After having shown a number of new clerks the ropes, (I’ve been clerking at the same firm throughout law school) I thought I’d list a few basic mistakes to avoid of which I think every new associate or clerk should be aware. I include associate as I’ve seen freshly graduated law students come in as associates and make every one of these mistakes. These are by no means essential or hard-and-fast rules, but rather just a few pointers that can help smooth the way as one begins working on projects at a new firm.
1) Often referred to by seasoned attorneys and judges as Rule 1 of Procedure or key witness Mr. Green – Always make sure you get paid.
- When you begin to work on a project for a senior attorney, make sure you get a billing number. Keep track of your time and bill accordingly. This seems like a simple thing, but many people are not familiar with the billing systems of law firms and law school doesn’t actually do that much in the way of getting students or graduates prepared for it.
2) Being unprepared – Always walk into a senior attorney’s office with a legal pad and pen.
- There’s nothing worse than walking into an attorney’s office unprepared. Having to step in and begin discussing a project and having to excuse yourself to get something on which to write, or worse, ask the attorney for something on which to write, makes you come across as inexperienced and amateurish – don’t do it. Wait, I take that back. There is something worse than walking into an attorney’s office unprepared: walking into an attorney’s unprepared – along with someone who is prepared.
3) Not knowing when the game is up – Always ask for a schedule or time frame for completion.
- Often attorneys don’t have a time frame in mind, or only a vague one at best, when they ask you to undertake a project. However, when they do want the results of your project, they will want them immediately. Don’t get caught with your pants down; press the attorney as much as you can for for some sort of deadline. Then, under-promise and over-deliver. Say you’ll try and get it done by then, but turn it in early.
4) Picking the wrong road to travel down – Always try to get some guidance as to what form the end work product should take.
- Sometimes attorneys want might want a formal memo, but often times they just want a quick email shot to them detailing some issue. Or may they want a breakdown of of the formatting codes from an insurance company, in which a spreadsheet might be a better option. Or maybe they tell you they want a general description of an issue, as they are going to just forward it to a client. Regardless, you need to know where you are going with the work product. Don’t be in the position where you are halfway through a project and not have a clue of your destination.
5) Picking the right road, but choosing the wrong car – Find a internal sample or similar version of the project on which you are working.
- Different firms will have different policies and procedures in how they handle certain memos, drafts, letters, etc. It’s important that you conform to those policies and procedures as soon as possible. The easiest way to do this is just to find similar work product that has been done before; there’s no point in re-inventing the wheel. Look on the internal network server. If the firm doesn’t have one, look in recent files. Best bet: find the most seasoned paralegal/assistant there and become friends immediately; they always know where everything is located. The projects given to new associates and clerks is generally boilerplate stuff; you’re too green to be given real problems that require creative and unique solutions.
Like I said, these are simple tips, but often times it’s easy to get so concerned about complex issues that new associates or clerks find themselves facing that they end up making some easily avoidable mistakes.
Don’t let it happen to you.