Big Law One Year In: 18 Actually Helpful Tips for First-Year Associates


It’s hard to believe, but it’s already been a full year (!) since I started as an Associate at a big law firm. In reflection and celebration of these last twelve months, I’ve compiled a list of the top 18 tips that I hope to pass on to the next class of incoming Associates.

Some of the tips below can be applied to work settings outside of the law firm, while others are specific to big law. Keeping in mind the usual disclaimer that my experience will not necessarily be the same as yours, I hope that you’re able to take some tips as you embark on your first year!

The Big Picture

    1. One of the most helpful frameworks I’ve learned during this year is “execution vs. expertise.” The general idea is that clients come to lawyers for – you guessed it – execution or expertise. As first-year Associates, we likely don’t have the same level of expertise as more senior attorneys, and so one place where we can shine is in execution. In my practice, I interpret this as staying highly organized, following through on my assignments and following up on pending items, and going the extra mile to make sure nothing falls through the cracks and that I’ve helped make the partner’s and client’s lives easier.
    2. Another helpful framework is “facts vs. law.” Here, the idea is that we should strive to know more than the partner with respect to the facts, the law, or both. For example, with respect to the facts, I should be very familiar with the financials of the company or the specific characteristics of the company’s business that affects our legal analysis. With respect to the law, this can mean that I am very familiar with a specific line of cases or series of Internal Revenue Code sections and related regulations about a certain topic.
    3. Set up personal and professional goals for yourself at the start of the year. You don’t necessarily need to broadcast these goals to the entire world, but the act of setting goals will help you prioritize what’s most important to you in these next twelve months.
    4. When setting up your professional goals, take a look at your firm’s practice group benchmarks to see what your group expects of you this year. Last year, I printed out this document and highlighted a few items that I especially wanted to work on. This included things like: write 1-2 formal substantive memos, co-author 1 article in an industry journal, attend 1-2 onsite client meetings with senior attorneys, present current developments (such as new Treasury regulations or Tax Court decisions) at an internal practice group meeting, etc.
    5. Identify sub-areas that you’re interested in within your practice group, and reach out to senior attorneys who specialize in that sub-area to get involved in relevant projects. Now that you’re officially in a practice group, this first year is a great opportunity to explore what you like within that group. For example, Corporate is a large umbrella practice that contains many sub-areas, such as M&A, emerging growth and venture capital, etc.
    6. Try to say “yes” to every project, and with a positive attitude! Keep in mind that this is a balance, however, because you don’t want to end up in a situation where you overpromise and underdeliver. Overall, it’s generally good to have a reputation as someone who is enthusiastic about taking on projects and is willing to pull her weight. That way, when you’re actually in a position where you’re unable to accept a project, people will be understanding because you’ve said “yes” nine times out of ten in the past.
    7. Don’t stress out if you’re not billing 40 hours per week from the start. It’s all a very normal aspect of starting up, especially if you’re in a smaller group or if you haven’t had many chances to get to know folks in your group during your summer associate program. So, go out there and advocate for yourself and try to get work! Ask for strategic advice from other attorneys within your group, and don’t be afraid to reach out to folks outside your office for work.
    8. Be present at the office more often than not (even if you’re technically allowed to work from home whenever you want). This will almost always lead to more work rather than less, especially if you’re known as someone who chooses to come into the office every day. This will also allow you to develop organic relationships with folks in your office, both attorneys and staff alike!
    9. I encourage you to get involved in one organization outside of your firm. You might be able to swing two or more organizations, but it may be too much depending on your workload and the general stress associated with transitioning into your first year. Getting involved in an outside organization is a great way to meet new people, which is definitely more difficult after graduating from law school. It’s also a great way to get involved in the community, especially if you’re getting settled into a new city. The organization can be law-related (such as your local Asian American Bar Association) or not, but I think the point is to start building a community outside of the firm.
    10. Take care of yourself – physically, mentally, emotionally, socially, etc. Exercise to the extent possible, especially if your firm offers access to a gym inside the building! I exercise every weekday morning (mostly powerlifting, with a mix of running and stretching and foam rolling) and it’s a great way to start the day off with a fresh mind and body. Also, try to maintain your friendships (especially with non-lawyers!!) and keep in touch with your parents. You’re in an exciting time of your life – allow your community to join you on this journey.

The Nuts and Bolts (aka How to Lawyer)

    1. When in doubt, ask questions! I’ve had many partners tell me that they’d prefer me to stop by and ask a clarifying question rather than to unnecessarily spin my wheels. BUT (and this is an important but), obviously use your judgment and don’t be annoying. What does this mean? Try your best to understand the assignment and spend some time struggling through it so that you have a better idea of what questions to ask. If you have multiple questions, try to group your questions together into one email / one conversation to show that you’ve thought through the assignment and that you’re trying to avoid multiple rounds of questions.
    2. Start the year off by building a solid foundation of good time hygiene habits. So, try to enter your time (including the narrative) at the end of every day. I’ve seen attorneys track their time in different ways (e.g., timers, Excel spreadsheets, pen and paper), but this is important regardless of your time tracking method. One reason is that you’re less likely to “lose” time or sell yourself short on narratives because you wait until every Tuesday (or whatever day it is) to frantically enter time. Another reason is that you can reduce the task of entering time to just a few minutes each day, rather than spending hours (I’ve heard horror stories) stressing at the end of each week and month. Finally, and perhaps the most important, is that your time entries are a form of attorney work product. You want to make sure that both the billing attorney and client understands the value that you’re adding to the team.
    3. Also related to time entries, be sure to confirm the “format” of your narratives with the relevant supervising attorney. Narrative formats may differ between different offices or groups at your firm, and it may even differ within the same group! For example, my group generally (but not always) refers to me as “Attorney Hong” and other times as “I. Hong.” It doesn’t hurt to ask for last month’s invoice for a specific client so that you can make sure your narratives don’t stick out like a sore thumb.
    4. Especially when you’re first getting started, ask how much time you expect assignments to take so that you can be sensitive to the client’s budget. Over time, you’ll get a better intuition of how long things should take, but it definitely doesn’t hurt to ask.
    5. On the same note, keep in mind that it may have been a while since the supervising attorney was a first-year, so time estimates may be off. Try your best to manage expectations and be sure to check in with the supervising attorney, say, once you’ve used up half the time to reevaluate the timeline.
    6. Get familiar with your firm’s resources. Your firm may have a virtual processing center that can run 50 redlines or convert 15 PDF files to Word docs. There may be an awesome legal secretary in your office who is an expert at filing certain types of forms or is familiar with how a partner likes his work done. This type of knowledge is invaluable!
    7. Always carry a pen and notepad with you, or at least within easy reaching distance if you’re sitting in your office. You never know when a partner may stop you with a quick question as you’re walking down the hallway!
    8. While we’re on the topic, this is a matter of personal preference, but I like to take notes on paper rather than on my laptop. While I’ll bring my laptop with me to meetings just in case, I find it easier to stay focused (and signal to others that I’m paying attention) when I’m writing things down on paper. I also find it easier to take notes on paper, especially since we like to draw and diagram a lot in my practice.

And that’s all for now! Let me know if these tips were helpful or if you’d like any other advice or lessons learned from my first year. Congratulations on this new chapter, and good luck!