I left private law practice and transitioned to the academic world in the fall of 2009. This means that my very first cohort of 1Ls graduated in May of this year and many will be entering the private practice of law this fall. Why does this matter?
Well, because there's now a lot riding on this column: the Northwestern University School of Law Class of 2012 used to depend on me for advice on how best to construct an outline or master a civil procedure issue spotter exam.
Alas, they no longer need me to help demystify the process-oriented aspects of law school learning. Instead, they could be reading this very column and expecting me to offer them some sage advice guaranteeing them an illustrious career. So this one's gotta be good. Or I'll cost Chicago Lawyer a lot of potentially devoted readers.
Thus, I want to offer, in this column, the best advice possible. The secret key to success at a law firm. The magic bullet guaranteed to get you a partnership offer. The real deal.
If only if were that easy.
What I can say is this: Though there's no one super-duper, double-secret probation answer to the question of how to succeed at a law firm, the following mantra does get you a good deal of the way there: Don't be an idiot.
This seems obvious to many of you. Most of you are probably thinking, "Well, duh … I'm not an idiot, so why would I suddenly become one once I start working at a law firm?" Well, history, statistics and my personal experience indicate that some (many?) of you will be tempted to embrace your inner ignoramus without even knowing it once you trade your law school ID for a law firm key card. But I can help. I'll outline some of the most common "idiot" traps that tempt young lawyers so that you can circumvent these land mines and guarantee smooth sailing to Partnerville.
Idiot Trap No. 1: You don't understand the contours of the facts of your case, or what exactly the partner wants you to research, or where you're supposed to find the answer … and you don't ask anyone. Ask someone! There are lawyers at your firm — junior or midlevel associates — who are: 1) not as scary as the partner and 2) know the answers to the vast majority of your questions.
The risks you'll incur by not asking are immeasurable. More senior attorneys tend to assume things are clearer than they are, or that you know more than you do — but once you ask your question, they'll respect you for coming clean and thinking through the assignment enough to know what precisely it is you do not know. When in doubt, always ask. Always.
Idiot Trap No. 2: You don't receive a deadline for an assignment, so you supply one yourself — and you make that deadline known to the assigning attorney. Then, something comes up and you don't hand in your assignment by your manufactured deadline. You don't think it's a big deal, because it was your deadline, not Madame Partner's. Wrong. Any deadline, contrived or client-instituted, is a real deadline. Never supply a deadline that you can't meet and never miss a deadline. Ever.
Idiot Trap No. 3: You've been asked to write a draft memo, which will go through countless iterations of review prior to being sent to the client. You draft the memo. You include a "draft" stamp at the top of each page. You treat it as a "draft," because the senior attorney kept referring to it as a draft and because you know it will likely go through about 700 revisions before the client sees it. So, you don't proofread it as well as you should, you leave your personal notes in the text ("FIX THIS!" "Insert cite!") and you don't put the memo in the final memorandum format.
An hour later the partner storms into your office furious at the shoddy nature of your work product and the apparent carelessness with which you approach your work at the firm. Let me tell you a little secret: Anything you send to anyone at the firm must be in final format. Even though it's going to be revised. And even though it's technically a draft. Because nothing is still a draft once it leaves your outbox. Nothing.
Idiot Trap No. 4: Someone sends an e-mail to the "all lawyers" listserv. The e-mail is funny (as many of these blast e-mails unintentionally are).
You forward the e-mail to your friends and include a clever joke. You hit send. And then you realize … you've accidentally included "All Lawyers" on your e-mail and now you're "that guy." Don't do this. Really. Short lesson: Read over your e-mails before you send them and only send them to the people for whom you drafted the e-mail in the first place. Simple.
There are countless other "Idiot Traps" of which I could warn you, but they are sadly not within my word limit.
So I'll leave you with a recap: Think twice before you make any decisions, hand in any assignments or hit send on e-mails. Your inner dunce has been carefully tucked away for years now. All it takes is that extra split-second of thought to ensure you're the star associate, rather than the one with the questionable judgment, the aspirational timelines, the sloppy work product and the mean-spirited sense of humor. Trust me.