Your First Law Firm Job: What to Expect and How to Thrive

5 min read

Recent grads: Here’s what you need to know about the world of legal practice.

So your law school days are behind you. You graduated (hopefully near the top of your class), you passed your licensing exam (maybe even with flying colours), and now you’re officially ready to practice as a lawyer or paralegal. It’s an exciting time.

But now, you face a new challenge: Your very first law firm job. Maybe you’re working in BigLaw for one of the major firms on Bay Street. Perhaps you went the boutique route and found a small- to mid-sized firm close to your hometown. Either way, your first year as a brand new lawyer or paralegal is going to be both exciting and fraught with challenges. You’ll need to stay on your toes in order to survive. Here’s what you need to know about your first year in your first law firm job.

Be Prepared to be Unprepared

As a first-year associate or new paralegal, you’re likely to be thrown headfirst into a variety of different tasks. Law firms will want to ensure that you gain a broad base of experience over the course of your first year, so make sure you’re prepared for anything.

There are a few key skills that will help you here. First and foremost, being able to think independently and solve problems for yourself will come in handy. Secondly, the research skills you picked up in law school will help you learn quickly. Finally, your ability to absorb new knowledge will enable you to make the most of your training across a variety of different subject matter areas. No matter where you find yourself – whether it’s helping to draft a contract, sitting in on a meeting, or conducting research – be as present as possible and take in everything you can.

Be Responsive to Senior Associates

Law firms are fast-paced, intensive work environments where there’s always something happening. You’ll want to make sure you keep up. While clerks in courtrooms often have the ear of the judge they work for, at a law firm, fresh graduates are meant to learn, to assist, and to be responsive to senior associates.

Treat your senior associates and the partners at your firm as if they’re clients of the firm. Always listen closely to what associates and partners tell you or ask of you, and make sure you ask any questions you may have immediately so as to ensure you understand the task before you.

Many times, succeeding at your tasks can result in a senior associate adopting you as a mentee and teaching you the ropes. These mentorships, while informal, are important for getting ahead in your career. The better able you are to impress a senior associate, the more likely it is that you’ll be able to benefit from their experience.

Be Proactive With Your Billable Hours

While the billable hour poses a number of challenges, it still remains one of the best ways for new lawyers to measure their baseline productivity level. As a first-year associate, you’ll be expected to bill a certain number of hours per year in order to receive your yearly bonus cheque. While this may seem simple, many associates fall off-track by failing to measure their progress – resulting in a mad scramble at the end of the fiscal year to work as many hours as possible, competing with other associates in the process.

You can avoid the end-of-year frenzy by religiously tracking your time and hitting your billable hour goals as you go. Instead of looking at your billable hour goal in terms of a yearly amount, divide that number into monthly allotments so you know just how many hours per month you need to work to get your bonus.

Proactively track your time as you work, using a time tracker like Harvest, and you’ll be able to consistently audit yourself to see if you’re on track to get your bonus.

Prioritize Your Personal Life

Yes, the world of law is an exciting one, and yes, it’s good to have ambition. After all, as a first-year associate, you’ll need to prove yourself if you want to be given raises and promotions. But given that law is a demanding career, burnout is an all-too-common foe that you’ll need to wrestle with on an ongoing basis.

Take advantage of every long weekend or vacation you get. Give yourself time at the end of the day to rest and recover, whether that means going for a walk, watching television, or spending time with loved ones. Yes, it can be tempting to take work home with you; but just remember that if you burn out, you won’t be of any use to anyone.

Technology is Your Friend

Legal work can be time-consuming and mentally intensive. But as a recent law school grad, you have certain key advantages that your older coworkers lack. Young people are digital natives, and are comfortable using technology to accelerate tasks and get things done. That’s why you should use every technological trick up your sleeve to improve your productivity. Whether that means using document automation to accelerate production, leveraging a cloud-based records management system to more easily share records, or implementing a workflow management app to streamline transactions, there’s no shortage of technological tactics you can use to cut costs, reduce errors, and save time.

Your first law firm job is likely to be both very stressful and highly rewarding. While some days you may miss law school, other days you’ll find the practice of law to be exhilarating. With the right mix of responsiveness, a proactive attitude, and the proper tech tools, you can impress your senior associates and make a name for yourself at your new firm.

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