by Shantia J. Coley, Hedrick Gardner Kincheloe & Garofalo, LLP
I wish I could say it seemed like just yesterday that was offered and accepted my position at the law firm of Hedrick Gardner Kincheloe and Garofalo. However, the year didn’t just “fly by.” Instead, it inched by in tenths of an hour, slowly and methodically. Do not get me wrong, working at a law firm at some point in their careers is the dream of most young attorneys. I was, and still am, no different. Maybe it’s the millennial in me, but as a person who has governed her life and found success based upon countless checklists, sometimes scribbled haphazardly on the nearest dinner napkin, I almost wish I’d had one as I entered my first year. I’ve been here slightly over a year and now that I am a veteran, (it’s okay to laugh here), I pulled together my very own list of the five tips I wish I had known:
1. Decorate Your Office Space. While this first tip may seem trivial and a waste of time, your office will become your second home. The four walls of your office will become very familiar to you and you may find that you undoubtedly spend more time there than at your own home. Be kind to this space and make it your own. Grace this area with photos, sports memorabilia, paintings, or whatever it is that you choose to make it a comfortable space to work. Think back to law school and how by the end of your 3L year, you had mastered the art of learning your study habits. You knew exactly where in the school, at your home, or at your local coffee shop was the most comfortable for you. Well you don’t necessarily get to choose your office space, but you do get to make it your own, much like the spaces you were used to. A quick word of caution-- please check with the office managers before you go hammering nails into the walls. I’m sure there are policies and people who can guide and assist you when it comes to deciding how to turn your office into the perfect place to perform your best.
2. The Other Young Associates Are Your Best Friend. Seriously. You cannot count on the partners to be at your beck and call and to answer every question you have. Simple as that. Ideally, they would have countless expendable hours to dedicate to answering questions and problem solving, but between maintaining client relationships, handling their own work load and firm management, this is just not possible. Chances are that question about interpreting that particular statute has already crossed the mind of another young associate and they have either figured it out or found a seasoned associate to assist. Another important relationship to foster is your relationship with the staff. Remember the office manager who helped you hang your credentials? Or the paralegal who showed you where the restroom was? Well most of them have been there as long as some of the partners and can assist with issues dealing with office procedure, protocol and getting you otherwise adjusted to the firm culture. The partners are certainly important, but do not take these other relationships for granted.
3. Save Samples of Everything! So you’ve drafted your first set of discovery or an important motion and sent it to a partner for review. You’ve gotten it returned filled with tracked changes and comments in the margins. You’ve accepted the changes, made revisions based upon the comments and after several hours, it is finally ready to go. Congratulations! Send it out and file a copy away for your own personal reference. By the time next week rolls by and you’ve been distracted by other tasks, you will not remember many of substantive considerations that went into the preparation of this task. You’re still trying to locate the bathrooms at this point anyway. I found it very helpful to keep a small folder of “samples” of various final documents for quick reference. What was the appropriate objection again? What was the language in the Order? What language did this particular partner prefer I use? Well, instead of wasting precious billable hours trying to remember, (trust me that 0.2 will make a difference later), I have found it extremely valuable to just be able to flip through my file to find the answer.
4. Lunch At Your Desk Is The New Normal. This one took some getting used to. Billing is no fun but it is a necessary evil (as we will discuss next). If you semi enjoy your weekends or evenings, a few sacrifices will need to be made. If you’re a “foodie,” like me, this one may be a bit difficult. Lunch for many is the one trusted time to break up the monotony of the day. However, taking lunch away from my desk each day quickly added up to lost time and later days at the office. Let’s take a minute and do the math. An hour for lunch each day for one month is 20 hours. That computes to 240 hours of potentially billable time each year. I’m not saying never take a lunch away from your desk. In fact, a lunch away once or twice a week is probably necessary for balance. But when the reports come in and you’re faced with trying to figure out where to capture an extra hour or so every day, having a working lunch sure beats trying to bill while watching your favorite football game later in the evening.
5. Billing Is An Art, Plain and Simple. Finally, billing is not fun and is also not as easy as you may initially think. Figuring out how to bill will probably take more time during your first year than the actual practice of law. Work closely with the partners to master this art. Ask questions of others about what they bill for and what they don’t. You will learn quickly that clients don’t just love paying invoices and will cut time for things they feel are unsubstantiated or unnecessary. I cannot express the importance of learning your clients and learning the style of the partners for whom you are working. It will probably take several months, but you want to invest time on the front end so you can then begin to increase your hours. Do not be ashamed to turn in a “time sheet” each day. I worked closely with a partner and did just this. I have to admit, I cringed when they were returned the next day with comments and edits, but it has paid off and as an added bonus, there is a level of trust that has been developed with that partner and my time entries.
Well, there you have it. These are without a doubt my five top tips for someone entering their first year at a law firm. You will get tons of advice, but hopefully you will remember some of these tips as well. I’ve experienced a rollercoaster of emotions this past year, however, I can genuinely say that the reward is great. Your new opportunity is not one afforded to all. Hang in there, you got this, and don’t forget to pack a delicious lunch!