Nine Tips for Becoming a Superstar Associate

As you complete your third year of law school, most of you will be headed to firms to become those poor creatures known as junior associates. Junior associates don’t get the glamor in a firm. They often labor in the minutiae of document review or legal research, distilling it for a more senior lawyer to use in a deposition, a motion, or a trial. However, some of the junior associates will climb from the basement faster than their colleagues and move on to more interesting and complicated work. These are the firm’s superstars. They get the best assignments because their supervisors trust them and enjoy working with them. You can become one of those superstars. Here are nine tips.

First, own your projects. Understand that the project belongs to you, not the assigning partner. You can’t fake this, so care about the project. Take pride in it. Worry about it. Love that document review as if it were your baby. Partners appreciate knowing that they are not the only one up at night thinking about the case.

Second, submit a final product, not a draft, to your supervisor. Even if the draft motion for summary judgment you were assigned will go through additional layers of review, make sure that it is ready to be filed when it leaves your desk. After all, don’t you eventually want to be the person who approves and signs the brief? To the extent possible, don’t leave blanks in the product (although sometimes they are unavoidable). And, for goodness’ sake, proof your work for typographical and grammatical errors!

Third, make an effort to understand the larger case or legal situation so that you can spot issues, even if the partner did not highlight them for you. Years ago, a young attorney gained “superstar” status with me when she recognized that the argument I had asked her to research was not the best one for the case and that I had missed a better one.

The fourth tip should be obvious, but it is amazing how often junior associates fail to follow it: Be easy to manage. Show up on time for your meetings. Submit your projects by the deadline (or give early notice that you will need more time). On longer projects, regularly report your progress in a concise manner. When you run into a barrier, try to solve it yourself before involving the partner.

Fifth, treat the staff with respect. This is not only the right thing to do, but also it can help you. Literally every member of the firm’s staff will have been doing their jobs longer than you. Many of them will be at the firm long after you are gone (hopefully, on to great things). The staff can make a difference in your success and will often have things to teach you. And many of them will have the ears of the partners, so don’t be a jerk.

Sixth, don’t burden your supervisor with the details of your schedule. Simply reach a mutual agreement on a reasonable deadline and get it done. Your supervisor does not need to know that you have two projects for another partner down the hall that will take half of a day and that you must leave early for a dentist appointment the following day.

Seventh—and this is a big one—maintain your integrity. This means don’t claim credit that belongs to others; give credit where credit is due. Stay out of silly disputes with your colleagues or opposing counsel. Be honest about what you have done and have not done.

Eighth, not only should you own your project, but you must own your mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes. As a partner, I am more concerned with how an associate responds to a mistake. Mistakes are no fun. They will set you back on your road to superstardom, but you cannot hide them. Own the mistake and disclose it promptly. Put on your big boy or big girl pants and take your medicine. One of my mentors once told me that the less you want to make a phone call, the more important it is to immediately make it. And, if at all possible, offer a solution to the mistake when you disclose it.

Ninth, pay close attention to how the attorneys to whom you contribute work do their jobs. This has two benefits. First, it will help you to give your supervisors the type of work product that will be most useful to them. Every attorney practices law a little differently. A superstar associate will develop a sense for how his or her supervisors want a brief to be written, how detailed they want internal communications to be, how aggressively they want to press opposing counsel, and so on. Using this sense, the superstar associate is more likely to nail his or her assignments on the first try. Second, paying careful attention to supervisors allows superstar associates to constantly improve their skills by incorporating lessons learned from the more experienced attorneys around them. As a junior associate, every opportunity you have to see your supervisors make an argument in court, revise a brief, or counsel a client is an opportunity to learn how to practice your craft. (Every once in a while, you may even learn a lesson from your supervisors about how not to practice.) A superstar associate knows that they can vastly improve their skill set in the long term by incorporating, bit by bit, all the little lessons learned from their supervisors. 

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