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Lessons for a Third-Year Associate

By Linda Green Pierce

This issue we’ve got advice from the trenches, from third-year associates revealing how to succeed in that role. What does it take to be the kind of meaningful contributor a law firm wants to lateral hire or to retain and eventually risk partnership track upon?

1. Start acting like a partner. Year three is when partners’ opinions about you start to solidify. Partners, being business owners, ask certain questions that you must also ask if you want to be a partner, such as, is the firm making money. For you this means, is the time you spend on a matter worthwhile to the client, while compensating the firm fairly? This is no longer about billing hours to meet a goal; it’s about realizing a value for your firm and the client. Begin to make business decisions about selling your time. Second, are you making and keeping clients happy so that you get repeat business? To keep clients, you must make them happy, which means you must care for them. You don’t have to win every case or draft every document to perfection -- clients will tolerate mistakes, but they won’t tolerate lack of care.

2. Be of service. Third-years are dangerous animals. They know enough to get the job done, but they don’t yet have the political acumen to remember their roles: supporting cast. The third year is not the time to get cocky; it’s the time to remember to serve those above you. Be helpful, be humble.

3. Over communicate. At year three, associates can get lazy and neglect communication. Whether with partners, staff, or clients, clear communication is prized. You can avoid many obvious missteps simply by documenting what you’ve said. Also communicate with your clients regularly. Clients love it when you call them on the weekends -- it makes them feel they're getting personal service.

4. Use e-mail like a pro. Be judicious with e-mail. I just penned here to over communicate, but when it comes to e-mail, sending an e-mail is as permanent as mailing a letter. If you need to communicate something you’d rather not see in print, pick up the phone and have a conversation.

5. Don’t rush to get out to get in. A good number of third-years want to be in-house counsel. But because corporations want a more fleshed out, experience-driven skill set, they tend to hire fifth- and sixth-year associates who are regularly working directly with managers and business owners --those who are direct purchasers of legal advice. In other words, the clients they’d directly work for if they were in-house. Third-year associates tend to want to escape law firm billable hours, which is perfectly understandable. But corporations, likewise understandably, don't want refugees escaping billable hours, they want candidates who are well experienced, who have thought out the in-house decision as a career commitment, and are self-aware about why going in-house suits them. You’d be surprised how many lawyers tell recruiters they want to go in-house, but can’t articulate, except for leaving behind billable hours, the why. The billable hours answer is a non-starter to corporations if that’s the sole reason. If you really want to go in-house, use your time at a law firm to get the seasoning you’ll need to make you a valuable Associate General Counsel candidate.

7. Drink locally. Think globally. Your first few years in practice is not the time to be on national ABA boards, engaged in national associations, or working anything broader than your state. Early in your career you should strive for a visible impact -- think big fish in a small pond. Most associates don’t work for national law firms, so stay local --that’s where your clients are. Get on local boards and committees to meet local people and affect local events and politics. As your influence grows, your circle will also. Keep your sights set high, but keep your feet on the ground.

8. Go Deep. There’s no surer way to secure your job than by being indispensable. Here’s a story of an attorney whose career was cemented as a third-year associate. He'd been called upon to work on a big matter for Weyerhaeuser and overnight became an expert in timber law. He was willing to sacrifice dozens of other opportunities to go deep on timber, eventually becoming the go-to guy for timber for his firm, helping several important clients for the next fifteen years. He built a solid career based on timber and predictably became partner, then partner-in-charge, of a major West Coast firm. Several years ago he became the dean of a school of business in a private college. Nice way to have a mid-career change at age 45, by having done just one thing.

9. Finally, don’t forget the basics -- ever. In law as in other disciplines, you always have to hit, field, and run the bases. Don’t forget the fundamental skills you were taught in law school: Question. Think critically. Come to a reasoned conclusion. By your third year, this should be second nature, but if it’s not, make it so.