I wish I would have known…that your first year as an associate is a lot like your first year of law school

mirror_wordsLast week I talked about how when we take time off as attorneys, it is often better to embrace the idea that taking time off can be effective as just a quick break instead of a long vacation.  This week, I want to talk about the intensity of that first year as an associate, and how it is actually a lot like the experience we had in our first year of law school.

What I thought then:

When I started working at law firm for the first time, I thought that it would be a fairly smooth transition from law school life into law firm life.  I had just studied for and passed the bar, knew more about the core topics from the bar exam than most of the practicing lawyers around me, and had worked in a career prior to becoming an attorney (which I mentioned in my first post). I thought life would be balanced a bit more, since now I would at least be compensated financially for the time that I was putting in!  Also, I was used to coming up to speed on things and being in a “learning” posture.  I had just completed years of law school education and studied hard for the bar exam for half of the summer.  So, as I said before, this transition into law firm life, and whatever I need to “learn” to come up to speed, should be a “piece…of…cake.”

What I know now:

When you are a new attorney, what you will experience in that first year is pretty intense. You are adjusting to a new lifestyle: transitioning from functioning as a student to functioning as an associate.

There are some experiences that are similar to law school, such as:

  • going to the same place, for about the same long hours, nearly every day;
  • working really hard to understand what you need to know;
  • planning to work really hard for a sustained amount of time; and
  • being immersed in legal language and being around legal-thinking people all day.

But there are also some pretty big differences between law school and law firm life. Which means that it’s another transition.

You are transitioning to a different system of operation and a different set of people.

You are dealing with many different expectations of you (including your own) and you are dealing with them ALL at the same time.  Each partner that you will work with has preferences and styles regarding how they approaching their work, how they would like you to approach the work, how they manage their time, how they want client communications to be handled, and how they prefer to communicate with you.  And, in all likelihood, you will be working with several partners at any given time (at least at first).  You will be expected to figure out how to adjust to and manage all of this information, and to do it quickly.

You will also be working with support staff who work with multiple people (including you) and the same factors apply as are mentioned above. More people = more preferences to learn.

You are also now billing your time, which means that you are accountable for the time that you spend to perform a task. Whether you are just learning to get your bearings on an area of law or implementing new knowledge into some form of work product, someone is going to look at how many hours you spent.

You are coming up to speed on the specific areas of law that you are practicing (sometimes several all at once), how to be thorough in your research of the law, and how to boil down the information you gather to implement solutions on behalf of the clients.

These are just a few of the major factors that you are dealing with—all at the same time—for at least that first year.

And if you think about it, it is not unlike the intensity that most of us experience in that first year of law school.

Remember when you didn’t have a clue what “jurisprudence” was or what a “summary judgment motion” was? How you were constantly looking in the Black’s law dictionary to figure out what the language in the cases meant? What the court proceedings were? How you always nodded in class and pretended you actually knew what the heck the professors were talking about?

Okay…maybe it was just me.

For about the first half of my first year of law school, I felt like someone had thrown me into the deep end of the pool and then told me to swim.  But then, going into the last half of the first year, I didn’t have to look in my Black’s Law Dictionary anymore.  And I was reading cases so much faster.  And I understood how much preparation was actually required to participate in each professor’s class.

The adjustment to law school is quite similar to what the first year as an associate can feel like. At first, you feel like you have been thrown into the deep end of the pool. But then, before you know it, you realize that you have acclimated. Eventually you adjust and come up to speed with the expectations of those around you…and even yourself. And you’re able to look back on all that you’ve learned and appreciate your first year not only for the substantive knowledge you developed, but for the confidence you gained as well. Just like that first year of law school.

Jennifer Konieczny has been an attorney for 11+ years. Having worked in big firms, small firms and corporate settings, she fully understands the challenges that attorneys face. Her passion is coaching attorneys in the areas of professional skill-building and lifestyle management, in order to help them thrive in their careers.

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