How to thrive as a new lawyer

Your first evaluation, building relationships, managing your work and your life are essential to thriving as a new lawyer.

“Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: The Essential Guide to Thriving as a New Lawyer,” by Grover Cleveland is designed to provide relevant information quickly. Each section is a stand-alone lesson so that you can go directly to the information that you need for your particular situation.

“Learning to practice law can be daunting. But if you can make it through law school, you can learn how to apply the skills you attained to the actual practice of law,” Cleveland said. “Your learning does not end with the bar exam, and you will make mistakes as you learn to practice law.”

The 145-page book includes practical advice from lawyers around the country, including an Appendix with quick tips for success and a dozen personas to avoid. The goal is simple: to help associates succeed. 

“Your employer has a lot invested in you and will give you the benefit of the doubt, as long as it appears that you care and will be able to execute on the technical skills that are necessary to succeed,” said Cleveland, a former partner at one of the Northwest’s largest law firms. Cleveland currently holds an environmental policy position in Seattle.

Excerpt of Chapter 1: Sink or Swim

“There is no ‘A for Effort,’” a partner groused about an associate who’d spent lots of time researching a legal question without coming up with an answer.

That statement encapsulates many of the differences between the “real world” and law school. For new lawyers who had another career before law school, those differences may be more obvious. But if you come straight from school, the transition can be particularly challenging: You have to learn not only how to practice law, but also how to thrive in a business environment.

One of the most fundamental differences between legal practice and law school is that your work affects others. And the stakes are often high. Clients may stand to gain or lose significant rights (or a bundle of money) as a result of your legal work.

As a student, you excel or flounder on your own. But at a firm, you are part of an organization and your work affects others in the firm, particularly the partners. Law firms have reputations — often carefully tended over generations. Your actions reflect on the firm, and an embarrassing moment for one lawyer in the firm can be an embarrassment for all…

One of the most important pieces of advice for brand-new lawyers is to keep your head down and work. The perks and praise associated with recruiting often come to an abrupt halt once associates join the firm. This can be a rude awakening for some associates. You may still be riding the high of graduation, securing a job, and all the perks that come with recruiting. But the firm has moved on. It is focused on recruiting the next year’s lawyers and expects its new associates to get to work and learn.

The regular praise that is so much a part of the recruiting process may also dry up. And the fact that you may have graduated from a fancy law school with honors matters little once you join the firm. Suddenly, you know less than everyone else besides the other members of your class.

Because it takes time and effort to train new associates, some lawyers don’t like to do it. They prefer to work with more senior associates, or do work themselves. Ask these lawyers for work, and you are likely to be turned down, politely or otherwise.

All of this can make for a difficult transition for associates who are used to being treated like superstars. Once you are hired, you will be expected to work hard, without complaint. When I asked one attorney to tell me the most important advice he would give new associates, he immediately said: “No whining.”

Practicing law is demanding. It can be a grind. But if the job were easy, you would not be paid at least four times the salary of a barista at Starbucks. To a great extent, everyone at a law firm must justify their existence every single day. As a new lawyer, you have to earn the trust of more senior lawyers before you will get a steady stream of work or be allowed to interact with clients.

[“Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: The Essential Guide to Thriving as a New Lawyer” by Grover Cleveland. Published by Thomson Rueters in 2010.]