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How to Survive as a First-Year Law Associate

If you’ve just finished law school and are about to start at a firm, you’re likely under no illusion that the hard work is behind you. Or maybe you’re just starting the process to apply to law school—and already starting to feel the heat.

With plenty of opinions and experiences out there when it comes to what being a first-year law associate is really like, we wanted some real-life testimonials. We spoke with three lawyers who survived year one and lived to tell the tale:

  • Shawn Toor, University of Washington School of Law, class of 2015. Since graduating, he has been at Williams Kastner in Seattle.
  • Aditi Iyer, Berkeley Law School, class of 2011. Since graduating, she has been at Kirkland & Ellis in San Francisco.
  • Daniel Belzer, University of California, Los Angeles School of Law, class of 2012. Since graduating, he has been at Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton.

These recent graduates shared their insights into building relationships at the firm, the work you actually do in year one, and how to balance work with, well, everything else.

Read more: What is the best major for law school?

Six Hours Per Night, Get Used to It

Unfortunately, the rumor that first-year law associates only sleep three hours a night isn’t totally false—but it doesn’t tell the whole story.

All three lawyers we spoke with advised strongly against making sleep deprivation a habit but acknowledged that what might be considered a “normal” amount of sleep isn’t always possible, particularly when you’re trying to make a good impression on more senior colleagues.

Opinions differed when it came to the minimum number of hours recommended for functioning like a (semi) coherent human.

Toor advised against being a “sleep hero” and trying to run on two or three hours, urging others to shoot for a minimum of six hours in order to maximize your remaining 18.

Belzer, on the other hand, may be Toor’s “sleep hero” and said three hours was the minimum for being functional the following day. That said, he recommended against this sleep schedule for more than a couple of days in a row. Outside of crunch times, which he said shouldn’t happen all that often, it’s easy to get a regular night’s sleep.

Iyer recommended an approach more tailored to the individual. She averaged six hours per night during year one, she said, but pointed out that this is a bad metric as she can last a few days with no sleep before “turning into a zombie.”

No Vacation…for the First Nine Months

The idea of asking for time off may be daunting now, but it’s an unavoidable conversation sooner or later as everyone (legally) needs a vacation at some point.

Iyer suggested definitely taking a vacation when you need and want one (burnout is real) but warned that you’ll need to balance this with the importance of putting in face time at the office. For those who start in the fall, she recommended waiting until at least the late spring or summer to take a longer vacation, and focus on using the preceding months to “prove your commitment and awesomeness to the rest of your team.”

First-year law associates who start in the fall might wait at least until spring to take a vacation and “prove your commitment and awesomeness to the rest of your team,” suggested Aditi Iyer, an attorney.

When you do decide to go for it, give your team enough advance notice and she recommended being “judicious.” In other words, take note on how long other associates leave for and making sure your vacation isn’t much longer.

Lastly, she encouraged first years to think about their vacation style (i.e. long weekends here and there as a refresher vs. saving up for a full week or two) and optimize accordingly. If you don’t mind last-minute trips, you may be able to take advantage of slower weeks at work, while those who prefer planning far in advance might not have this flexibility.

Belzer similarly advised against a vacation in your first nine months, suggesting that time off in this time frame is “not a good look.” He said months one through six, in particular, are “key for reputation building.”

Toor suggested a less structured approach, urging first-years to definitely take some vacation, for their health and as a reminder that “there’s more to life than just the law.”

Key People to Know in the Firm

In a law firm, getting on the right side of the senior partners is the holy grail, but that likely won’t happen on day one. According to our lawyers, there are a few different ways to set yourself up for success.

Toor advocated for befriending your legal assistant. At his firm, many of them are extremely tenured, having spent more than 30 years there. These individuals know “the firm dynamics, the law, and how specific partners operate,” he said. Their knowledge can provide powerful leverage as you navigate your first year.

“The best way to make a good impression on the senior partners is to make a good impression on the associates they already trust,” said attorney Daniel Belzer.

For Belzer, the most important relationships were those with established associates. In his firm, partners rely on experienced associates to train first years, so he found it important to gain their respect first. “The best way to make a good impression on the senior partners is to make a good impression on the associates they already trust,” he said.

Another key piece of Belzer’s advancement within the firm was a mentor who took him under his wing for the first six months. This mentor, a highly regarded third-year associate, played an important role in setting Belzer up for success—providing key assignments, reviewing his work, and being an advocate of his work.

Iyer said it’s important to know everyone, but for different reasons.

Secretaries can connect you to the right people to answer firm-related questions and help (in a pinch) with personal issues. Paralegals can teach you to process the basics (like how to put together signature pages) as well as more substantive things like how to cross-check security filings.

Mid-level and senior associates are your teachers and mentors. Since they’ve recently been through the same thing, Iyer mentioned these colleagues can be good resource for emotional support. Importantly, they will often evaluate your work for annual reviews and may one day become a partner at your firm.

Lastly, are the partners. While you may not be working directly with partners when you first start, Iyer encouraged getting to know them socially—go up to them at social events, say hi in the hall, and ask them to coffee or lunch. This can increase your chances of being staffed on one of their deals, or even lead to a valuable mentor relationship, she said.

Your Social Network

You can have a social life as a first-year but go into it expecting to make some sacrifices.

When you first start, socializing with colleagues and building your reputation will be important, particularly if this is the career you’re looking to stay in long-term, according to Iyer. At the same time, it’s important to keep doing the things that are important to you. If spending time with family and friends play a significant role in your emotional well-being, then do it.

Belzer suggested going to all of your firm’s social events “just to get your face out there.” He also urged going back to the office after a drink with coworkers. In addition, he suggested making sure your significant other is clued into the fact that your plans may occasionally change.

The Work Itself

Belzer opined that there are surprisingly low expectations around your actual work for the first year—and suggested focusing more on making a good impression.

“We are aware that law school does almost nothing to prepare first years for the actual job,” Belzer said. In fact, the work is really about making a good impression and putting in a significant amount of face time. “Having your butt at the office early and late for the first year,” Belzer said, is important to “establish yourself as someone who is dedicated to the job and wants to be there.”

Even if your best effort is “completely redlined and rewritten,” attorney Shawn Toor noted that the effort itself will set you apart.

He mentioned that mistakes are inevitable and expected, but stresses the importance of learning from when you mess up. Instead of apologizing, “burn [the feedback] into your memory” and try your best not to make the same errors, he said. “Don’t ever act defensive.”

While you may not be expected to do expert work, Belzer emphasized the importance of using your brain to think critically and to speak up when everyone else is missing something. If you have an idea, a creative solution, or a point that hasn’t been made, he encouraged first years to put it out there. And it’s fine if you’re absolutely wrong—the initiative won’t go unnoticed.

Toor agreed that you’ll have some margin for error, but encouraged first years to put their best foot forward when it comes to the work itself because “people are counting on you for results.” Even if your best effort is “completely redlined and rewritten,” Toor noted that the effort itself will set you apart.

Approach tasks “like a solo practitioner who just happens to have an office within a firm,” he said.

Iyer pointed out that both doing great work and building relationships are important—your work will define you in and out of the firm, but your relationships are what will accelerate your growth within the firm.

Hacking the Rest of Your Life

When you’re talking about life hacks related to a certain activity or engagement (such as a new job), there are typically two camps: optimizing the activity itself, or minimizing the amount of work you have put into everything else.

Belzer’s favorite piece of advice is to set up a home office with a big monitor so that you can work from home in the post-dinner hours—and therefore position yourself that much closer to bed. He also recommended a good phone headset and dressing to impress, both of which can make more of a difference than you might think.

To make your work more efficient, Iyer recommended learning computer tricks early on—keyboard shortcuts, how to find things on the firm’s servers, etc. Your secretaries, staff, and/or paralegals may be able to help with this.

Toor is of the latter camp. He encouraged new lawyers to take advantage of the perks their firm offers, which can include things like laundry service and food delivery if you’re at a larger firm. But perks aside, he advocated spending some extra money on outsourcing the activities that can take up your precious few spare hours. 

He acknowledged that student loans were “looming” over his head, particularly during that first year, but maintains that paying for services like apartment cleaning and dog walking are well worth it to preserve your energy.

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