Associate Lawyer Success

Associate Lawyer Success: the Degree is not Enough

Associate Lawyer Success: the Degree is not Enough

By Barbara Kott and Michelle Fivel. They are managing directors at Major, Lindsey & Africa, an attorney recruitment and placement firm. Kott is in San Francisco, and Fivel is in Los Angeles.

To be successful, up-and-coming lawyers must grow beyond what they learned in law school.

These are difficult times for the legal profession. Although there have been fluctuations in the reporting data, demand for legal services has been down for some time. That sluggishness, accompanied by clients’ increased focus on cost containment, puts even more pressure on associates. To succeed, they must work hard to add value. Here are eight keys to success:

  • Sweat the small stuff. Do the best job possible at all times. Take every assignment seriously–even small ones. Be responsive. Take the time necessary to produce quality work. Treat senior attorneys and partners with whom you work as if they were your clients.
  • Own it. Don’t rely on senior associates to walk you through assignments and review your work. The most valued junior associates are the ones who take the initiative to find the right answers without having to be told. (1)
  • Network. Knowing your peers in the legal community is critical to future success, so start early. It’s much easier than it sounds. Start by keeping in touch with law school classmates and the people you summered with. Join local bar associations and industry-specific groups. Attend relevant networking functions.
  • Being known within the industry leads to opportunities. This applies to your law firm colleagues too: The most sought-after matters are usually staffed with associates who are well known throughout the firm. Attend firm events and find ways to spend time with your coworkers.
  • Be positive. Do your best to remove yourself from situations if a group of second- and third-year associates is complaining about the firm’s policies, long hours, or the personalities of certain partners. Regardless of whether it is harmless banter, whiny junior associates are a partner’s biggest peeve. Those associates are always noticed–and not in a good way.
  • Take the long view. Think strategically about your career. A common game plan is to “stick it out” for a few years and then decide what to do next. Instead, set goals early on and then position yourself strategically to achieve them as soon as possible. If you want to eventually move in-house, ask to work on projects for clients that interest you and put you in touch with the right people. If you want to join a litigation boutique, introduce yourself to attorneys in those firms and stay in touch with them over the years.
  • Specialize. Keep up with the latest developments and become known as the go-to person in a particular legal area. Attend events related to this niche, and let your firm’s marketing department know that you are available for speaking engagements, interviews, and/or writing articles.
  • Think like a partner. Understand the partner’s perspective. Partners are under more pressure than ever to bring in new clients, keep existing clients happy, and maintain a prestigious reputation in the industry. Knowing this will make you more supportive when you are asked to work extra hours on a particular client’s case.
  • Stay current. Realizing that your practice area and related industries are constantly changing and evolving makes you a much better associate. Demonstrate to partners that you are committed to your area of expertise.
  • Read relevant articles, attend continuing education classes, and familiarize yourself with new laws and regulations that affect your practice. Although many partners may not notice that you took the time to learn the information, almost all of them will surely notice if you don’t. (2)


  1. Though senior attorneys understand the need for training, they do not have time for hand holding. Show them you don’t need it. For example, if you are a litigator, be familiar with the court rules and scheduling orders that govern your cases so you can be on top of deadlines and filing procedures. If you are a corporate associate working on a deal, try to find closing binders from similar deals to guide you in compiling first-draft documents. In other words, be proactive.
  2. Life at law firms and in-house is changing. More will be expected of attorneys, not just in terms of billable hours, but also with respect to attitude, knowledge, and expertise. To succeed, then, you must be smarter, more pleasant, more hard-working, and less ambivalent than your competition.