Junior Associate Panic – Fighting Your Biglaw Career Fears

Junior Associate Panic

    Can we talk law firm madness for a minute?

    As a brand new associate, you likely live with the constant fear that you’re one e-mail, one deadline, one miscue away from getting fired or committing malpractice, though neither is even a remote possibility during the first year.  

    But that doesn’t stop the panic about your career. It’s law school all over again, this time with eye-popping debt and billable hours.

    I get it. I’ve been there. I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve had nightmares about memos and other moments where nerves have gotten the better of me.

    So, what career questions keep junior associates on pins and needles? Below are 10 common career concerns, and answers that hopefully help put you at ease.

  • Q:I’m not getting any work. How can I tell if the reason is external (e.g., my practice group being slow) or something unique to me (e.g., my personality or work product)?
  • A:Take advantage of opportunities outside of billable deal or case specific matters. There are always firm chargeable items such as client alerts, helping with publications, practice group specific projects or pro bono matters, some of which your firm will likely count, up to a point, towards your billable hours requirement. This type of involvement may not be sexy, but it broadens your network at the office, increases your visibility, and helps you develop skills that will be useful in your everyday practice. If your workflow is out of sync with that of your peers or practice group, the issue may be unique to you and you should speak frankly with members of your team to understand how you can be a more productive and integrated member of the group.  
  • Q:Am I progressing fast enough? How do I determine the type of work that’s typical for someone of my level?
  • A:Communicate with your peers, both inside and outside of the firm as well as more senior associates on your matters in the context of formal and informal feedback. Take advantage of your performance reviews to ask questions about your progress. However, the practice of law doesn’t fit neatly into benchmarks by class year so be willing to show initiative with assignments to advance your own career and practice.
  • Q:I keep getting the same types of assignments. How do I diversify my work/expand to other areas?
  • A:Speak up. But be realistic about your skill set and the needs of your current firm. You will be staffed on the work that comes in the door, regardless of your personal development plans. So, make your request when workflow gives your practice the flexibility to grant it.
  • Q:I’m not getting any feedback? How do I request it without being annoying?
  • A:Again, speak up. This is your career, not another summer job. More importantly, pay attention. Law firms are far behind the business world when it comes to managing performance. Feedback often comes in a form other than a formal sit down meeting. For example, take an interest in your work product by reviewing the comments and edits that are made to your drafts and ask questions to understand the changes. Feedback also isn’t limited to your partner; ask the associates with whom you are working more directly for suggestions, keeping in mind that, at law firms, no feedback is often good feedback.  
  • Q:I’m overwhelmed. When should I raise my hand and ask for help? When is it okay to push back on deadlines?
  • A:Junior associates often underestimate their capacity and feel prematurely overwhelmed. However, communication is the biggest component of time management. Always speak up if you will be unable to meet a deadline, the sooner the better. When taking on new matters, make sure you understand the timing expectations and communicate them to everyone you’re working with at the time to make sure you’re being realistic about your availability.
  • Q:Should I ever say no to an assignment? How do I say no to an assignment?
  • A:Say no if you will be unable to meet the timing deadlines or give the necessary level of attention to the matter. If you are interested in the work or working with that team, convey that in your response and be sure to follow up when you have more availability for another opportunity. Saying no occassionaly because you’re swamped, will not blacklist you from working with the requesting attorney again, but doing a poor job will. Keep in mind though, that your constant unavailability may cause your assigner to go elsewhere.
  • Q:How much should I be billing per month?
  • A:It varies, as many practices are cyclical. On average, you should generally target 40 billable hours per week. Even at law firms where the annual billable hours requirement may be lower than 2,000, many still look to that number as the holy grail of associate efficiency.
  • Q:Every week another farewell notice goes out. It seems like a number of associates are leaving. Am I missing something? Should I be worried?
  • A:Ask them why they’re leaving and consider whether their concerns are relevant to your practice group. Some level of attrition is normal and there are often benign reasons for associate departure. Departures tend to come in spades after bonuses are paid, and after the latest crop of counsel and partners are announced. If you’re consistently receiving the type and level of work you want to do while making meaningful and well-received contributions to your practice, you have less cause for concern. When multiple partners and practice groups pick up and go, it is time to sound the alarm.
  • Q:I’m on a terrible assignment. Is there a way out? How can I avoid working with this person in the future?
  • A:You’ll have to tough out that terrible assignment unless you get reassigned to a more urgent matter. But consider why you deem the assignment so terrible–terrible and boring are not the same thing. An associate will often miss an opportunity to learn or transition to more interesting work because they do a lackluster job on a “terrible” assignment. You’re also not at the firm to become best friends with everyone; firms (and their clients) are filled with different work styles and part of being successful in that environment is learning to navigate the varied, often difficult, personalities. Talk to other associates who work with the person—are there ways to preempt some of the issues? Are you taking things too personally? Look for ways to resolve the issue before looking for a way out. If there really are irreconcilable issues, consider speaking to your assignment coordinator or mentor. Build relationships with other people in the group to develop an alternative work flow.  
  • Q:How can I get to know senior attorneys in the office without looking like a suck up?
  • A:People still like to go out for lunch and coffee even when you’re not a summer associate. Reach out to attorneys that are doing work that interests you or with whom you have other things in common (e.g., an alma mater, hometown, etc.). Take advantage of the opportunity to join committees, attend workshops, participate in recruiting or work on firm chargeable matters.

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Melinda Hightower

Melinda Hightower

Founder and Chair at Blueprint JD
Melinda Hightower is passionate about legal diversity, literature and community activism. When she’s not busy earning her keep as an attorney, she operates Blueprint JD, Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to building diversity in the legal profession.

1 Comment

  1. Jim

    September 8, 2013

    You’re wrong. I was terminated in my first year of employment with a BigLaw firm.