attorneys

By J. Russel “Rusty” Umble

Congratulations, you made it! You’ve taken your oath, your license is newly framed and your shiny new gold Bar Card fits snuggly into your wallet or purse. You’ve officially become a lawyer – no “ifs,” “ands,” or “buts.” The road you’ve taken to get here has been far from easy, you’ve tussled with torts, wracked your brain over “consideration,” and scraped through federal civil procedure. Most importantly, you passed the dreaded Bar Exam.

In many ways, law school is the only world you’ve known for the past several years. It has been all-encompassing and at times, suffocating. You’ve read and briefed more cases than you could begin to count. But here’s the catch: for all of the good that law school does, it in many ways doesn’t prepare you for the realities you’ll face in your first legal job. The first job that many new lawyers take out of law school can be daunting, overwhelming, and can introduce you to new kinds of pressure you haven’t yet experienced. Simply put, a law firm can be a scary place and you find yourself treading water.

This article seeks to forewarn newly minted attorneys of typical situations they’ll experience early on in their careers that law school did not exactly prepare them for.

1. “That” Research Project

The typical scenario is that a senior associate attorney or partner has given you an issue that they want you to research and prepare a memorandum for. You’ve got this, you got an A in legal research and writing. However, once you start doing your research, you see that there isn’t a case directly on point to your issue like there was in law school.

The problem is that in law school when the professor assigns you a research and writing assignment, the professor likely knows the exact caselaw that you will find and analyze. The assignment is designed so that you will eventually find your way to the precise rule that you need to support or argue your assigned position. The assignment is in a vacuum – it has a set beginning and end.

In the real legal world, it is very rare that you actually find your “slam-dunk” case which is directly on point to the issue given by your assigning attorney. More importantly, you are likely not expected to find the “perfect case.” The norm is finding caselaw that is close and then the real lawyer work comes in: arguing. Spending hours and hours researching an issue that seems to be leading to only ever-expanding rabbit holes are so common for first-year associate attorneys that it has almost become a right-of-passage. The key is to find caselaw that you can argue does apply and supports your issue or position or discredits the other side’s position.

Finally, for most research assignments, your role is to provide the assigning lawyer with all the information that they need to make further decisions in the case. So be thorough and don’t shy away from caselaw that may be more helpful to the other side than yours – it’s a better practice to show all the possible interpretations so your team can be ready for both primary arguments and counterarguments.

2. Conflicting Assignments and Deadlines

A second classic first-year associate scenario is when one managing partner or supervising attorney gives you an assignment, and then your email pings and you have another assignment from someone else above you on the food chain. Both projects have quick deadlines and are top-tier priorities to whoever assigned them to you. It’s likely that when this happens, your first reaction is to panic – which assignment really is more important?!

In law school, you learned time management as it pertains to studying: time to read your cases before class, time to work on your writing assignments, time to prepare your study outlines, and time for your extracurriculars like moot court or law review. The practice of law is different as it relates to time management. Your turnaround times are often in days or even hours, not months or weeks.

The word to remember is “triage.” Take a breath and assess exactly what needs to be done for each assignment, then determine how much time you anticipate each task will take. Then order your tasks in order of objective importance. Which will take you longer to complete and which assignment needs more of a “deep-dive” than the other? Does one have an immediate deadline and the other is more flexible? Take stock of the entire situation and then allocate your time and energy accordingly. You’ll likely find after the initial wave of nausea passes, you actually have more time than you thought and are able to complete your assignments on time.

Finally, remember that as you progress in your career you will become more efficient. Tasks that once took weeks will eventually only take days and tasks that once took days will eventually only take hours, and so forth. Trust the process that you will become more effective and efficient with practice and exposure.

3. Writer’s Block

In a fast-paced legal environment, documents often need to be drafted quickly and efficiently. You are rarely given the long timelines you may be used to from law school. Those quick timelines mean you don’t have much time to stare at a blank page and decide what to write.

When you write for a living, writer’s block is something you are very likely to deal with at some point. The cursor blinks mockingly at you against a white background to remind you that you haven’t made any progress. In law school you had time to mull issues over, outline, make notes, crumple up those notes, rinse and repeat until you had a starting place. In the real world, you often don’t have that luxury.

An effective way to get ahead of writer’s block is to not work with a blank page. For motions and pleadings, a great first step is to simply draft the case style header. Then follow up with the signature page and certificate of service. All of a sudden, you have text on that white background. Then make an outline on the document itself as to the sections you know you’ll need to include (background facts, arguments, and authorities, prayer, etc.). Before you know it, your document is taking shape and you’ll find yourself able to start filling in the blanks and creating the required writing piece.

In closing, many skills you acquire as a young lawyer you’ll learn on your own through experience and exposure. Law school has trained you to think and be critical, now it’s time to go to work.

Remember, you were hired for this. As a mentor once told me, “You knew the job was dangerous when you took it.”

J. Russel “Rusty” Umble

Rusty focuses his practice on commercial and construction litigation, insurance defense and personal injury defense. He routinely represents contractors, independent business owners and insurance companies. Rusty’s experience covers a variety of disputes involving construction defects, breach of contract claims, business formation issues, negligence, insurance coverage and personal injury issues.

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